White Racial Identity Development

White racial identity development (WRID) theory describes how White individuals develop a sense of themselves as racial beings, acknowledge the realities of structural racism and White privilege, and come to accept race as a healthy aspect of themselves and others. Structural racism is defined here as the policies and practices in the fabric of U.S. society that disadvantage non-White individuals; White privilege refers to the rights, advantages, exemptions, and/or immunities granted to White individuals that non-Whites are not provided. WRID is a specific derivation of the more general cultural/racial identity development theory. It is consistent with cultural/racial identity development theory in that it assumes that (a) people have varying levels of awareness about their group identity, (b) the level of awareness is influenced by sociopolitical factors, and (c) the level of awareness has important implications for counseling practice and training.


William Cross developed a Nigrescence model to explain the process of Black racial identity development. This Nigrescence model was later applied by Judy Katz and Allen Ivey to understand how Whites deny their own race and the existence of structural racism. Cross’s model, combined with these early investigations of how Whites understand their own race and racism, led to the development of the first WRID models.

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There are several models that have been proposed to explicate WRID, and although these models differ in their description and sequence, they generally progress as follows: a minimization of oneself as a racial being and of racism; dissonance created by cross-racial experiences that challenge this naivete; a recognition of oneself as a racial being and Whites’ perpetuation of racism; and the internalization of an integrated White racial identity and comfort in cross-racial interactions. Historically, WRID models referred to stages of racial identity development; this term has been replaced with statuses to refer to the more fluid boundaries between different racial identity statuses and the dynamic processes by which individuals progress and regress between racial identity statuses.

Helms’s Model

Janet Helms’s model of White racial identity development is the most researched and applied of the WRID models. Helms’s model has given rise to an assessment instrument, the White Racial Identity Attitude Scale (WRIAS), to measure WRID. Helms’s WRID model has received some support from psychometric scrutiny of the WRIAS. Helms’s model describes six statuses that may be divided into two meta-processes: (1) abandonment of racism and (2) defining a nonracist White identity.

Lack of awareness of oneself as a racial being and obliviousness to racial issues characterize contact status. Here, a White person is naive regarding the sociopolitical implications of race. During disintegration status, the minimization of race and racism is challenged by witnessing racial oppression or acknowledging one’s own racist thoughts and behaviors. This challenges the naivete of the previous status and creates dissonance. This dissonance may result in feelings of guilt, sadness, or anxiety and may lead a White person to avoid contact with persons of color. Reintegration status is marked by recourse to pro-White, antiminority attitudes to deal with the dissonance of disintegration status. One condones White supremacy and blames minorities for their own problems.

Helms’s second process—defining a nonracist White identity—begins with pseudo-independence status. When racial oppression and a racist White identity are challenged, White people make an effort to understand racial differences. The motivation for multicultural learning is present, but understanding of diversity is immature, and cross-racial interactions may be paternalistic. In immersion/emersion status White people search for a personally meaningful definition of Whiteness. Intentionally learning about one’s contribution to racism is an important task for this status. Less emphasis is put on trying to change others as one turns inward to address personal racist beliefs and tendencies. Autonomy status represents an individual’s acceptance of his or her Whiteness and role in racial oppression. Here, the person’s reference group is multiracial and the person selects and nurtures those aspects of White culture that “feel right.” Finally, the autonomous individual moves beyond intellectualization of antiracism to take action against racial oppression.

Sue and Sue Model

Derald Wing Sue and David Sue have recently proposed a five-phase WRID model, in which individuals fluidly regress and progress across phases. This model differs from Helms’s model in the way in which White individuals are theorized to address the dissonance from acknowledging racial inequality and Whites’ role in racial oppression. Rather than a movement forward into a “reintegration” phase, as in Helms’s model, individuals recycle back to the beginning “conformity” phase before reaching the later phases of WRID in the Sue and Sue model. The five phases of this model are discussed next.

During the conformity phase, a White person is highly ethnocentric, one’s self-conception as a racial being is minimal, there is a conscious or unconscious belief that White culture is superior, and one professes a nonracist identity. The dissonance phase occurs when an individual experiences incongruence between his or her nonracist self-image and contradictory behavior. One’s Whiteness and concomitant bias is acknowledged, and there is a dilemma about how to cope with this incongruence. Here, White people may return to the conformity phase or move into the resistance and immersion phase, characterized by a confrontation with one’s own racism. In this phase, an individual becomes disillusioned to racial oppression, may reject his or her own Whiteness, and identify strongly with non-White groups. The introspection phase is a compromise between the preceding two phases, in which one questions and reformulates what it means to be White. The person accepts his or her Whiteness and role in perpetuating racial oppression but seeks to define a new racial identity. The formation of a nonracist White identity is the hallmark of the integrative awareness phase. Now, an individual has an understanding of him- or herself as a racial being, appreciates diversity, is aware of oppression, and actively works to confront it.

Applications for Training and Counseling

Because the majority of counseling practitioners are White, WRID scholarship has focused upon the context of understanding counselors’ racial identity status in multicultural counseling and training situations. By contrast, non-White racial identity scholarship has focused upon its implications for clients rather than counselors.

From a training perspective, becoming aware of one’s own White identity is an important part of multicultural counseling competency, an imperative for working with non-White client populations. Relatedly, Helms argued that White counselors with a greater degree of WRID have a greater capacity to confront and address structural racism and the racial dynamics and racial identity of their clients. Sue and Sue recommended that graduate programs assess WRID status to tailor multicultural training experiences, with the goal of making Whiteness visible and integrated into trainees’ self-concept in a nonracist fashion.

Haresh Sabnani and colleagues articulated a WRID model with concomitant training goals for each racial identity status. This model incorporates aspects of the aforementioned models to create five WRID statuses: (1) pre-exposure/precontact, (2) conflict, (3) prominority/ antiracism, (4) retreat into White culture, and (5) redefinition and integration. For each of these statuses, Sabnani prescribed objectives for the development of counselors’ beliefs and attitudes, knowledge, and skills, with the overall goal of facilitating the counselors’ movement to the next racial identity status. Their hypothesis is that counseling trainees will be differentially primed for multicultural training experiences based on their racial identity status. As Helms also argued, targeting training and educational experiences to racial identity status is critical in facilitating White students’ racial identity, their capacity to recognize their own contributions to societal racism, and their capacity to counsel non-White individuals.

WRID also has important applications to counseling. Because WRID appears to influence cross-racial interpersonal relationships, White counselors can consider how their racial identity status may influence therapeutic relationships with non-White clients. Helms advanced a complex dyadic model for this purpose; cross-referencing WRID statuses with Black racial identity statuses. The result is a description of the relational dynamic for every potential White-non-White encounter, according to each individual’s racial identity development status. This understanding of dyad combinations can attenuate confusion in clinical work and may motivate White counselors to nurture their racial self-concept to maximize the efficacy of their service to non-White populations.

Research examining the impact of WRID upon aspects of the counseling and supervisory relationship has yielded mixed results. For example, Madonna Constantine found that racial microaggressions, subtly racist messages and/or behavior by White counselors with African American clients, adversely affected the therapeutic alliance in counseling. Shawn Utsey and Carol Gernat found that White trainees with less advanced racial identity statuses relied upon more primitive ego defense mechanisms in racially provocative situations within counseling and supervisory dyads. However, Alan Burkard and colleagues did not find that WRID was associated with the capacity to form a working alliance in counseling by White participants.

Future Directions

Helms’s WRID model has had a significant impact upon the understanding of Whites’ racial identity development and in conceptualizing its impact upon counseling and supervisory dynamics. Although the WRIAS has been widely used, there has been some debate as to the correspondence between the WRIAS and Helms’s White racial identity statuses. However, the Helms model and other models of racial identity development have profoundly influenced the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development multicultural competencies and culturally informed theories of counseling. Future research could build upon the strong theoretical base of WRID to further clarify the impact of identity status upon the working alliance and other aspects of counseling, supervision, and training.


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