Who Am I? Building a Healthy Racial and Ethnic Identity

Author, Julie Hall Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

A few years ago, my mom called me from our childhood home where she still resides and asked me to help her clean out and purge some of the old items and keepsakes that had accumulated in our basement. As I was perusing through old memories, laughing at fashion choices in yearbooks and old “secret” notes folded up in origami style to friends, I came upon a stack of old short stories that I wrote in middle school. The short stories were about a young girl, also in middle school, who loved to solve mysteries with her two friends. In the stories, the descriptions of the two friends very much resembled the appearance of my two closest friends at that time. The lead character, who I’m certain was supposed to represent me, was described to have “sandy brown hair, hazel eyes, and a keen eye for finding important clues.” While I had a lot of fun exploring the mysteries I had created in these stories, I couldn’t shake the physical description I had given myself. The character in my twelve-year-old conceptualization looked nothing like the real me.

What did I think of myself back then as I looked in the mirror, I wondered? I do not consciously remember feeling that I, in my brown skin and dark eyes, did not belong in the heroine role of my creative mystery stories. However, as I brought attention and curiosity to this question, I considered my observations of the world around me. The heroines in the books that I read and the movies I watched did not resemble me. The teachers who encouraged and helped me did not resemble me. The dolls I played with did not resemble me. The young girl with the “keen eye for finding important clues” had deduced that she was not qualified to be the lead in her own story.

As a therapist, I often come alongside clients as they navigate their view of self within the context of what they have been told or by what they have observed. An important part of this process can be exploration of both racial and ethnic identity. Research shows that as children we observe differences in physical character traits at a very early age. Over time we begin to understand that these physical differences lead to categorizations of people, and that these categorizations can have value judgements associated with them.

Identity formation includes both how we view ourselves at an individual level which is informed by things like personality traits as well as how we identify ourselves within these larger groups. Because of racial and ethnic prejudices that I had personally faced as well as observations I had made of the world around me, I could not fully appreciate the categorizations that were part of my identity. This challenge caused a disruption in my own healthy identity development, and I know that I am not alone. Many people of color experience these kinds of disruptions because of the meaning they make of who they are against the backdrop of the world around them. Many people of color have received messages historically and even in present day that affirmation is in how well they fit in with majority culture, and therefore it is not easy to embrace their own differences. Comedian and actress Margaret Cho states, “I am admittedly insecure about my racial identity, an attitude that has much improved since my younger days when I absolutely abhorred it. Any attention paid to me being different was incredibly shameful.”

While I was sad for that young middle school girl I read about in the basement of my childhood home, I am filled with gratitude in God’s redemption of her story, my story. God has shown me what it means to be an image bearer of His likeness, in my brown skin, dark eyes and rich Indian-American heritage. This was a process that required bringing awareness to my own understanding of self and the encouragement of a loving community of people who affirmed me.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has developed a model of racial and ethnic socialization (RES) which focuses on children’s understanding of their identity within the context of race and ethnicity. The model highlights ways that caregivers can create space for children to ask questions, process and learn. Given our unique histories and everyday realities, the APA encourages that messages are tailored based on children’s specific culture and experiences. For example, we might choose to prepare children for bias they may encounter, highlight stories of their ancestors or build pride in their appearance. As a parent now myself, it is important for me to instill in my own child a sense of pride in who she is, exactly as she is. We intentionally read books and watch movies where the heroine looks like her so that she can begin to see herself in strong roles and dream big.

In many ways, especially for children, identity formation is developed based on our understanding of how others see us, treat us and especially encourage us. As a community, we have an opportunity to build up the identities in the people we encounter. While it may seem challenging to understand how our actions can impact the identity of others, it can also be extremely encouraging. We can all be agents of change and healing. The first step is gaining awareness, which breeds empathy. The lifelong activist and author John M Perkins states, “There is no reconciliation until you recognize the dignity of the other, until you see their view – you have to enter into the pain of the people. You’ve got to feel their need.”

Can we see dignity in the faces of diversity among us and honor this dignity through simple acts of respect, compassion and kindness? The Biblical text of Romans 12:10 states, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” My hope is that communally, we can honor and celebrate the ways that we are each uniquely designed according to the One who redeems it all.

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Julie Hall is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at the Greenwich Center for Hope and Renewal.  She focuses on issues such as anxiety, depression, self-esteem, life transitions, disordered eating, infertility and racial identity/relations.  If you would like to make an appointment or have any questions or comments to share with her about this article or these topics, please email her at julie@hopeandrenewal.org or call her at 203 998 5460.