Mindful Racial Identity Development

Mindful Racial Identity Development

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There’s a lot to react to in the news these days. Holed up at home during a pandemic, perhaps, we have a little more time to reflect on what we are reading and hearing about. For many of us, that means we’re thinking about race. A lot. Some of us for the first time. And it’s…. uncomfortable. Many well-meaning white people are struggling to figure out the right thing to say (or not). Many black people are in full-on trauma, witnessing a war being waged against black bodies. Some Indigenous people see change and movement on anti-black racism, but not enough on Indigenous rights. For others with all kinds of racial identities, we are looking at our own relationship to our race. What does it mean? Where do I sit in the power hierarchy? Do I benefit? Am I taking advantage? How do I make this better?

It’s confusing. And that’s okay. Confusion is often the first step to evolution. Luckily, we have our yoga and mindfulness to help us get through this—and for me, I think, the most valuable thing about yoga and mindfulness is that it can teach us how to be uncomfortable without numbing out.

In 1992, psychologist Janet E. Helms created a model for thinking about racial identity development that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I learned it. The basic concept here is that everyone has a journey to go through around race. We don’t come out of the womb “getting it”: rather, we come out and immediately get indoctrinated into the social and cultural norms of our environment before we’re old enough to have learned critical thinking. Not “getting it” right away doesn’t make us bad people. It just means we have some work to do.

You can see a more detailed view of Helms’s model with more info added on here: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/Compilation_of_Racial_Identity_Models_7_15_11.pdf, but I’m going to offer a few broad strokes from my perspective.

Rob is learning a lot about his invisible backpack of privilege. (This is a joke you will get if you read the article this photo links to)

When we think about what race means to us, we have to think about where we fit within society’s hierarchies of power, which intersect in complex ways with all kinds of things like gender, sexuality, class, and so on. That means a person of color might be working anywhere from unconscious white preference to rage and hate against white people to a nuanced understanding of the value of one’s own race alongside an ability to work empathetically with other groups, including white people. It’s completely reasonable for a person of color to be managing a lot of rage against white people right now. That’s not something we can just bypass. The rage is there for a reason—because the world is f’ed up and it needs to change. That energy is really important, and if it can be channeled with empathy, it will contribute to positive change. It is wonderful if a person of color can offer empathy to a white person right now, but perhaps that’s also a lot to ask, under the circumstances. Can we hold space for ourselves and each other wherever we are on that spectrum?

White people often also start with unconscious white bias. A little bit of awareness of racism can move them into a stage called Disintegration, which involves a paralyzing amount of shame, guilt, and fear. Then they might move into defensiveness. A certain US president spends a lot of time in this stage, I think. Facing the reality that something is wrong and that white people are implicated is too painful to fully acknowledge, so instead, we hear things like “I never asked for this privilege!” or maybe, “Things were different back then!” Overt racism usually lives in this stage. There’s no willingness to take responsibility here. The good news is, even this person knows something is wrong—they wouldn’t be defensive if they weren’t being challenged.

Some white people are in a stage where they are beginning to acknowledge responsibility but still struggle with fully processing the emotions that come along with that. Instead of engaging with those emotions, white people in this stage will over-intellectualize, over-consume information, and over-post on social media. They might also focus a lot on policing other white people’s behavior, focusing on what others are doing wrong rather than looking at themselves.

When Finnegan feels stressed about racism, he puts his head in this blanket.


The most evolved stage for white people involves “a positive connection to their White racial identity” alongside a commitment to anti-racist work. These stages aren’t linear, and there’s no timeline for each one. I’m doing my best to stay in the stage where I’m trying to take responsibility for my part while engaging honestly with my emotions around that, but I can slip back into paralyzing shame from time to time. I would love to feel positive about my whiteness while knowing I’m doing the right things to fight racism, but I’m just not there yet. I can’t rush that, either—I have to keep working where I am to get where I want to go.

This concept of racial identity development has been really helpful for me in finding compassion for myself and other people in the messy process of waking up to systemic racism. It’s helped me to see how I can use my mindfulness practices to slow down and process what’s going on rather than mindlessly reading/watching/posting/reacting. Helms’ stages are, after all, in large part about feelings. Feelings! We need to work out our feelings about race in order to evolve. We can’t just decide we’re going to be “woke” or to stop being angry and never look back. We’ve gotta go through it. We’ve gotta be brave and honest with ourselves. And that is uncomfortable.

Luckily, discomfort is the place where all the good evolving happens. As the old adage goes, there’s no comfort in the growth zone, and there’s no growth in the comfort zone. We are all being given an opportunity to grow, here. So let’s slow down, take a deep breath, and let ourselves feel the magic of that discomfort.



Writer, yoga teacher, studio owner. @juliejcp