Racial identity is defined as "a sense of group or collective identity based on one's perception that he or she shares a common heritage with a particular racial group."
The definition of the term was provided by Janet Helms, the Director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. Helms (1995) proposed a racial identity theory involving four elements: black identity development theory; white identity development theory; the people of color identity development theory, including Asian American, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and Latino Americans; and the people of color-white interaction model.
The first three theories explain the varied schemata or racial identity statuses of people representing the predominant racial groups in the United States and the circumstances under which changes in racial identity development take place. The people of color-white interaction model examines the superior-inferior interactions in various racial configurations and how such relations can affect racial identity development in certain contexts.
According to Helms' theory, black racial identity starts with the pre-encounter status, while for the category of people of color it commences with conformity status. Such pre-encounter status consists of the belief of some black people that they and their culture are inferior to whites and white culture. Helms argues that the pre-encounter or conformity status comes in two forms, described as active and passive. In the active model, the individual's concepts of black devaluation and white idealization are obvious. In the passive model he or she diverts such internalized racism by neglecting the sociopolitical racial implications in daily interactions and in shaping opinions on social issues.
Helms believes that when black people/people of color realize they cannot fully succeed in a white society, they move on to the encounter ego/dissonance status. At the beginning, the individual feels confused and embittered before entering the immersion-emersion status, when he or she decides to fully immerse into his or her own culture and race. Black idealization is part of the process to form a new definition of being black. The final stage is described as the internalization status, when the individual manages to fully integrate the evolved black identity into himself or herself.
According to Helms, the white identity development theory is related to the recognition and rejection of racism at all levels, individual, institutional and cultural. A white identity starts to develop as individuals realize that people of color exist. White identity development consists of six statuses: contact; disintegration; reintegration; pseudo-independence; immersion-emersion and autonomy.
Contact-status people conclude that people of color are different and treat them with curiosity or fear. At this stage people are not yet aware of racial inequality issues. Once discriminatory practices or racism appear, the individual enters the disintegration status, which Helms defines as "conscious, though conflicted acknowledgement of one's whiteness." Whites suppress the reality of racial inequality in order to keep their supremacy in society. When the white person, apart from acknowledging his or her whiteness, starts to consider the white race has earned all social privileges and to justify the institutional racism, he or she has moved to the reintegration status.
In the pseudo-independent status, the person begins to shape a positive white identity. If the individual realizes he/she still holds racist ideas, despite the efforts to renounce racism, he/she starts seeking a better definition of being white and enters the immersion-emersion status. Once the person finally starts to feel comfortable with being white, the autonomy status is achieved. According to Helms, people can experience more than one status at a time, although one will usually prevail.
In 1971, William E. Cross, Jr presented his black racial identity development theory, dubbed "psychological Nigrescence," in his publication Black World. Cross showed the process of "becoming black" occurs in a world where this group are underrated and white people are presented as self-confident and superior. Such theories were largely developed in the 1970s. Helms expanded the model suggested by Cross to include other races.
According to researchers at Michigan State University, African Americans who feel strongly about their racial identity are generally more content. Stevie C.Y. Yap, leader of the 2011 research project, explained that a sense of belonging made the adults feel happier, especially the women. "This is the first empirical study we know of that shows a relationship between racial identity and happiness."