Biracial Identity Development: A Reflection on Current Models
As the product of a racially “mixed” marriage myself, I have always been extremely focused on my own identity in relation to other biracial individuals. I have often wondered where the “sameness” of our experience lies in relation to those of others. This has led to a review of the literature pertaining to models of identity development for biracial individuals. Of these, I have chosen three which best represent the range of opinions (Stonequist, 1937; Poston, 1990; Kerwin, and Ponterotto, 1995); further reflection on the validity of these models from my personal perspective follows. I also present some of the implications these models may hold for cross-cultural counselling and I have put forward some areas for future research.
I have been queried about my racial identity (erroneously, my ‘nationality’).
People, mostly White, have wondered why, I do not choose to pass as white.
Other people, mostly Black have demanded to know why I say I am biracial
instead of ‘just admitting’ I am black. . . People have given me advice on how
I should talk, think, act and feel about myself racially. Repeatedly, people have
tried to define my existence for me. (Braun Williams, 1999, p. 33)
Current/Historical Models of Biracial Identity Development
The earliest model of biracial identity development is Stonequist’s (1937) concept of the “marginal personality”, and there are few others. Poston’s (1990) proposition for an “updated” model of biracial identity development is the first in a small series of such theories put forward in the more recent past. Kerwin and Ponterotto’s (1995) contribution attempts to address some of the problems created in adapting the other models to every situation. One important thing to note around all of these models is that they attempt to deal with the issue from the American perspective, and that most of the research is drawn from studies involving those of African-American/Dominant White descent. This is markedly different from the Canadian context because of the differing national policies regarding multicultural issues, and holds implications for future research.
The “Marginal Person” Model
Stonequist’s (1937) model of the ‘marginal person’ is what can be termed a ‘deficit model (Poston 1990; Kerwin and Ponterotto, 1995). Drawing mainly from research which focused on the pathology of black families in the U.S., this model assumes that people who are of “mixed race” have problems with identity development because they are associated with two worlds, but belong fully to neither, and they are “deficient” of the ability to do so. Normal processes of identity development are exacerbated within this model (Gibbs, 1987). The individual is thrust into a state of internal conflict through the desire to hold both identities simultaneously, while at the same time being unable to commit to either.
Poston (1990) notes that being marginal as an individual “does not necessarily lead to a marginal personality” (p 153) and that such conflict may be more a factor of social structural prejudice rather than internal conflict. It has also been shown to be possible for a person to have a healthy integration of both their parent cultures without such conflict ( Gibbs, 1987). One large factor influencing the sense of marginality within the individual is the level of support given to each aspect of racial heritage by the individuals' parents; another is the level of acceptance and exposure for either parental race/culture within the individuals' immediate community (Brown, 1990). These problems aside, the concept of marginality has had a large hold over the literature involving biracial individuals, and continues to do so (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995).
Poston’s Five Stage Model
Up until Postson’s (1990) call for an update, the best modern models available had been adaptations of Cross’s (1971) model of Afro-American self-actualisation or Morton and Atkinson’s (1983, in Poston, 1990) five stage model of Minority Identity Development (MID). Although both of these models have been updated (Cross & Fhagen-Smith, 1996), neither addresses the issues faced by biracial individuals specifically. These models, particularly the MID, are somewhat general in approach. This leads to a lack of application to individual minority groups.
In particular, Poston (1990) felt that development would be different in biracial individuals for several reasons. First, models based on homogeneous minority development do not acknowledge that the individual might chose one set of cultural values over another at a given stage. Second, the individual may come from both minority and dominant culture groups. Third, the integration of several identities is not recognised. Finally, these models assume “some acceptance into the minority culture of origin” (Poston, 1990, p. 153). Biracial individuals may feel that they are “rejected by both the majority and minority groups because they fit neither in terms of physical appearance, family background, and loyalty” to specific groups (Gibbs, 1987, p. 269).
What is proposed in Poston’s (1990) model is a five-stage process during which attitudes towards the varying ‘reference groups’ within the individual's background are developed. These ‘Reference Group Orientations’ (RGO’s) are based around Cross’ (1987) five stage model, more recently elaborated in the work of Cross and Fhagen-Smith. (1996). Poston’s (1990) five stage model involves group identification, racial preference and attitudes, while personality traits examining self efficacy are excluded. The five stages of Poston’s theory are:
1.- Personal Identity: The individual has developed independent of RGO attitudes which have not been integrated. Identity is based largely on self-constructs originating within the family. Poston noted that parental attitudes towards race or racialisation would have greatest effect at this stage.
2.- Choice of Group Categorization: The individual is ‘pushed’ to choose an identity through society's need for definition. This can cause “crisis and alienation for the individual” (Poston, 1990, p. 153). The choice is primarily limited to the minority or the dominant culture group. Poston characterised this stage as taking place before individuals have a level of cognitive development allowing them to hold multiple cultures concurrently within their identity.
3.- Emeshment/Denial: The individual becomes confused through guilt at having to choose/deny one identity. A large portion of this stage is seen as the result of feelings of ‘disloyalty’ to the parent whose heritage is secondary for the individual. Gibbs (1987) outlined this as a cause of various pathologies in biracial adolescents within the social service system, and Poston adapted these findings in his development of this stage (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995).
4.- Appreciation: The biracial individual in this stage begins to broaden the ROG’s to include both groups. Identification is still with one main culture/group, yet there is significant effort invested in the exploration and involvement with the secondary heritage.
5.- Integration: Individuals at this stage “tend to recognise and value all of their ethnic identities” (Poston, 1990, p. 154). The individual continues to acquire knowledge of both backgrounds, and develops from the secure space of the ‘integrated’ individual.
Poston’s model is important in that it recognises the role that the internalisation of outside prejudice and values has on the individual’s self-conception. It also examines the way in which family and peer influences affect identity choice. Kerwin and Ponterotto (1995) note that this limits the biracial individual in that it suggests that periods of confusion and resultant maladjustment are mandatory. The model also outlines the need for strong family and community support as essential in resolution of conflicts. Poston sees this aspect of the model as a particular benefit in the development of preventative programs building support through parent and counsellor training and awareness building.
The Kerwin-Ponterotto Model
The model proposed by Kerwin and Ponterotto (1995) draws upon those previously discussed, as well as attempting to integrate further research which shows that personal, societal, and environmental factors are further enmeshed in the process than originally accounted for (Kerwin, 1991). It attempts to recognise the individuality of both situation and resolution of self-concept for the biracial person. This outlook contains six stages based around the developmental milestones of Pre-school, Entry to School, Preadolescence, Adolescence, College/Young Adulthood, and Adulthood. The specifics for each stage are:
1.-Preschool: Racial awareness emerges earlier than is generally found in the individual population (Kerwin 1991). The authors theorised this as the result of higher levels of difference within the child’s immediate social groupings (i.e. the family). There is also the supposition that parental anxiety of the biracial status of the child may play a role in awareness, and there is some indication that a lack of such anxiety may have differential effects on the development of racial awareness.
2.- Early School: The sense of self developed by the child through the limited social communities of family and friends is challenged upon entry to school. The authors note that questions such as “What are you?” (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995, p. 211) may be asked more frequently to multiracial children. Self-identification with a given group or social category begins to become a factor in the biracial child’s development. The way in which children speak of their biraciality is largely dependant on parental input. If the parents provide good self-concept, or at least a unified self-concept for the child, Kerwin and Ponterotto (1995) state that this is the label which children will “typically use to describe themselves” (p. 212). The attitudes of the school community in terms of role modelling and prejudices begin to play a larger role as well.
3.- Preadolescence: An increased identification of group membership as being factored upon skin colour, appearance, language, and culture is apparent; however, the tendency is to use societal labels as descriptive terms. Awareness of difference between the parents typically occurs at this stage (Kerwin, 1991).
4.- Adolescence: This stage is characterised as the “most challenging for biracial youngsters due to both developmental factors characteristic of this age group and societal pressures” (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995, p. 212). The pressure to chose one strain of the individual’s background over another is related to Erikson’s (1968) conception of “ingroups” and “outgroups”. The pressures of dating add to this mix. Brown (1990) and Gibbs (1987) note that this last factor is especially important to biracial adolescents. Issues of interracial dating may bring out race in a way the individual has never before conceived.
5.- College/Young Adulthood: Continued immersion or rejection in one or the other of the individuals may continue, although rejection of societal limits and an acceptance of the dual nature of biraciality is more likely. This is due to increased self-efficacy accompanying this stage of life generally. The advantages of a biracial heritage become clearer at this stage, as do the disadvantages (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995).
6.- Adulthood: Development of a biracial identity is conceived as a lifelong process. Continuing integration is necessary throughout the individual's life span. Kerwin and Ponterotto (1995) state that “…with the successful resolution of earlier stages there will be a continuing exploration and interest in different cultures, including one’s own” (p. 213). The individuals may be much more flexible in terms of their individual identity as a result of their experience and be able to accept a wider range of interpersonal relations.
This latest model of biracial identity development has been “presented as an integrated framework” of development (Kerwin & Ponterotto, 1995, p. 215), and attempts to specifically outline racial awareness and biracial acceptance as a factor of social expectations and individual processes. It attempts to move away from the ‘labelling’ associated with the marginal person model, and the idea of “necessary conflict” in “choosing” one parental heritage over the other as in Poston’s (1990) model. There is also an attempt within this model to publicise the fact that biracial individuals are willing and able to discuss their experiences in holding a dual identity (Kerwin, et al., 1993).
A Personal Reflection on the Models
The concept of claiming race and heritage is not easy for the biracial individual, according to what has been presented. This has certainly been my own experience. I am the firstborn child of a Chinese man, whose nationality is Trinidadian, and a white Anglo/Scottish Canadian woman. I grew up in a small town in British Columbia where the majority were of white European descent. At the same time, many of the interactions within my extended “family” involved interracial couples and their offspring (cousins and family friends).
As a biracial individual I have felt conflicting emotions, varying levels of discrimination, and have been faced with choices regarding how I identify myself and my heritage. As I have read and re-read the models presented, my own struggle for self-definition is highlighted in varying and -sometimes- conflicting ways. Each of these models has a certain “ring of truth” yet none encompasses fully my own experience in developing a solid and definable identity; nor does any model reflect the reality that I am, and have always been, biracial and have never been able to separate this into “parts.” Although I have certainly felt the strain, in social situations, of “not belonging,” this has not been (for me) a matter of my being the “tragic” figure from Stonequist’s (1939) model of the “marginal person.” Like Poston (1990), I see this as having to do with the systems and structures that surrounded and supported me in my development. Little mention was made of race or socialisation issues -either within my immediate or extended family. Instead, the focus of difference was on my father’s cultural heritage as a person from Trinidad. Trinidadian culture is an amalgam of many different heritages, influenced greatly by the European colonialist structures which shaped and formed its social systems. Although not a racially harmonious society by any stretch of the imagination, each root culture has grown and adapted a distinct personality within the whole. For one take on the hypbrid nature of this culture, an interested reader may wish to view Amitava Kumar’s film Pure Chutney which focuses on the post-colonial experiences of ethnic Indians in Trinidad. I personally find myself identifying with this variegated aspect of my dual nature in a positive way, and actively dislike the idea of being called “marginal.”
The individuality within the biracial experience is mentioned (i.e. Gibbs, 1987) as being a large limiting factor in the model. The fact that my father presented as bicultural, and came from a society which has developed a multi-ethnic heritage, has allowed me to escape the labelling necessary for Stonequist’s ideas to be fully applicable. “Marginality” in my experience had to do with not being completely within the “white” community in which I grew up, although this had more to do with my darker skin-tone. It is my personal proposal that the social structures of Trinidadian society, and the legacy of British colonialism, fit well with the Canadian experience in which I grew up, and keep the differences in my cultural heritage largely limited to culinary or musical exposure.
The concept from these models which resonates most in my own life is that of feeling “pressure to choose” (Poston, 1990, p. 153) between one heritage and the other in my own identification. Certainly, the largest struggle I have felt within my life has involved commitment to definition, both in myself and in my attitudes. Far from having the negative influences possible, this has instead led to an appreciation of my double heritage, and a flexibility in my personal outlook, which I feel goes beyond that of many of my mono-racial peers. The difficulty lies in what Poston (1990) aptly describes as integration. The ability to claim an integrated identity –what Braun Williams (1999) aptly describes as the “I”– is individual, and is an inherent part of being biracial from birth. Claiming this identity is what is important in being able to develop a sense of self, and in being able to present oneself as a whole, authentic person. What is needed is the social and structural support within the family and within the individual’s community environment, to allow an exploration of the various aspects of the self which make up the reality of a biracial individual.
The Reference Group Orientation that is most important can only be discovered and defined by the individual. This is consistent with the need for “community education” and support throughout the developmental span, as advocated through the Kerwin-Ponterotto (1995) model. The biracial individual is then free to discover and become energised about the uniqueness of his or her reality. One of my former co-workers reported to me that her eight year-old son thought of his biracial status as “way cool,” and I have had numerous conversations with other biracial individuals highlighting both the similarities and the differences within that experience. There is a definite need for the models of biracial identity development to further include this range of difference, and to further integrate the interplay between cultures and race instead of being focused largely on race alone.
Implications for Counselling and Research
One of the most important aspect of cross-cultural counselling is the ability to hold an awareness of client worldview and experiences (Arredondo, 1999). This includes not only being aware of the client’s own processes with Rogers' (1961) concept of “unconditional positive regard”; instead as counsellors, this involves actively exploring with the client the effects that cultural/racial difference has had on their lives, and becoming aware of one's own position as cultural/racial beings. Although the conflicts experienced by biracial individuals are to some degree universal, and to another the product of their minority status, there are definite similarities which allow the process to be seen as discrete. In particular, the “dual” nature of the biracial individual disallows simply following a homogeneous model. Braun Williams (1999) notes that “it is our preconceived notions and unresolved feelings about race and culture that present some of the most formidable barriers to expressions of empathy in therapy” (p.75). Truly effective cross-cultural communication allows for the unique position held by biracial individuals in holding more than one identity simultaneously.
Recently, there has been a focus on highlighting the implications of cultural diversity on counselling practice. Witness the recent issue of The Journal of Counselling and Development (vol. 77, 99, special issue) along with the ACA’s recently developed guidelines for multicultural competency (Sue, Arredondo, & Medavis, 1992; Arredondo, 1999). As discussed, very little of this literature focuses on the biracial population. Given the ever-increasing percentage of the population which is able to claim biracial status (Poston, 1990), along with the need to include biracial status as a context for counselling, this is an unrealistic state of affairs.
Several possibilities for research exist in this area. The social factors which affect biracial individuals and the degree to which these variances influence experience should be examined. Poston (1990) calls this examining the “salience” of the social factors involved within the choice process. This would include a more comprehensive examination of the interaction between cultural and racial factors. It would also be useful to investigate the degree to which biracial individuals identify with the above models through an exploration of their present identity. Similarities and differences in the formation process could be drawn from their individual experiences to form a more cohesive model of biracial identity development. In much the same way, the communication processes and styles of interactions within interracial families could be examined to gain a better understanding of the structures and support needed to develop a more integrated biracial identity. A stronger effort should also be made to investigate the topic within the Canadian context, given that the governmental policy of “multiculturalism” is somewhat different from the “melting pot” ideology existing within the United States.
Although few models of identity development specific to biracial individuals do exist, these lack a comprehensive integration into the “dual” heritage that biraciality imparts. In my personal experiences, it is true that the dichotomy of my parentage has led to a questioning search for identity; it is, however, equally true that my dual nature has always been simply a “fact of life.” This integration can be reached only after certain developmental processes within the existing models occur and this is not consistent with the reality of existence. New ways of thinking about identity development in the biracial individual must be explored. This has many implications for counselling. Without an awareness and the understanding of the context of the biracial individual we -as counsellors- are limiting our ability to work in empathic and understanding ways.
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