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4 Cultural, Racial, and Ethnic Identity Models
The preceding chapter presented an overview of social, cultural, and racial identity theories, and connected them to self-concept development. This chapter continues the discussion of cultural and racial identity while considering notable race and ethnicity models. In addition, it gives further thought to the relationship of these concepts with overall self-identity.
As models, stage theories of racial and cultural identity might be helpful in assessing where clients are as they enter and proceed through counseling or other helping relationships. Equally important is the understanding theoretical models might offer about your own cultural identity. Throughout this chapter, you will have opportunities to explore your cultural identity.
Space in a single chapter cannot do justice to a multitude of theoretical models developed over the years. Furthermore, not all conceptual models of understanding human differences are stage oriented. For example, Arredondo (1992) demonstrated a three-dimensional approach to counseling with diverse clientele. Her model identifies the first group of dimensions (A Dimensions) as personal characteristics with which, or into which, people are born, including language, culture, sex, sexual orientation identity, age, social class, and physical status. The second set (B Dimensions) includes traits and characteristics that, while not always visible, influence a person’s behavior and achievement. These factors include regional residency, educational and career background, economic status, leisure activities, religion, marital status, and citizenship, among others. The final group of traits (C Dimensions) identify encounters and events that have influenced a person’s development. These include major events such as leaving a homeland because of religious oppression or political upheaval and changing lifestyles due to health epidemics, economic disasters, or constant terrorism (Robinson, 2005). Arredondo’s A-B-C approach (1992) encourages a holistic perspective that considers many internal and external factors, each of which might have meaning for various stages of human development.
Another reason the following sections are not all-inclusive is that new theoretical models are emerging. For example, Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) (Jordan & Hartling, 2002) is a relatively new school of thought that proposes alternative perspectives and emphasizes the complexity of developmental patterns across the life span (Comstock & Qin, 2005). In particular, the model focuses on creating and nurturing interpersonal connections rather than aspects of individual development. Readers are encouraged to review original sources cited throughout this chapter to gain a fuller appreciation of the various models and approaches presented. Table 4.1 provides a list of various stage models of cultural identity.
Racial Identity Models
This section examines a few racial identity models that have gained prominence in the multicultural literature and research. It begins with Cross’s (1991) Nigrescence theory and more recent references to “activity approaches” to understanding Black identity (Cross, Smith, & Payne, 2002). Each of the following summaries provides a sample perspective and is not intended as inclusive of all racial models or all perspectives about a particular racial identity.
Cross (1971, 1991) differentiated between personal identity and group identity, what he referred to as “reference group orientation” (RGO). He related personal identity to self-esteem and interpersonal relationships, while he associated RGO with racial identity and esteem (Helms, 2003; Robinson, 2005). According to his five-stage model, African Americans create a self-identity through a developmental process within which they replace negative self-images with positive beliefs about themselves.
In the first stage of this model, preencounter, the Black person in America begins creating a self-image and worldview by looking through the lens of a dominant White culture. Here, the person uses identifiers unrelated to race and more reflective of the dominant culture. Such descriptors might include career, school, and church connections rather than identifiers linked with the Black experience. Consequently, Cross (1991) hypothesized that at this first stage of development, African Americans tend to behave in accordance with a White-centered cultural perspective.
The second stage, encounter, occurs when a Black person has a traumatic or other life-altering experience that challenges views established during the earlier stage. This stage is twofold. First, the person must encounter a challenging experience, and next, she or he must internalize the experience personally. This second phase of internalization is essential to move through the encounter stage. Without personal internalization of the event, the person will not fully process the encounter stage.
Cross’s (1991) third stage consists of immersion and emersion. By internalizing the belief-altering experience in the encounter stage, the person now focuses more on being Black, even to the exclusion of other races, especially members of the dominant White culture. Now the person feels a strong connection and common bond with Black people. In some instances, this stage might be accompanied by anger and hostility towards the dominant culture.
Internalization is the fourth stage of this model, and at this level, the person shows evidence of maturation and resolution of the negative feelings espoused in the previous stage. Still, a greater value is assigned to one’s Blackness, and assertive, confident behaviors replace the dissension and conflict sparked in the earlier stage characterized by immersion and emersion.
Full understanding and appreciation of the destructive force of “racism” marks the entry into the fifth stage of development—internalization and commitment. In contrast to the brief life periods reflected in earlier stages, this stage is characterized by long-term involvement and commitment to fighting racism and other forms of oppression for all people in society and across the world.
In later work, Cross and colleagues focused on the continuous everyday activities that influence the development of a Black identity (Cross et al., 2002). Although the original stage model (Cross, 1971) is useful in understanding some of the basic traits and processes that Black people might live through in developing a racial identity, “conceptualizing identity as operations, functions, negotiations, enactments, or activities” (Cross et al., 2002, p. 93) helps to appreciate the complexity of this process. Using “activity theory,” which he developed from Vygotsky’s (1935/1978) work on social learning (see Chapter 2), Cross and his associates (Cross et al., 2002; Cross & Strauss, 1998) suggested a “constellation of five Black identity operations: buffering, code switching, bridging, bonding, and individualism” (Cross et al., 2002, p. 94). These identity functions are learned, and they involve Black and non-Black people in a range of situations from negative and possibly harmful to positive and nurturing. According to Cross and colleagues (2002), with the exception of the fifth operation, individualism, “the Black identity functions are race and Black culture sensitive,” and their purpose is to help the person affirm and establish “a sense of collective identity and attachment to the Black experience” (p. 96).
Buffering is an operation characterized by protecting the person against the racist behaviors of other people or racist environments created by institutions. In a sense, buffering behavior lessens the hurt and suffering often associated with racism and in some instances avoids feelings of degradation and humiliation altogether.
Cross and colleagues (2002) noted that racist situations are often complex in that a Black person must distinguish between those racially discriminatory behaviors, policies, and processes, and other aspects within a given situation that are “race-neutral” and of possible benefit to the person (p. 97). Buffering allows the Black person to diminish the negative effects of racist experiences while considering and benefiting from the neutral elements within those same situations. For example, a Black employee might use buffering to negotiate around the unintentional racist behaviors of a boss because the job is very important to the person’s immediate financial goals and long-term career plans.
Individuals and groups use buffering behaviors. Cross and colleagues (2002) explained, “when Black people join together to protest racism, that is a form of collective or group buffering” (p. 97). When group buffering evolves into formal group functioning (e.g., NAACP or the Legal Defense Fund), it establishes an institution advocating for the Black community.
Code switching is a function that enables Black people to move back and forth from their community to the dominant, non-Black society. In an increasingly multicultural society where most Blacks continue to live and interact in predominantly Black communities, schools, and churches, they often need to switch from their normal way of behaving in order to conform with situations governed by people who are not Black. Cross and colleagues (2002) noted that this “code switching” might require a Black person to master non-Black routines, expressions, and other competencies to become gainfully employed, achieve educationally, and receive customary services. Code switching does not necessarily involve situations that are difficult, discomforting, or otherwise challenging from a racial perspective. Sometimes, code-switching behavior might appear similar to buffering. However, “buffering always involves a racist threat, whereas a code-switching situation is typically non-threatening” (Cross et al., 2002, p. 97).
Bridging occurs when Black people form strong relationships, even intimate ones, with non-Blacks. In these instances, they are able to bridge differences in establishing deep friendships and loving unions. Bridging does not ignore racial and cultural differences. Rather, it celebrates them as each person in the relationship “relishes, examines, and assumes it is a privilege to share the other’s culture and lived experiences” (Cross et al., 2002, p. 98). Considering the racial history and challenges to overcome in these relationships, it is evident that bridging, as defined here, is a difficult and perhaps laborious process. Yet, the rewards of personal growth and understanding for Blacks and non-Blacks who achieve such valued friendships and intimate relationships are indeed unique and special.
Bonding forms strong ties with being Black. Beyond learning to use different operations to survive, function, and flourish in a predominantly White society, persons establish a Black identity to emphasize their cultural uniqueness and richness. Bonding among Black people exists at all social levels and in countless forms, from grand events to solitary experiences of reflection and contemplation. Cross and colleagues (2002) explained that Black people from all social levels who attain a positive identity “like and accept themselves, like other Black people, like the lived experience of Blackness” and sense a “fundamental attachment to Blackness” (p. 98).
Individualism is an operation by which people establish a self-identity that extends beyond their Black experience. Although the first four functions in this theory of Black identity—buffering, code switching, bridging, and bonding—have significance and lend meaning to the notion of collective identity, researchers have found that the last element, individualism, plays an important role in establishing personal identity (Cross et al., 2002). In early studies of these operations, Black participants tended to rely on “acting as an individual” in their responses more than in using any of the other functions. Different focus groups noted varied reasons for this result, such as “their sense of individuality was part of their group identity to the extent that their collective sense of self was always in the background,” or “they tended to see themselves in less racial and Black cultural terms, and more as Americans and individuals” (p. 99). Cross and colleagues (2002) noted several social and political trends (e.g., increased Black membership in the national Republican Party) that might be indicative of the function of individualism and its relationship to Black identity.
Racial and Cultural Identity Model (R/CID)
Sue and Sue (1999) developed one of the most noted and inclusive models of racial and cultural identity. Their model consists of five stages, and although Sue and Sue (1999) presented it as a racial and cultural identity development model (R/CID) to understand the experiences all people have as they establish a clearer identity, we review it here to make comparisons with other models presented earlier. Readers are encouraged to review other stage models of racial development that parallel the R/CID model. For example, Helms (Helms & Cook, 1999) presented a six-stage model of ego-statuses that contains many similarities (and some differences) to the R/CID model.
The first stage of the R/CID model is conformity. In this stage, the person views the dominant race and culture as superior and tends to deemphasize one’s native culture (high assimilation–low ethnic identity). Stereotypic views espoused by the dominant race are accepted. For example, an Asian American’s development that includes low self-esteem and denial regarding traditional cultural values and physical characteristics might at the same time demonstrate acceptance of White, Euro-American culture at the expense of Asian traditions, beliefs, and values.
As experiences begin to conflict with some of these “conforming” values, dissonance becomes more prevalent. This second stage sees a transformation from high assimilation–low ethnic identity to rethinking of one’s racial and cultural identity. Confusion, disorientation, and uncertainty about one’s racial group are elements observed early in this stage of development. Now the Asian American observes external contradictions and attempts to resolve conflicts towards self-development, one’s racial group, and the White majority (Robinson, 2005).
Resistance and immersion mark the next stage of Sue and Sue’s model (1999). During this stage of development, group members identify more strongly with beliefs and values held by their racial group, while they reject many views held by society’s dominant race. For example, Asian Americans might express regret for having ignored or diminished their Asian heritage in previous years, and now want to rediscover the cultural influence and meaning it has had in their life. At the same time, they might feel angry towards the dominant group for fostering ignorance and devaluing their Asian culture.
In this stage, a member of the dominant racial group might also begin resisting and challenging values and beliefs that have perpetuated myths about minority groups and encouraged society’s oppressive attitudes, customs, and policies. For example, White people who process the resistant and immersion stage might question their own racist views. For the first time in their life, they begin to become aware and understand the meaning and impact of racism on individuals and society as a whole. In an attempt to compensate for past beliefs and behaviors, White people who experience resistance and immersion might express guilt and negative feelings about their “Whiteness.” In some instances, they might overly immerse themselves in other groups in the process of rejecting and detaching from the White culture.
The fourth stage of the R/CID model is the introspective stage in which people begin to assess their direction and purpose, particularly in the context of racial development and understanding. Expressions of independence now find balance with group identity. This stage might reflect an increasing ability to self-explore and self-analyze one’s identity development. At the same time, people gain an appreciation for the complexity of racial identity and racial relationships. For oppressed people, this stage marks a search for meaningful personal goals and movement beyond an emotional reaction to racism. Successful development through this stage brings people to the final stage of integrative awareness.
In the final stage of the R/CID model of racial development, people are able to self-affirm and achieve a sense of independence and self-worth beyond racial identity. Pride in one’s ethnicity remains strong, but more important is active commitment to fight oppression in any form by any group against another. In this process of becoming secure with oneself, people gain an understanding that all racial groups have aspects that are beneficial as well as some that are not. They also recognize the power of the individual within any group to capitalize on the benefits and diminish the negative attributes of that group. The autonomy that characterizes this last stage of development allows the individual to maintain a collective identity while responding as an independent person to racial situations. As such, a White person in this stage might respond to the oppression and degradation of other racial groups out of compassion and genuine commitment to equality rather than from a posture of guilt, shame, anger, or other rationalized emotion.
Optimal Theory Model
From their research, Myers and colleagues (1991) proposed an identity theory, which they called Optimal Theory Applied to Identity Development (OTAID). Relying on Erikson’s (1968) assumptions about the emergence of self-identity and Jung’s (1953) emphasis on spiritual awareness, Myers and colleagues (1991) defined identity development “as a continuous process of interaction between individuals and the sociocultural environment that they encounter” (p. 58). The authors presented their theory as neither linear nor categorical, but rather an “expanding spiral” of developing self-knowledge and an awareness “of belonging to the cycle of life” (p. 58). Furthermore, the OTAID model views identity development from the foundation of a worldview, constructed and altered by the person through “observation, examination, reflection, discussion, and conclusions” (p. 58). All these processes combine to create a more global one of self-learning, which ultimately results in greater self-awareness and awareness of others. Table 4.2 illustrates the seven phases of the OTAID model (including Phase 0) with brief descriptions of each.
Ivey’s Cultural Identity Model
Ivey and colleagues (2002) presented a summary of a five-stage model of cultural identity development theory that illustrates movement from a lack of awareness of self to a higher level of awareness and action to fight against all forms of oppression and other aspects of society that demean, degrade, and discriminate against individuals or groups of people. The first stage in this summary is Naïveté, which manifests in lack of “awareness of self as a cultural being” (Ivey et al., 2002, p. 321). Different models of racial and cultural identity propose that at this lowest level of learning and functioning, people are unaware of differences in skin color and do not understand the significance of skin color as a status variable in certain societies. For example, many White Americans are unaware of “White unearned privilege” in their society. Simply being White gains them access to institutions, programs, services, and privileges that are routinely denied people of color in American society, and they do not comprehend this reality. This early stage of development might also reflect denial by people of having been oppressed and discriminated against in their life.
The second stage of this summary model by Ivey and colleagues (2002) is Encounter. This is a period of development when a person realizes that something about herself or himself or about other people is different, and they experience some form of discrimination or somehow witness it in society. The next stage is Naming, where the acts of discrimination observed in the earlier stage now have an identity of their own. Ivey and colleagues (2002) noted that in this stage of transformation, members of the majority group who are sympathetic and supportive of the oppressed minority would be challenged to maintain a positive identity for themselves. At the same time, members of the oppressed group might feel great anger and hostility and withdraw from contact with their oppressors (often the majority group), immersing themselves in the traditions and customs of their cultural group.
In recent years, social scientists have used the terms ethnicity and ethnic group as indicators of people’s cultural identity and heritage, apart from racial characteristics. At the same time, ethnicity does not imply an absolute sameness of identification among all members of a group. Researchers have noted that subgroups within an ethnic group often have disparate perceptions. An example applied across cultural groups would be differences found between male and female samples within the same ethnic group.
On occasion, the two terms—racial identity and ethnicity—combine to convey a thought about human development that implies a link or close association between them. Nevertheless, while these terms are closely related and share common influences, racial identity and ethnic identity formation are distinctive processes. We have seen that racial identity is greatly influenced by the value and meaning a society assigns to specific physical characteristics. In contrast, an individual’s ethnic identity develops through countless personal, family, and social experiences.
As with racial identity, ethnic identity is a complex process. Some people are willing to give their lives fighting for ethnic beliefs including recognition and inclusion of their ethnic group. Other people seem oblivious and unconcerned about ethnic identity. Furthermore, society tends to classify people into ethnic groups, often without people knowing or agreeing with the identification (Scupin, 2003b). All of these aspects and dynamics are important to studying and understanding ethnicity and models of ethnic identification.
Scupin (2003b) summarized two major anthropological models of ethnic identity. The first, primordialist, comes from the work of Geertz (1973). Primordial refers to essential and fundamental connections that the group values and assigns historic meaning. In the primordialist model, several observations help us understand ethnic attachment and the dynamics that hold people to their identified groups. These observations include the following:
• a. People base their ethnic attachments on deeply rooted family and social connections and bonds such as religious traditions.
• b. Ethnic attachment persists because it is a fundamental aspect of personal identity.
• c. Strong emotional sentiments involving visible symbols such as dress, language, and food mark a person’s ethnic attachment and identity.
• d. Ethnic identity conveys strong personal meaning for the individual.
• e. Individuals differ in how much attention they pay to primordial attachments.
An example of using the primordialist model to understand ethnic attachment might come from observing the Amish people and communities in the United States (Scupin, 2003b). Some of the visible ethnic attachments we might find are the similar dress of the Amish people, their use of a German dialect for language, a traditional way of life, and lack of modern conveniences and new technology in their day-to-day functions.
Another ethnic model is the circumstantialist perspective, which comes from a subjective definition of ethnic identity. This model offers a more complex process of groups revising boundaries and markers according to the circumstances the groups encounter. The circumstantialist model notes that ethnic markers often change when it is advantageous to the group (Scupin, 2003b). As such, ethnic groups are not always locked to particular markers as posited in the primordial model. Rather, they adapt to economic, political, and social circumstances in order to maintain an ethnic identity. For example, many European groups came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To adjust to the social climate of this adopted country, while retaining some of their cultural heritage, these people often embraced identities that merged the old and new. For example, Irish immigrants became Irish Americans.
Today, social scientists tend to draw from both models in attempting to understand the complex process of ethnic identity. Essential markers are important in the study of ethnicity, but it is also reasonable to measure circumstantial influences over time that have an impact on group development.
Ethnicity and Self-Concept Development
Several social conditions and types of personal experiences are evidence of the influences that affect ethnic identity. Migration, adoption, interracial marriage, religious conversion, and change in financial status are a few conditions that might influence a person’s ethnic choice. When people migrate from one place to another, they often acculturate to their new surroundings and subsequently adjust ethnic views. In the United States, we see this phenomenon played out daily as families, particularly children, from Asia, Europe, South America, and other parts of the world settle in the States and ultimately make decisions about who they are and to what ethnic group they belong (Roysircar, 2003). Similarly, adopted children of ethnically different parents will likely make adjustments in ethnic perceptions as they develop and mature. Such experiences illustrate the dynamics of ethnic identity. Indeed, it is a fluid and complex process rather than an unwavering stagnant one. Instead of portraying the self as a rigid and unchanging entity, ethnicity allows us to confirm the vibrant nature of self-concept. In today’s evolving global society, it is common to find people whose ethnic identity is continually adjusting and changing. Exercise 4.3 asks you to explore your own ethnic development.
When professional counselors and other helpers do not distinguish between racial and ethnic identity, mistaken assumptions might lead them to believe that because clients associate with a particular socially constructed race, they must therefore identify with specific ethnic groups. This assumption might be erroneous because, as noted above, numerous social conditions, personal experiences, and individual choices might lead clients to choose an ethnic identification quite different from the identity socially assigned to their supposed racial group. Inherent in gaining a clearer understanding of racial and ethnic identity is recognition that the terms used are imprecise at best. Indeed, we struggle to find a language that accurately depicts who we are.
Ethnic identity is the process of associating, connecting, and linking with a particular cultural group. The ethnicity of a group is the mixture and fusion of countless traits, beliefs, behaviors, languages, and traditions that distinguish it from other groups. This does not mean that all members of a particular ethnic group embrace the same beliefs, display the same characteristics, or behave in identical ways. Every ethnic group consists of individuals, who form subgroups within the larger culture, and these subgroups sometimes differ in the emphasis and importance they assign to various aspects of the group. Helms and Cook (1999) noted that loyalty and identification with a particular ethnic group by people who have immigrated to the United States relate to three factors:
Schmidt, J. (2019). Social and cultural foundations of counseling and human services: Multiple influences on self-concept development. Retrieved from https://www.vitalsource.com
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