Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Expanding White Racial Identity Theory: A Qualitative Investigation of Whites Engaged in Antiracist Action

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Expanding White Racial Identity Theory: A Qualitative Investigation of Whites Engaged in Antiracist Action

Article excerpt

Whiteness and White racial identity (WRI) theory have emerged as constructs of interest over the past 20 years in academia (Croll, 2007). In the field of counseling, tenets of WRI theory are commonly drawn on to inform classroom instruction, clinical practice, and research, often with the goal of expanding White clinicians' racial self-awareness, which, in turn, is associated with effective cross-racial counseling practices (Chao, 2013; Spanierman & Poteat, 2005). Premised on Cross's (1971) earlier model of Black racial identity, Helms's (1990) theory of White racial identity development (WRID) is one of the more frequently applied models in education and research focused on understanding race across mental health and behavioral science professions (Ponterotto, Utsey, & Pedersen, 2006).

Helms's (1990) WRID model proposes a general two-stage developmental process for Whites that entails movement from a lack of consciousness about racism and the salience of race to heightened consciousness and efforts to live as a nonracist. Drawing from Cross's (1991) stage theory of Nigrescence, Helms's (1990, 1995) theory possesses six statuses, each reflective of unique race-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. The contact status, often thought of as an early developmental status, indicates Whites' adoption of dominant cultural norms regarding race; enactment of racist behaviors toward persons of color; and unawareness of race, the impact of privilege, and the effects of individual and institutional racism.

At the other end of the continuum, characteristics of the autonomy status were defined by Helms (1990, 1995) as (a) a sophisticated racial awareness of self and one's racial privilege, including an "informed positive socioracial-group commitment" (Helms, 1995, p. 185); (b) an establishment of cross-racial friendships, marked by flexible interactions and an appreciation of the complex identities of people of color; (c) the abandonment of personal racism and racial privileges, including avoidance of life options that entail participation in racial oppression or racially oppressive organizations; (d) an understanding of the effects of racism on people of color; and (e) an engagement in antiracist actions. Whites who engage in behaviors that intentionally, strategically, and consistently strive to dismantle racism are described as antiracists (Ayvazian, 2010). Antiracist individuals often serve as allies to people of color and strive to challenge White individuals' racist beliefs and actions (Trepagnier, 2010). White antiracists also understand that their racial privilege can lend additional power and influence to their antiracist actions (Ayvazian, 2010).

Scholars across disciplines have begun to examine experiences of Whites who exhibit characteristics of the autonomy status (O'Brien, 2001; Smith & Redington, 2010; Warren, 2010). Conceptual and empirical scholarship have, in part, aligned with autonomy-related characteristics as noted in Helms's (1990, 1995) theory, including Whites' awareness of structural racism and internalized White superiority, rejection o f a color-blind racial ideology, and engagement in antiracist actions (Ayvazian, 2010; Barry, 2008; McKinney & Feagin, 2003; O'Brien, 2003; Smith & Redington, 2010; Trepagnier, 2010). Researchers have also found that Whites will exhibit traits of more than one status simultaneously, albeit with traits from one status as more dominant, and with a corresponding information-processing strategy that governs their race-related interactions (Carter, Helms, & Juby, 2004).

Over the years, critiques have emerged regarding Helms's (1990, 1995) model. Scholars have noted limitations in the model's ability to concretely operationalize the experiences, lifestyles, and perceptions of Whites (Leach, Behrens, & LaFleur, 2002; Miller & Fellows, 2007). For instance, Rowe (2006) criticized the autonomy status as a simplistic description of Whiteness that was developed "in the absence of supporting evidence" (p. …

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