How children develop racial identity


PACT, An Adoption Alliance
Focus on Adoption magazine
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In his landmark book “Shades of Black”, William Cross describes the following stages in the development of Black identity, stages believed to be similar for most Asians, Latinos and Aboriginals living in white-dominated society. There is no particular age range attached to each stage, and no expectation that all individuals will move through all stages, though the process typically spans the period from pre-adolescence to middle adulthood. Building racial identity is an on-going process that continues over each person’s life span. Some may stay at a particular stage without change, depending on temperament and life experiences.
Her are the stages from the point of view of one individual:

1. I’m a person of color but who cares.  (pre-encounter)

“I may have no education about my cultural history but I am sensitive to discrimination. I believe that white is best so I fear “spotlight anxiety”, or anxiety about being too different from white as the norm. My emphasis is on learning to fit into white culture.”

2. Then along comes racism, right between my eyes: (encounter)

“An unexpected event occurs that catches me off guard and forces me to acknowledge racism. It may be a personal event or something that happens in the larger community such as the conflict in Watts between Koreans and Blacks, in Halifax between Blacks and Whites, or the passage of laws to limit or deny services to my group.  The encounter phase has two steps: experiencing an event and then “being turned around” by it.  I begin to think about what it means to be a member of a group assaulted by racism. I feel like a yo-yo swinging between high and low self-esteem. Very personal questions come up which bring on guilt, anger and anxiety. I’m so emotional it gives me energy to get on to the next stage.”

3. Riding the identity roller-coaster (immersion/emerging)

“Now I kick out my old white is right view and decide to change.  I don’t really know how, only that change is needed. Nothing is subtle about this stage.

I surround myself with symbols of my culture and seek out opportunities to learn from same-race peers.White people are boring. I don’t have any interest in them.

I yearn to learn about me and where I’ve come from.  My focus is on self-discovery. 

Confrontation, bluntness and an either/or point of view are all I have time for. I just don’t understand other people of color who don’t live Black or Latino or Asian or Native “enough”.  Sometimes I think, “whites are devils”, and I want to drop out of the process of getting on with them.  Sometimes I get excited about the complex subtleties of racial identity. This last possibility opens the door to stage four.”

4. Proud to be me/inner peace fully grown: (internalization)

“Ah-ha! I feel fine, but it’s hard to describe why. It sounds so phony; too good to be true. Finding inner peace as a PERSON OF COLOR in a society that habitually under values my personhood is something huge, a transformation as powerful as the heat of the sun at midday.  Dignity and deep relief…a flood of energy to embrace my own heritage from the roots and the security to interact with others from different groups have come together during this stage because of the conflict over wishing to be what I am not or blaming myself for being the target has been resolved.  Race has high significance in my life everyday.  I join new groups, change my style of dress, what I read, my opinions about the role of my group in history, what art and music I respond to, the causes that activate me, maybe even my name.  Much that is important in my life changes.”

According to Cross, by this stage the following defensive (and positive) functions often have developed:

  1. Awareness that racism exists.
  2. Anticipation of being targeted.
  3. Well-developed defenses to use when confronted with racism.
  4. Awareness that the problem is in the circumstances and does not result from the individual self.
  5. Spiritual orientation that prevents the need to demonize whites.

5. Internalization/Commitment

“In this final stage, I will become able to look beyond myself to develop an ongoing interest in the well being of my racial community.  Great examples as prominent as Dr. Martin Luther King or Tanya Thomas or Seuret Ferdun model an ability to make a commitment beyond personal needs and maintain humility after success.  I hope I can follow.”
Here is what James Baldwin said that describes internalization/commitment:
“Not one of us knows how to walk when we get here.  Not one of us knows how to open a window, unlock a door.  Not one of us can master a staircase.  We are absolutely ignorant of the almost certain results of falling out of a five-story window.  None of us comes here knowing enough not to play with fire.  Nor can one of us drive a tank, fly a jet, hurl a bomb or plant a tree.  We must be taught all that.  We have to learn all that.  The irreducible price of learning is realizing that you do not know.  One may go further and point out as any scientist, or artist, will tell you – that the more you learn, the less you know, but that means that you have begun to accept, and are even able to rejoice in, the relentless conundrum of your life.”

“I thought I could change the world. It took me a hundred years to figure out I can’t change the world. I can only change Bessie. And honey, that ain’t easy either!”  Bessie Delany

Reprinted with permission from PACT, An Adoption Alliance.