Racial Identity

Racial identity is a dynamic sociopolitical construction and assists in the understanding of within-group differences of people of different races. Racial identity development is relevant to all racial groups and incorporates perspectives of a person’s view of self with regard to his or her own racial group and other racial groups. Racial identity is an important construct because it is a more meaningful concept, and likely a better predictor of behavior, than racial group membership alone. In addition, the experiences of people of color are not homogeneous and have resulted in different meanings and attributions about being a part of a specific racial group.

Definition of Racial Identity

A number of theorists and researchers have attempted to define racial identity. Janet E. Helms described the construct as a sense of collective identity that is based on a perceived common heritage with a racial group. Helms integrated perceptions of self and others in her definition of racial identity. Robert T. Carter stated that racial identity development is a lifelong process that involves how a person interprets messages about racial groups. Additionally, racial identity has been described as the significance and meaning of race in one’s life.

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Independent researchers have identified various aspects of racial identity, but no one has combined them to form one single definition of the term incorporating a developmental perspective, perspectives of both dominant and minority groups, and qualitative meaning of group membership. In combination, the racial identity literature has shown that racial identity is a multifaceted construct that refers to (a) the qualitative meaning one ascribes to one’s own racial group, (b) meaning attributed to other racial groups, (c) sense of group identification with one’s own racial group, (d) salience of race in defining one’s self-concept, and (e) perspectives regarding race over time.

Ethnic Identity Versus Racial Identity

To understand the distinctions between racial identity and ethnic identity, it is important to distinguish the concepts of race and ethnicity. In the United States, race is a social construct that refers to factors such as skin color and physical features, while ethnicity refers to one’s national or religious origin. Racial identity is comprehensively defined as the qualitative meaning and salience one ascribes to one’s own and other racial groups, whereas ethnic identity is a dynamic construct that refers to one’s sense of self as a member of an ethnic group. At their core, both constructs reflect an individual’s sense of self as a member of a group; however, racial identity integrates the impact of race and related factors, while ethnic identity is focused on ethnic and cultural factors. Some authors suggest that ethnic identity development is an individual’s movement toward a more conscious identification with his or her own cultural values, behaviors, beliefs, and traditions, whereas others note that theories of racial identity tap into racial psychological development rather than ethnic development.

History of Racial Identity Models

African American/Black Racial Identity

The concept of racial identity in the psychological literature has existed since the 1970s and was developed in response to the civil rights movement. The first models of racial identity were focused on Black American racial identity. For example, Clemmont Eyvind Vontress proposed that there were different personality types for Black Americans: Colored, Negro, and Black. This theory emphasized societal stereotypes and suggested that the personalities of these individuals were static. William E. Cross, Jr.’s Nigrescence theory was another early Black racial identity theory. The most recent version of this theory incorporates six different issues, including the structure of Black self-concept (i.e., the integration of aspects of personal and reference group orientation), the variety of Black identities, identity socialization from infancy to early adulthood, adult resocialization experiences, continued identity development and enrichment across the life span, and identity functions that incorporate the variety of Black identities that are displayed within and across situations. These and other stage models (e.g., Dizzard, 1971; Gibbs, 1974; Jackson, 1975; Milliones, 1980; Thomas, 1970; Toldson and Pasteur, 1975) suggest that individuals progress from holding negative views of themselves based on internalized racism to having a more positive view of their own and other racial groups.

White Racial Identity

White racial identity models have been proposed by a number of researchers. Rita Hardiman proposed a five-stage developmental model (no social consciousness, acceptance, resistance, redefinition, and internalization) of racial identity development for Whites born in America. Helms also described different components of White racial identity, including Phase I (abandonment of a racist identity: contact, disintegration, and reintegration) and Phase II (establishment of a nonracist White identity: pseudo-independence, immersion/emersion, and autonomy). In the contact status, people are satisfied with the racial status quo, are unaware of continuing subtle racism, and believe that everyone has an equal chance of success. In the disintegration status, the White person may become conflicted over unresolvable racial moral dilemmas and obliviousness about the impact of race begins to break down. In the reintegration status, the White person might regress to basic beliefs about White superiority and minority inferiority; there may be an idealization of the White European American group and denigration of other minority groups in this status. In the pseudo-independence status, a person is propelled into this status by a painful or insightful encounter that jars him or her from the reintegration status and may lead him or her to identify with the plight of persons of color. There is an intellectual understanding of racial issues in this status. In the immersion/emersion status, the White person continues a personal exploration of him- or herself as a racial being, and questions focus on the meaning of Whiteness; personal meaning of racism is explored. In the autonomy status, there is an increased awareness of one’s own Whiteness and reduced feelings of guilt. There is also an acceptance of one’s role in perpetuating racism and a renewed determination to abandon White entitlement.

Helms noted that ego status (differentiated by a person’s understanding of the concept of race) has been integrated into the concept of racial identity because the use of stages may not adequately describe attitudes, beliefs, and emotions that are exhibited from more than one stage. In addition, stage is a static term, and racial identity theory and measurement do not support the idea that stages are mutually exclusive or temporally stable. It has been noted that racial identity attitudes change and develop based on environmental and temporal influences, and change in identity does not necessarily imply a developmental process. In addition, stage models have been critiqued, and alternative conceptualizations such as White racial consciousness have been proposed.

General Racial Identity

Models of racial identity have been applied to people of color in general in the United States. One example is Donald R. Atkinson, George Morten, and Derald Wing Sue’s racial/cultural identity development model for people of color. This model was first introduced as the minority identity development model and was expanded in later years. In this model, people of color are posited to progress through different stages, including conformity, dissonance, resistance and immersion, introspection, and integrative awareness. Each of these stages takes into account a person’s attitudes toward self, others of the same and different racial groups, and the dominant racial group. Similar to the Helms’s model, in the conformity stage, people of color depend on White society for definition and approval. In the dissonance stage, there may be feelings of confusion and conflict about the meaning of one’s race. The person of color may encounter information or experiences that are inconsistent with culturally held beliefs and attitudes. In the resistance and immersion phase, the person of color may endorse minority-held views completely and reject dominant values. In the introspection phase, the person of color may experience feelings of discontent and discomfort with previously held rigid group views. In the integrative awareness stage, people of color develop an inner sense of security and can own and appreciate unique aspects of their own group as well as the dominant group.

Extending Helms’s model, Julie R. Ancis and Nicholas Ladany’s heuristic model of nonoppressive interpersonal development can be applied to a variety of demographic variables (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status), including race, for which an individual is either in a position of privilege (socially privileged group [SPG]) or oppressed (socially oppressed group [SOG]). In this model of means of interpersonal functioning there are four stages. The first stage, adaptation, is reflective of complacency and conformity regarding a socially oppressive environment for both SOG and SPG members. In the second stage, incongruence, there is some dissonance or internal conflict about oppression. This stage is followed by the exploration stage in which members of SOG and SPG evaluate and explore the meaning of membership to their respective group. The last stage, integration, includes awareness of oppressive environments and situations, multicultural integrity, and commitment to advocacy for oppressed groups. This model is unique in that stages of development can be applied to both members of privileged and oppressed groups. Similar to other models of identity development, people may go through different phases in specific situations or with respect to certain demographic characteristics.

Interactional models of racial identity suggest that one’s level of racial identity development impacts one’s interactions with others. These models have been applied to counseling and supervision to compare the racial identity development of clients to that of their counselors, as well as trainees compared to their supervisors. For example, in parallel-high relationships, both individuals are in later stages or statuses (i.e., Phase II) of identity development. In parallel-low relationships, both individuals have lower levels of identity development (i.e., Phase I). Progressive relationships involve either the supervisor or counselor being in Phase II, while in regressive relationships they are both in Phase I. The racial identity level of supervisors and counselors can impact the course and depth of discussions of racial issues, the formation of an authentic working relationship, and feelings of cultural trust and rapport in counseling or supervision.

Measurement and Research

African American/Black Racial identity

Racial identity has been one of the most heavily researched areas in the psychological experiences of African Americans. One of the most widely used measures of Black racial identity is the Black Racial Identity Attitudes Scale (RIAS-B) from Thomas A. Parham and Helms. The original RIAS (Short Form A) is a 30-item self-report measure designed to assess four of the five stages of racial identity proposed by Cross’s Nigrescence model: pre-encounter, encounter, immersion/emersion, and internalization. The fifth stage, internalization/commitment, was not included in the RIAS because it was conceptualized as a style of behaving with respect to identity issues that might be present in other stages.

RIAS items were developed to measure stages of Black awareness development. The RIAS was revised into two forms: Short Form B, which also consists of 30 items, and the RIAS-Long Form, which was developed to increase the subscales’ reliabilities and contains 20 additional items. RIAS items are rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Item scores on each sub-scale are averaged, with higher scores indicating the presence of that type of racial identity attitude.

The RIAS has been shown to be a reliable scale overall, meaning that it measures the construct of racial identity in a consistent, stable, and uniform manner over repeated measurements. However, some researchers have found low reliabilities for the sub-scales of the various versions of the RIAS, especially the Encounter subscale. In addition, given the low test-retest reliability estimates for the subscales, some researchers have concluded that the attitudes measured by the RIAS-B should be considered state rather than stable trait variables. Evidence shows that the RIAS is a valid measure of the construct of racial identity because the relationships between the sub-scale scores and measures of other related constructs are consistent with racial identity theory.

Research using the various forms of the RIAS is extensive. It has been used to study the relationship between racial identity and other constructs, such as psychological distress and self-esteem, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 scores, counselor demographic preference, and career choices. Strengths of this measure include its frequent use in published literature, the availability of both short and long forms, and strong support for its construct validity. However, the low reliability coefficients found by several authors suggest the measure requires additional psychometric investigation and improvements. Also, the measure has not been significantly updated since Cross’s was revised and is therefore not consistent with the changes to the theory.

The Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS; Vandiver et al., 2001) was designed to measure the theoretical constructs proposed in the updated version of the Nigrescence theory. The CRIS was developed to measure six of the seven identity clusters described in the revised theory: assimilation and anti-Black (pre-encounter), intense Black involvement and anti-White (immersion/emersion), Black nationalist and multiculturalist (encounter). The CRIS is a 40-item scale that uses a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). A pool of 250 items was developed by the authors and later reduced to 126 items which were evaluated by expert judges knowledgeable about the revised Nigrescence theory. Validity of the measure has been demonstrated through its relationships with other measures of Black racial identity and measures of self-esteem and social desirability. Statistical analysis indicates that the CRIS can be used to measure either the six individual identity clusters in the model or two general stages that are conceptualized as pre-discovery and discovery.

The CRIS has not been utilized extensively in published literature beyond studies of its psychometric properties. In one study, Afrocentric cultural values and a positive ethnic identity were found to be negatively related to a racialized identity, as measured by the Immersion-Emersion Anti-White subscale of the CRIS. In another study it was found that racial identity attitudes were related to internalized racism. While the evidence supporting the CRIS is strong thus far, additional research is needed to further investigate its contribution to racial identity literature.

Robert M. Sellers, Stephanie A. Rowley, and colleagues developed the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity (MIBI; Sellers et al., 1998) to operationalize the concepts proposed in their multidimensional model of racial identity. Items were developed by combining items from previous scales on African American racial identity, ethnic identity, and social identity with original items created by the authors. The MIBI contains 56 items rated on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). It comprises three scales (Centrality, Ideology, and Regard), as well as subscales (i.e., Nationalist, Assimilation, Minority, Humanist, Private Regard, and Public Regard). Studies have indicated that the MIBI is an adequately reliable, valid measure of three distinct factors: centrality, ideology, and regard.

The MIBI has been used to investigate the relationship between racial identity and perceived discrimination and distress, academic performance, and personal self-esteem. Strengths of the MIBI include its potential ability to capture the multidimensional aspects of African American racial identity and be used as a complement to other stage-based measures. Additional research is needed to further validate this instrument and explore its contribution to racial identity literature.

White Racial Identity

Several researchers have attempted to operationalize and measure White racial identity. Helms and Carter developed the White Racial Identity Attitude Scale (WRIAS), a 50-item inventory that includes five subscales designed to measure the extent to which a person uses the race-related schemas (i.e., Contact, Disintegration, Reintegration, Pseudo-Independence, and Autonomy) through which one interprets racial cues. Items were developed based on Helms’s model of White racial identity development and are assessed on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Studies of the WRIAS have suggested it is adequately reliable, while the relationship of its subscales to measures of personality constructs has indicated that it is a valid measure of White racial identity.

The WRIAS has been used extensively in research on White identity. White identity has been found to be related to cultural values, preference for counselor race, self-reported multicultural counseling competencies, self-actualization, and cross-cultural education. Several researchers have criticized the validity and reliability of the WRIAS; others have argued that it does not measure the five distinct aspects of racial identity it was designed to measure. To address the latter issue, some researchers have used the WRIAS to measure two theoretically proposed phases of racial identity (i.e., Phase I and Phase II) instead of five stages.

Sandra Choney and John Behrens developed the Oklahoma Racial Attitude Scale-Preliminary Form to measure the types of racial attitudes White individuals hold regarding their own and other racial groups. White racial consciousness has been defined as the characteristic attitudes regarding the salience of being White and the implications of this on interactions with those from other racial groups. The 50-item scale measures whether White people have achieved White racial consciousness and includes four basic achieved attitudes (dominative, conflictive, integrative, and reactive) and three unachieved attitudes (avoidant, dissonant, and dependent). Items were developed to measure the attitudes proposed in their model and are rated on a 5-point Likert scale with responses ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Scores that differ the most from the mean indicate which type of racial attitude best characterizes the individual’s outlook.

N. Kenneth LaFleur, Wayne Rowe, and Mark M. Leach developed the 35-item revised Oklahoma Racial Attitudes Scale (ORAS) following initial studies of its reliability and validity and theory revisions. Investigations of the measure have suggested that the items measure their predicted factors and support the measure’s reliability. Although limited, published research using the measure has found White racial consciousness to be predictive of racial prejudice. While this measure has promise as a tool to assess White racial identity, it requires additional psychometric and empirical investigation.

People of Color Racial Identity

Black and White racial identity attitudes have been assessed more often in research than the racial identity attitudes of other racial groups. While some researchers have suggested that ethnic or cultural identity may be more salient than racial identity for people of color, others argue that measures of racial identity are appropriate for people of color. In an attempt to operationalize the statuses described in her people of color racial identity model, Helms created the People of Color Racial Identity Attitudes Scale (POCRIAS). The POCRIAS contains 50 items with four subscales measuring the conformity, dissonance, immersion/emersion, and internalization/integrative awareness statuses. Items are measured on a Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly agree) to 5 (strongly disagree), with higher scores on each subscale indicating greater levels of that racial identity attitude. Studies have supported the reliability of the measure, although published empirical support for its validity is limited. Therefore, while one of its strengths is that it is one of the only scales available to assess the racial identity of people of color in addition to that of African Americans, this measure is limited by its lack of empirical support and utilization in published literature. The limited psychometric support for this measure has led some researchers to use African American racial identity measures (e.g., the RIAS) to examine the racial identity of other individuals of color.

Although limited, empirical research on racial identity for racial groups other than White and Black individuals has been conducted. For example, Asian American racial identity has been found to be related to gender role conflict and psychological symptoms, gender role conflict and male norm roles, psychosocial development, and levels of racial adjustment. For Latinos/as, racial identity has been found to be related to gender role conflict and psychological symptoms, ego identity, and psychosocial development. Psychometric research on the POCRIAS with Native Americans suggests it is appropriate for investigating the racial identity attitudes of this group. While one study found that Native Americans endorse high internalization identity attitudes, additional research is needed on the racial identity of this population.

Future Directions

Racial identity is one of the most extensively investigated constructs in counseling psychology and has important implications for research and practice. With the addition of recent theories and measures, racial identity is likely to continue to be widely studied. One of the largest gaps in the racial identity literature is the application of the construct to individuals of color other than African Americans. Additional research on the measurement of racial identity is needed for these groups, as well as for biracial and multiracial individuals. More research is also needed on the psychometric properties of the measures used to operationalize racial identity. Further, practical applications of racial identity theory need to be investigated more fully.


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