Janet E. Helms, born in Kansas City, Missouri, is a scholar and educator best known for her work on the theory and measurement of racial identity development and her active involvement in psychological organizations. Over a period of approximately 25 years, Helms’s theory of racial identity development has emerged as a set of highly interrelated conceptualizations that describes a process through which people of varying races cope and, invariably, fail to cope with societal racism. Helms’s more recent scholarship has focused on test bias. In this body of work, she and her collaborators strive to address the questions of why racial disparities exist in cognitive abilities tests and how test constructors, practitioners, and policymakers can diminish this bias. As theoretician, researcher, mentor, educator, and advocate, Helms represents a positive force in the field of psychology. Her contributions have been applied not only to counseling and psychotherapy training and practice but also to education, law, organizational studies and practice, research methodology and ethics, and public policy. The reach of her work extends outside of the United States to countries such as Brazil, South Africa, Ghana, and Uganda.
Racial Identity Theory
With regard to her theory on racial identity development, Helms contends that a study of race and racism needs to take into account the manner in which people are cognitively, affectively, and conatively affected by the appraisals that people make about them and, recursively, by the appraisals they make about themselves and others. Racial appraisals are but one aspect of this process that becomes internalized and highly integrated with other aspects of identity. In the early statuses of racial identity development and in the absence of deliberate efforts to illuminate and correct distortions about people based on race, many people adopt information processing strategies that accept a status quo perspective about racism. In other words, people may fail to question the negative or negligible treatment of non-Whites, the heralding of White people and White culture, or the seeming inevitability of Blacks and Latinos/as, as examples, to occupy positions of low prominence in education relative to Whites. Crucial to the status quo perspective are mechanisms that exist at all levels in the sociopolitical ecology that upholds a tolerance for not questioning or that encourages the deflection of these aspects of reality. People adopt information processing strategies of obliviousness, selective attention to reality, and denial to cope with these racial stimuli. However, even though these strategies can help release some of the discomfort or pain associated with the stimuli, they may not be effective. With increased exposure to history, accuracy about people from all backgrounds, and so forth, comes the opportunity for growth in racial identity development. Moreover, as people transcend the different statuses of racial identity, they can gradually replace inchoate information processing strategies (obliviousness, denial, selective attention) with strategies that are more consistent with mental health qualities, like complexity in thinking, flexibility, a willingness to approach rather than avoid situations, and so forth.
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Built upon the formulations of W. E. Cross, Jr., Helms’s research and theoretical writings on racial identity development began in the early 1980s. With T. A. Parham, Helms created a scale to assess Blacks’ racial identity attitudes, one aspect of racial identity. This scale was used in subsequent studies to explore the relationship of racial identity attitudes of Blacks to an array of psychological variables, such as Black college students’ preference for counselors based on counselor race. The scale also spawned a proliferation of measures and theories by others, setting a precedent in identity development model and assessment development. Significantly, in addition to reformulating Cross’s identity development model for Blacks, Helms developed three other models that completed her overarching theory of racial identity, the White identity model, the people of color model, and the racial interaction model.
In her racial interaction model, Helms demonstrated how counselors can effect meaningful change in counseling when racial stimuli are presented. Helms proposed that when counselors developed advanced status racial identity schemata, they were in better positions to help their clients in counseling. By contrast, in parallel relationships, in which the counselor and client share similar racial identity schemata, and in regressive relationships, where the counselor’s schemata are less sophisticated than the client’s, little or no change is likely. These formulations were later elaborated to apply to other situations that involved an influential or expert person who is expected to teach, guide, or lead others (e.g., teachers with students, organizational leaders with employees, group leaders with subordinate or nonexpert members).
Impact of Race and Racism
What is apparent throughout Helms’s research and theoretical writings is her strong insistence that race and racism need to be understood as phenomena that have an ostensible impact on socialization. Indeed, she urges researchers to strive to achieve a full understanding of these phenomena in order to know when and how to attend to these influences on personality development, interpersonal and group dynamics, and mental health functioning. In Helms’s lectures, writings, and life stories are lessons about the vicissitudes of racism. When listening or reading carefully, one can learn that racism is not merely an act of negative bias or maltreatment (discrimination), nor is it something that evenly maligns one group against another (bigotry) with little regard for a history that entitles one group, Whites, and subordinates others (e.g., African Americans and Asian Americans). Her contributions are often woven tales of what life is like from someone who resides in two “warring” worlds, as drawing from the words of W. E. B. Du Bois: a dominant or “received view” perspective and the nondominant group perspective.
Importantly, as a consummate educator, Helms repeatedly makes a case for studying racism’s impact on psychological functioning and development by encouraging researchers and practitioners alike to break from convention. To learn about race and racism, one must use direct assessments, not the skillful avoidance or codified wording that characterizes social norms. Direct assessments involve querying participants about their perceptions of themselves and others as racial beings and of the relevance of race, as they see it, within their sociopolitical contexts. Direct assessments are challenging. Racial discourse can provoke anxiety and suspicions, even create alarm about how one will be judged. But in its place, what can be seen as the norm in conventional research are studies in which participants are asked merely to report a racial designation. When conducting these indirect assessments, researchers restrict themselves in gleaning meaningful information about the potential relevance of race to their focus of study. Instead, they rely on speculations on how the participants’ reported designations configure into their findings, leaving the scientific world with little knowledge about race or the possible relevance of race to their findings. Helms’s work and words can be used as exemplars for how we can learn a great deal about the psychology of race and racism.
Education, Career, and Awards
Helms received her B.A. and M.A. degrees in psychology at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. She earned her doctorate in psychology, with a specialization in counseling psychology, in 1975 from Iowa State University of Science and Technology. Her first job was as an assistant professor at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington in 1975, and she followed this with an academic position at Southern Illinois University from 1977 to 1981. From 1981 to 1999, she worked at the University of Maryland, College Park, beginning as an assistant professor and later promoted to full professor. While at the University of Maryland, she served for a short period as codirector of the Counseling Psychology Program and as an affiliate of the Women’s Studies Program. She maintained a private practice for many years while working in the suburban Maryland/Washington, D.C., area.
In 2000, Helms began her academic post at Boston College and was eventually named Augustus Long Professor of Counseling Psychology a short time later. Helms is the founding director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. She has published more than 60 articles and four groundbreaking books, including Black and White Racial Identity: Theory, Research, and Practice; A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life; and (with Donelda Cook) Using Race and Culture in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice. She is associate editor of the Assessment Journal and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. She is Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Division 17 (Counseling Psychology) and Division 45 (Study of Ethnic Minority Issues). She is a Division 17 representative on the APA Council of Representatives and the APA’s representative on the Joint Committee on Testing. She also is a member of the Association of Black Psychologists. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the first Janet E. Helms Award for Mentoring and Scholarship in Professional Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College. She also won the APA Division 17 Leona Tyler Award. In 2006 she was the recipient of the APA Distinguished Award for Education and Training in Psychology.
- Helms, J. E. (1984). Toward a theoretical explanation of the effects of race on counseling: A Black and White model. The Counseling Psychologist, 12(4), 153-165.
- Helms, J. E. (Ed.). (1990). Black and White racial identity: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Greenwood Press.
- Helms, J. E. (1992). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a White person or understanding the White persons in your life. Topeka, KS: Content Communications.
- Helms, J. E. (1995). An update of Helms’s White and people of color racial identity models. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 181-198). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Helms, J. E., & Cook, D. A. (1999). Using race and culture in counseling and psychotherapy: Theory and process. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.