Affilia Racial and Ethnic Identity Development in White Mothers of Biracial,...

Racial and Ethnic Identity Development in White Mothers of Biracial, Black-White Children
Margaret O'Donoghue
Affilia 2004 19: 68
DOI: 10.1177/0886109903260795
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Spring 2004
Racial and Ethnic Identity Development in
White Mothers of Biracial, Black-White
Margaret O’Donoghue
This article reports on a qualitative research study of the racial and ethnic identity of
11 White mothers who were married to Black (specifically African American) men
and were raising biracial children. The uniqueness of these women’s lives, as Whites
with an intimate knowledge of the Black experience, makes it difficult to place them
within the levels described by current models of racial identity. Through their
parenting of biracial children, the mothers had come to a greater sense of their own
racial identity and to recognize White privilege and their own White identity. Their
specific ethnic identity, as ethnic Whites, has not been passed on to their children.
ethnic identity; interracial families; mothers of biracial children;
racial identity
The number of interracial marriages in the United States increased from
500,000 in 1970 to 2 million in 1990, a growth rate that is almost 10 times
faster than that of the population as a whole. Of these interracial unions,
26% involved Black and White couples, 65% of whom consisted of Black
men married to White women (Benokraitis, 2001). The rise in the number of
interracial marriages has led to the increasing presence of White women
who are parenting children of color. As a result of these unions, these
women are parenting biological children who are socially defined as being
of one race, Black, while they are ascribed to another race, White.
From the few studies that have been conducted, one can discern that multiracial families face particular stresses, given this society’s definitions of
family and race (Dalmage, 2001). The dominant paradigm in this society
asserts that races are biologically distinct and characteristically separate
from one another (Zack, 1993). Thus, multiracial families are placed in a precarious and confusing position. Their ambiguous racial designation raises
anxiety for others and can result in ostracism, hostility, and discrimination.
This hostility may be based on the historical issues surrounding slavery,
AFFILIA, Vol. 19 No. 1, Spring 2004 68-84
DOI: 10.1177/0886109903260795
© 2004 Sage Publications
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antimiscegenation laws, and the unconscious but deeply held disgust and
fear of sex between Black men and White women (Frankenberg, 1993).
Therefore, according to some researchers, these families are considered
aberrant, bordering both sides of the racial divide but accepted by neither
the Black nor the White community (Frankenberg, 1993; Root, 1992). The
resultant position, being of two races and accepted by neither, has been
termed being “on the border” or “an outsider within” (Dalmage, 2001;
Luke, 1994). Hence, there appear to be institutional and societal impingements on White women’s attempts to parent biracial children in a
monoracial world and specific intrapsychic issues of being White and
parenting Black children.
This article focuses on White women in interracial relationships: how
they perceive their own racial and ethnic identity and if and how this identity has been influenced by their experiences as wives of Black (specifically
African American) men and mothers of socially defined Black children.
Existing models of the development of racial identity, particularly White
racial identity development (WRID), are applied. The information is based
on previous research and my qualitative study of interracially married
This review begins with an examination of the literature on White women in
interracial relationships, followed by a review of ethnic identity theory and
racial identity theory. Although the terms race and ethnicity are often used
interchangeably, in the case of the current study, they were extrapolated
from each other and treated as different aspects of identity.
In the literature, White women in interracial relationships are often
depicted as having deep-seated psychological problems, as being sexually
promiscuous and/or pathologically rebellious, and as seeking revenge
against their parents (Henriques, 1975). In contrast, writers, such as
Porterfield (1978) and Dalmage (2001), have contended that many interracial couples marry because they love each other, and their compatibility
may be unusually high in comparison to same-race couples, so that their
marriages succeed despite the social context in which they took place.
Porterfield, however, similar to other researchers (see, e.g., Spikard, 1989),
followed with a caveat that the children of these unions are likely to be
unhappy. In fact, the major focus of research on interracial families has been
on the racial identity and self-esteem issues of the children (Brown, 1995;
Gibbs, 1987). These studies on children and adolescents have produced contradictory findings, revealing images ranging from young people who suffer from profound insecurities and deficiencies (Gibbs, 1987) to adolescents
who feel comfortable with their biracial identity and are socially well
adjusted (Brown, 1995; Gibbs & Hines, 1992).
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Affilia Spring 2004
The mothers of biracial children are rarely discussed in the literature.
When they are, they are usually treated merely as heritage markers of their
children, not as individuals who have an ethnic and racial identity of their
own that will affect the family structure and the socialization of their children (Luke, 1994). In this respect, the dearth of studies is reflective of the lack
of focus on the racial identity of White people in general. Some writers have
noted how few theorists or researchers in social work or psychology are
willing to enter into the analysis of Whiteness. Fine, Weis, Powell, and Wong
(1997) claimed that, “Indeed, both conservatives and liberals within psychology and education have so fetishized ‘people of color’ as the ‘problem
to be understood’ that Whiteness in all its glistening privilege, has
evaporated beyond study” (p. ix).
Ethnic Identity Development and Group Membership
Ethnic identity has been defined as a complex construct that includes a commitment and sense of belonging to one’s ethnic group, positive evaluation
of the group, interest in and knowledge about the group, and involvement
in activities and traditions of the group (Phinney, 1990). The topic of ethnicity and ethnic identity has become increasingly important in the fields of
psychology and social work. McGoldrick, Pearce, and Giordano (1982)
stated that how one feels about one’s ethnic background is often a reflection
of how one feels about oneself. A clear predominantly positive ethnic connection can facilitate a sense of freedom, security and comfort, flexibility in
behavior, and a capacity for openness with others who are different.
Research on ethnic identity has focused primarily on either ethnic minorities of color (with a concentration on minority children’s preference for
White stimulus figures) or on attitudes of the majority or dominant group
toward members of minority groups. According to critics, much less
research has been conducted on the ethnic identity of White individuals,
adults, and, particularly, on the transition from childhood to adulthood
(Phinney, 1990). The available studies have indicated that ethnicity is not
considered a relevant or important aspect of White individuals’ identity.
Rosenblatt, Karis, and Powell (1995), in one of the few studies of the cultural
identity of interracial families, noted that the White parent, often the
mother, struggles to teach the child her ethnic heritage in a way that makes it
seem to be more than just the heritage of the oppressor.
The writings and research on the development of racial identity have, in the
main, followed from Cross’s (1987) work on Black racial identity development (BRID), a theory that explores the stages through which individuals
pass as their attitudes toward their own racial-ethnic group develop.
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Phinney (1996) described three stages in this development: unexamined
racial identity, moratorium or exploration, and achieved ethnic-racial identity. Sue and Sue (1990) described similar stages in their theory of BRID: conformity, dissonance, resistance and immersion, introspection, and integrative awareness. As an individual progresses through this developmental
process, he or she arrives at an understanding of racism and an acceptance
of his or her own group in the face of ascribed lower status. The existence of
personal identity, including self-esteem and reference-group orientation
(which incorporates racial identity), is explored in this model, with one not
necessarily predictive of the other. The theory of BRID has been applied in
studies of identity in Black children and adolescents and in comparison groups of Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and Whites. Most
studies have found that exploration of ethnic-identity issues is higher
among minority groups than among majority groups. Self-esteem, especially for members of minority groups, is related to the extent to which they
have explored issues involving their racial identity (Phinney & Alipuria,
The theory of WRID was developed by Helms (1990), with a five-stage
model: contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudoindependence, and
autonomy. In this schema, a person moves from a low level of WRID to a
higher level. The current theory of WRID contends that it is a psychological
template that operates as a worldview and serves to filter race-based information. Carter and Helms (1990) claimed that although Whites may exhibit
cultural differences if they belong to different ethnic groups, they may all be
similar in some ways because they belong to the same racial group. They
contended that considerations of ethnicity, including the work by
McGoldrick et al. (1982), have not included analyses of how racial heritage
is related to Whites’ attitudes toward other cultural or racial groups or
themselves as racial-cultural beings. Therefore, Carter and Helms proposed
that Whites’ racial identity, independent of Whites’ ethnic origin, may be
associated with particular cultural characteristics that form their unique
sociopolitical history. Although some people may argue that White ethnic
groups have retained their ethnic identity, most White ethnic groups in the
United States have also assimilated into what is considered to be the mainstream American culture and have consequently become more identified
with the dominant White middle-class culture than with a particular ethnic
group or culture.
These models of WRID have been criticized for simply describing how
Whites develop levels of sensitivity to and an appreciation of other racialethnic groups but saying little about a White identity. In addition, the depiction of White racial identity as developmental is questionable, because
many people fixate at some stage before the attainment of autonomy; may
skip a stage or stages; or may periodically regress to earlier stages, with subsequent development at various times during the life cycle (Rowe, Bennett,
& Atkinson, 1994). Rowe et al. proposed an alternative conceptualization
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Affilia Spring 2004
TABLE 1: Theories of Racial Identity Development
Black racial
White racial identity development
Unexamined racial
Achieved ethnicracial identity
Sue and Sue
Rowe, Bennett, and
1. Contact
2. Disintegration
3. Reintegration
4. Pseudoindependence
5. Autonomy
Unachieved racial
a. Avoidant type
b. Dependent type
c. Dissonant type
Achieved racial
a. Dominative
b. Conflictive type
c. Reactive type
d. Integrative type
that is based on Whites who share common attitudes, not stages of identity
development, which may be more descriptively labeled “White racial consciousness.” Although little empirical research has been undertaken on
WRID, it can provide a fruitful background from which to examine the lives
of White mothers of biracial children. Table 1 presents an overview of the
main theories of BRID and WRID.
Phinney (1990) noted that interviewing individuals about how they view
their ethnicity is a view “from the inside” that typically yields insights about
how ethnicity is constructed differently by each person yet also suggests
common themes within and across groups. To gain this view from the
inside, I interviewed 11 White mothers who were in long-term marriages
with Black men and were parenting biracial teenagers aged 12 years and
older. The rationale for using a qualitative method is well established (see
Padgett, 1998), particularly when there has been little previous research to
serve as a guide, because the intensive study of select samples often elicits
insights and generates hypotheses.
The participants—6 from New Jersey, 3 from Massachusetts, 1 from Kentucky, and 1 from New York—were recruited through a snowball sample
arrived at through contact with interracial groups and through personal
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contact with individuals (gatekeepers) who knew of my work. I was
restricted in the recruitment of participants by the fact that the study
focused on women who were still married to their Black husbands and were
parents of older children. In some cases, these women had married at a time
when interracial marriages were illegal in some states. Given the relative
smaller proportion of interracial marriages to same-race marriages and the
high divorce rate in the United States, recruitment involved considerable
travel and outreach.
The mothers ranged in age from 40 to 58 years, with a mean of 47 years,
and their husbands ranged in age from 39 to 66 years, with a mean of 46
years. The duration of the marriages ranged from 15 to 32 years, with a
mean of 22 years. The mean number of children in each family was 2, and
the children ranged in age from 2 to 29 years, with a mean age of 15.5 years.
This was the first marriage for both partners, except for one husband who
was in his second marriage. The couples had dated for an average of 3 years
before they married. The couples tended to have similar educational backgrounds. All the women had some college education: 1 had a doctorate, 4
had master’s degrees, 2 had nursing degrees, 1 had a bachelor’s degree, and
3 had attended but not graduated from college. All but one of the husbands
had attended college: 3 had doctorates, 3 had master’s degrees, 1 had a law
degree, 2 had bachelor’s degrees, and 1 completed high school.
The principal method of data collection was semistructured interviews.
The women were interviewed alone for approximately 2 hours and
responded to questions that were based on an interview guide, which
ensured that questions were explored and controlled for interviewer bias.
This guide is a list of questions that allowed me to build a relaxed conversation with the participants but that ensured that all the issues were explored
and probed. Thus, although the interviews focused on a predetermined
topic and were structured, the women were also free to ask questions spontaneously. The interview guide included questions, such as these: “What
was your ethnic background growing up? Tell me how your perception of
your ethnic and cultural identity has been influenced by your experience as
a mother of biracial children” and “What, if any, ethnic or racial label do you
use to describe yourself?” The questions were flexible enough to allow the
participants to be spontaneous in their responses. The interviews were taperecorded and transcribed and then analyzed for common themes and codes,
according to qualitative methods described by Ely, Anzul, Friedman, Garner, and McCormack (1991) and Padgett (1998). The transcription of each
interview was studied to make sense of it and to create themes, hunches, or
tentative interpretations and ideas, all of which were noted in the margins of
the transcript. Each category or code was assigned a number, and each transcription was marked accordingly. Random sections of three transcripts
were shared with four research colleagues who were asked to create categories or themes. The results were then compared with the codes that I had
established. This method was used to ensure interrater reliability and to
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Affilia Spring 2004
control for interviewer bias. The final transcriptions of the tapes were also
forwarded to the participants to give them the opportunity to comment and
clarify various points.
One method of coding that I used was constant comparative analysis. In
this method, as themes emerge from the initial coding, the researcher goes
back over the data to ensure that the data are coded in accordance with these
themes; the method also allows for the emergence of new codes. Coding is
complete when repetition becomes obvious (at the point of saturation)
(Padgett, 1998).
The women were asked about the socialization to an ethnic identity in their
families of origin. It was necessary to ascertain if ethnicity was an important
factor in their sense of identity while they were growing up, because it could
influence the later analysis of how they presently viewed themselves ethnically. The analysis of data indicated that the majority of the women had been
raised without a clear sense of an ethnic identity.
When asked about their ethnic background while they were growing up,
most of the women (64%) could identify their ethnic origins but did not consider them a major factor in their socialization. Statements such as, “It’s like
a blended society, and you are American” or “I really considered myself just
American because I am so many combinations of things” were common.
Janet, although raised in an Irish American neighborhood and who had
strong ties to the Catholic Church, stated,
In terms of my ethnic background, that’s been really a source of wonder to me
because I grew up in a family that really was very interested in distancing
themselves from being Irish and Irish American. So I grew up not thinking
that I was. The whole thing, it was an invisible part of my upbringing, and I
didn’t think that it related to me. The Irish kids were the ones who took dance,
who took step dance. We didn’t do that, so that’s how I identified as a child.
And then it wasn’t until after I got married that I became much more aware
of . . . how ethnic I am, . . . my family is, and my neighborhood was and my
whole upbringing was. But I didn’t understand that until later in life. Because,
like I said, it was invisible and because it was not something that was
consciously identified with.
These women’s lack of a strong sense of an ethnic background in their
own socialization experiences raised certain complexities in their socialization of their biracial children. The women were not only unaccustomed to
the traditions of their ethnic backgrounds but did not have a subjective
sense of membership in an ethnic group. They did not have the tools to bring
their ethnicity to their families, because ethnicity had never been part of
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their own socialization. The women did not reject their ethnicity; they just
did not feel it was part of their identity.
This finding confirms that for some of the mothers, their identity was that
of middle-class Americans; they had not been socialized to affirm an affiliation with any particular group identity. Ethnic identity was intertwined
with class identity, and the notion that within their families of origin, their
culture, or traditions involved a focus on manners, education, or status. The
women appeared to experience a dilemma in extrapolating what was ethnically derived and what was derived from being a White middle-class
Most of the women revealed that in raising their children, they focused on
a Black identity, with a somewhat unconscious understanding that the traditions that they, the mothers, could provide were either “just American” or
not something their children needed to incorporate into their identities.
Essential to this process of White mothers fostering Black culture in their
biracial children was the presence of Black husbands. All the women were in
long-term marriages with Black men. Their husbands had educated them
about Black culture and fostered their knowledge of this ethnicity. Without
their husbands’ presence, the women may have found it difficult to impart
this sense of ethnic identity to their children.
This issue of White mothers fostering an ethnic identity that was not their
own is comparable to that encountered by White people who adopt children
of color. Bausch and Serpe (1997) argued that many children of color who
were adopted by White parents are uncomfortable with their physical
appearance or lack pride in their own racial or cultural heritage. McRoy and
Hall (1996) noted that transracial adoptees in White families may be supplied the food, shelter, stability, and love that will lead to building trust in
children of color. However, they questioned whether a White family can
supply a child with the tools for being an ethnic minority in the United
States and for developing a strong ethnic identity. In the present study, the
presence of a Black parent served as a mediating influence between the
dominant and minority cultures.
White Racial Identity
Ten of the 11 women had grown up in environments that were monoracial
and White. Their socialization in their families of origin had been devoid of
a consideration or interest in racial identity. They considered themselves to
be almost raceless. The lack of exposure to either information about or contact with people of color was not noticeable to them in their formative years.
For example, Bonnie explained that for the first 22 years of her life, the only
Black face she had ever seen was the man who picked up her garbage twice a
week. Indeed for those 22 years, she “never saw or spoke to or had any social
interaction whatsoever with anyone of color.” In Janet’s high school, there
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Affilia Spring 2004
was one Black young man and one Black young woman out of 2,100 students. Claire, who grew up in the Midwest, claimed that in her environment
as a child, everyone was the same: “Norwegian, you didn’t meet anybody
else.” All but one of the women believed that their parents were not racist or
prejudiced on the basis of verbal pronouncements of racial equality, which
were, however, never tested experientially, because there was no contact
with other racial groups. This lack of focus on White racial identity has been
noted by researchers like Carter and Helms (1990), who claimed that, until
recently, Whites have had no means of understanding the psychological
meaning of their race. In general, therefore, when these women began relationships with their Black husbands, they did not consider themselves to
have a racial identity. As White persons, they had the privilege of never having to identify themselves as belonging to a particular racial group because
racial identity is generally considered to be something of importance solely
to people of color. In a sense, they had never had to consider themselves
White, as persons with a racial label.
All the women described the decision to date their future husbands as
one fraught with upheaval. This finding is hardly surprising, given the
structure of U.S. society, in which people of African and European descent
have so little social interaction. Given this lack of diversity, one would
assume that forming an interracial relationship was a major deviation for
them and their families of origin. In fact, the reactions of their families varied from disbelief to trauma, with the strength of the reaction varying from
outright hostility to gentle warnings. Although the courtships of these couples had been relatively long, from 2 to 16 years, their families still did not
believe they would legitimate the relationships through marriage. Five of
the women were ostracized by their families and told to leave and not
return, and all 11 faced humiliating questions and warnings.
Becoming Aware of Whiteness
In general, the women did not think that their identity had essentially
changed since they married, nor did they feel they had somehow “crossed
over” and become Black. Many noted, however, that they had become more
aware of their own identity as a racial being, as a White person. As was
noted in the previous section, before their relationships with their husbands, they had never been placed in a situation of having to consider themselves as having a race. White privilege had previously enabled them to
move through social situations without having to consider the impact of
their racial identification.
The women had also become more aware of racial injustice. They had
become bicultural. For example, Ann noted that there is a certain identity in
being in a biracial family. She believed that the way in which one looks at
things changes. Growing up, she said, she was pretty naive and did not have
to deal with racial issues. Now, “a lot of times, . . . if you are not getting a
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positive vibe about somebody, you don’t know if it’s because of you being in
a biracial situation or if it’s about something else; there’s always that sort
of, you wonder about people, what’s in their motives.” Similarly, Marie
Once you join a family of another ethnic background, you become that. And I
think that certainly in my dealings with other people concerning my children,
I would have the same concerns as someone, you know, of a Black background. Because that’s what my children are; that’s the mixture they are. I
think you enter another ethnic background.
When asked to describe herself now, ethnically and racially, this is what
Janet had to say:
I would say that I am all of this. I am a White Irish American woman who is in a
biracial relationship, and that’s an important modifier, the end of that statement. Because I think what has changed for me over time is [that] while I have
a very keen sense of my racial background and my ethnic heritage, I also have
become much more bicultural myself. So, I know that my life and my lived
experience is not the same as a White woman of any ethnic background who is
not married to an African American or to a man of another race. I know that
that’s a very different experience.
Debbie was also clear about how her identity has changed since she married. Unlike many White Americans, Debbie believed that she had a clear
ethnic identity when she married; she was German. What changed was this:
The whole aspect of realizing that Whiteness carries privilege was phenomenal to me. There’s definite privilege to being White, and I only recognized that
privilege when I was with my kids and realized I was not getting privileges. I
was not afforded certain niceties; I just wasn’t given certain considerations
when I was with my children. And then, on the other hand, which never happened before, if I was dealing with an African American service person, I
always got little extras, once they saw my kids. . . . So, yes, through the kids, I
had to confront my Whiteness.
Debbie claimed that when your whole family is Black and you are the only
White, you just cannot be White anymore. “But, you are; when you are by
yourself, you still have that little passport, you know, that invisible passport
that gets you in everywhere, but you just never think of anything the same
White Racial Identity of the Mothers
What follows is an attempt to place the women who were interviewed in different stages or levels of consciousness as depicted by racial identity theorists. As I noted earlier, these theorists tend to view racial identity as a developmental process that involves different levels of awareness of oneself as a
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Affilia Spring 2004
racial being. Each theorist has a different label for each stage, however the
concepts are similar. Thus, the first level, that of racial identity or consciousness, is termed conformity by Sue and Sue (1990), contact by Helms (1990),
and avoidant-dependent by Rowe et al. (1994). The classification system was
applied to all 11 women in the study.
Level 1: Conformity, contact, or avoidant-dependent. At this stage, according
to Sue and Sue (1990), there is minimal awareness of the self as a racial being
and a belief in the universality of values and norms that govern behavior.
Only one respondent, Bonnie, seemed to be at this level of racial identity or
consciousness. She noted that she and her husband and daughter had led
essentially a “White life.” They had White friends, lived in a White neighborhood, and celebrated Italian traditions. They had not attempted to integrate a sense of a Black identity in their daughter. Indeed, she recounted a
story in which a pregnant White student had come to her for advice because
the baby’s father was Black. Bonnie told this student “not to dwell on the
Blackness or the Whiteness.”
Bonnie gave racial concerns little conscious thought. She accepted the
values and attitudes that were present in her environment. However,
Bonnie was aware of her own ethnic identity, and she passed these traditions on to her child. Her racial identity, it could be argued, was unexplored.
Sue and Sue’s (1990) WRID proposes that a White person in the conformity
stage is not only minimally aware of the self as a racial being but may believe
that the inferiority of minority groups justifies their discriminatory and
inferior treatment. This was not something that Bonnie espoused, although
she tended to believe that individuals are judged by their character and that
racial differences are essentially unimportant. However, her life experiences
have exposed her to the effects of racism in such a way that she cannot be
assumed to be unaware of or idealistic about the personal and structural
components of race. For example, she took a major risk in deciding to marry
her husband. She suffered the consequences by being ostracized by her parents, whom she adored. If the decision to marry was one based on her need
to rebel against her overenmeshed parents, then this rebellion was hardly
born out by her subsequent efforts and success to reconcile with them. Neither could she have sustained such a rebellious period for the 30 years of her
marriage. Bonnie also risked professional ramifications and was indeed lectured to by the principal of the school in which she and her husband
worked, who immediately told her and her husband, “I don’t expect to see
you walking down the halls holding hands.” She was justifiably angry and
disappointed that the principal did not see any joyous reasons for their marriage. Bonnie had worked in a racially mixed high school all her professional life and therefore avoided the racially segregated experiences of her
What was clear to me is that individuals, such as Bonnie, who have experienced the effects of racism but who still see the world through “color-
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blind” glasses is that social class is the overriding component that determines their worldview. They believe that although race and the color of an
individual’s skin may lead to discriminatory behavior, when the individual
is seen to be educated, racism essentially melts away. Black people can
essentially achieve the same rewards as can White people once they have
fulfilled all the requirements of education and income. This view more
neatly fits the level of the conflictive White type of consciousness outlined
by Rowe et al. (1994). The person at this level is likely to support ideas that
are based on the principle of fairness, believing that racial minority people experience equal opportunities and advantages and that the rates of
educational achievement and economic success that are associated with
minorities are the result of such factors as deviant values and the lack of
Stage 2: Dissonance, resistance and immersion, disintegration and reintegration. At this stage, which Sue and Sue (1990) called dissonance and resistance and immersion and Helms (1990) called disintegration and reintegration, the person is forced to deal with inconsistencies or experiences that are
at odds with his or her denial of race. The person is forced to acknowledge
his or her Whiteness at some level and to examine his or her own values. At
this stage, the person often feels guilt, shame, anger, and depression and
tends to retreat into the White culture. Dissonance is followed by resistance
and immersion, according to Sue and Sue (1990), in which the person begins
to question and challenge his or her own racism. The person is angry at others for the incongruities in democratic values and the existence of racism
and may undergo a form of racial self-hatred. This “White liberal syndrome” may be manifest in either a paternalistic attitude toward or an
overidentification with another group. This behavior will be rejected by the
minority group and lead to movement either back to the protective confines
of the White culture or to the next stage.
One respondent, Amber, could be placed at this level of identity or consciousness. Amber was angry at the ways in which race and racism had
affected her life and the lives of her children. She was exploring issues of
race and racial identity through discussions with her son, who converted to
the Muslim faith, and noted that “there is so much truth there that you
would drop over dead if you really listened.” However, Amber was unwilling to become more involved in her ethnic group, because she saw it as
imbued with racism and other negative influences. With Helms’s (1990)
model, she should have been learning that race matters and, with this realization, she should have experienced a shattering of ego. None of these levels seems really to describe Amber or her experiences or attitudes.
Amber grew up in the South during a period when segregation was so
institutionalized that she and her husband could not legally marry. She had
such difficulty with her family of origin before she ever met her husband
that their blessing of the union did not seem important. However, she
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Affilia Spring 2004
certainly had to face societal hostility, which had a great effect on her life and
forced her and her husband to move to New York to find a place to live that
was based not on where they wanted to live, but on who would rent to them.
One could argue that her concept of racial identity, especially how it affected
her children, was either naive or an attempt at denial. As Amber put it, “I felt
really guilty that I probably didn’t sit and ask about race. I mean, I must
have known that there was a problem, but I just felt like my children were
handling it ‘cause they weren’t saying anything to me. But I wasn’t asking,
was I?” Her exploration of racial identity seems to have been progressive.
However, it was not a progressive movement from not seeing race to recognizing herself as a White woman. Rather, Amber refused to pigeonhole herself into any form of identity. Even when she was asked on the demographic
sheet for the current study to identify her race, she refused, stating that she
should not have to do so. In many ways, Amber rejected the notion that race
indicates an identity and thought that the rigid classification system in this
country is divisive and that conforming to it only legitimates its existence.
There is no level on which one can comfortably place her.
Level 3: Introspection-integrative awareness, pseudoindependence-autonomy,
integration. During the introspective stage (Sue & Sue, 1990), which Helms
(1990) called independence and Rowe et al. (1994) called integration, the person no longer denies his or her White identity, and she or he is less defensive
and feels less guilt about being White. The final stage, integrative awareness
(Sue & Sue, 1990) or autonomy (Helms, 1990), is manifested by a sense of
self-fulfillment with regard to racial identity. A nonracist White identity
begins to emerge. All the remaining nine women could be placed at this
point. Six of them stated that they came to understand themselves as racial
beings through their marriages; they had come to identify their Whiteness.
Anne noted that the way in which one looks at the world changes; one goes
from conceiving of racial issues in a naive way to comprehending that the
United States is a racially constructed society. Janet and Marie claimed that
they had become bicultural. In Janet’s case, she had come to identify herself
as Irish American and as being in a biracial relationship, which is an important modifier, because it connotes that she felt that she was different from a
White woman who was not interracially married. Her understanding of
herself as a White woman was clear, however she was also immersed in the
Black culture. Mary would speak to her children and help them understand
that although she was part of the Black community through her marriage,
“Never make any mistake about the fact that I am a White American who is
Italian and who is stretching and growing every day.” One can say that
these women had a secure, confident sense of themselves as members of a
White group and did not feel defensive about being defined as White.
Unlike Phinney’s (1996) BRID model, however, they all did not have a positive view of their own group. Some had a positive sense of an ethnic identity
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and a positive sense of a White identity, whereas others had no sense that
Whiteness carries any positive connotations.
The women who were interviewed for the current study occupy a unique
position in U.S. society. Unlike most White Americans, they have daily, intimate relationships with people of color, including their husbands and biological children who are defined as racially different from them. They have
had long relationships with their husbands and children and have been
forced to deal with issues of racism and discrimination in a way that is
totally at variance with how other Whites who are not interracially married
or, indeed, how people of color, have had to deal with these issues.
When McIntosh (1992), for example, wrote about White privilege, she
noted that it is an invisible package of unearned assets that she can count on
cashing in but about which she can remain oblivious. She claimed that her
schooling gave her no training in seeing herself as an oppressor, as an
unfairly advantaged person. Many of the women in the current study confirmed this idea. As Winter, one of the participants, said, “I was totally
unaware of what it was going to be like for these young children growing up
as African Americans, and I had not a clue as to what the scenario was going
to be.” Being interracially married has given the women this training.
The women themselves have had to feel the effects of racism. They all
have endured all or some of the following: being ostracized by their own
families; experiencing negative reactions to their marriage; having trouble
renting apartments; having difficulty obtaining mortgages; being harassed
by the police or experiencing police harassment of their children; facing hostile stares, comments, and incidents; wondering and being worried about
their children’s treatment by teachers; feeling excluded by Whites and
Blacks; and being questioned about their legitimacy as parents. They have
thus faced the ramifications of racism. They are also, however, intimately
aware of the privileges that accrue to them when they enter society without
their children and husbands. They are, as Dalmage (2001) noted, like spies
in a society in which they are “mistaken” for White because of their color but
have such intimate, personal experience of racial relations that they see
through a different lens or filter and can no longer comfortably claim White
privilege. In many ways, they seem to have become biracial themselves,
members of the Black and the White worlds, as defined by a rigidly defined
and constructed society. That they have not always been accepted in both
worlds is also obvious. Some of the women seem to tiptoe around the edges
of both these existences. This feeling of not belonging explains why many
join or form interracial groups, which are composed mainly of White
women who are married to Black men. The groups provide a means of
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Affilia Spring 2004
support, using other women in their position as a sounding board to confirm or refute the many instances in which they “second guess” if situations
are racially motivated. These groups prepare the women for competence in
racial matters. They also provide a racial location, which is unavailable to
the women otherwise (Dalmage, 2001; O’Donoghue, 2000).
In attempting to apply the existing models of WRID to the White women
in the current study, I found major limitations in the current theoretical
framework. All the theories on WRID (Carter & Helms, 1990; Helms, 1990)
begin with an assumption that White persons have little or no contact with
people of color and may face some dissonance, which propels them to have
to modify their thinking from a previous stage. In the present study, the
experiences of Whites were different. These women had been intimately
involved with Black persons for a long time. The uniqueness of these
women’s experiences makes it difficult to categorize them under the WRID
or BRID models. Although the women may have exhibited characteristics
that are germane to some of the levels of identity, they also revealed enough
inconsistencies to make these models inappropriate to describe their experiences or consciousness. The results of the current study indicate the need to
formulate new, expanded models of racial identity theory to include the
experiences of individuals, such as the women in the current study. There is
limited use, in this case, for a WRID model that presumes that the individual
has little or no interaction with people of color.
The results of the current study indicate that therapists need to be cognizant of the value of not treating interracial families as a type or a monolith
and to be uniquely guided by and informed of individual issues of class,
race, and ethnicity. The limited clinical literature on interracial families is
somewhat contradictory and often focuses on a pathology model (see
Gibbs, 1987). This focus leaves little room to consider not only the varied
aspects of these families’ ways of coping but their resilience and the healthy
aspects of their adaptation. The review of the literature revealed that the
emphasis in clinical practice is on children in biracial families. One mother
in the current study stated that she believes that children are the focus
because of society’s need to view these children as “tragic mulattos,” and
researchers and clinicians seem to focus on either refuting or confirming this
assumption to the exclusion of all else. A focus on mothers as individuals
with strengths would serve clinicians well.
The limitation of the current study is inherent in the qualitative method
itself, with its use of small samples and potentially limited generalizability.
This limitation can be countered by referring back to the theoretical background of the study and demonstrating how the findings illuminate the
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theory. It can be further argued that the qualitative method was the only logical and appropriate method to use to delve into the lives of women who
have been so rarely considered in the literature. These women’s interviews
can provide us with ideas and means of understanding the lives of other
women in interracial relationships. Studies such as this offer hypotheses
and lines of inquiry for future research.
For future research, a study of White fathers of interracial children,
although a potentially smaller group from which to sample, would provide
some insights. Given the difference in the historical context of relationships
between White men and Black women, it would be interesting to explore the
societal and psychological ramifications of such unions in the present. In
addition, the perspective of Black fathers in interracial families has not been
adequately explored. Another avenue of inquiry is to compare the practices
of single White women who are raising interracial children and how the
absence of Black fathers influences parenting and race issues. I was contacted by women in this category who did not fit the requirements of this
study. In some cases, the women had remarried but to White men, and they
also had children in these new relationships. These reconfigurations of families raise many issues that so far have not been researched.
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Margaret O’Donoghue, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Montclair, New
Jersey, an adjunct professor at New York University School of Social Work, and a social
worker in the Newark, New Jersey, public schools; 116 Squire Hill Road, Montclair, NJ
07043; e-mail: [email protected]
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