Looking for Racial Identity: An Interview with Mary White

Utilizing the Helms White Racial Identity Model created by Janet Helms, the following description of Mary White (pseudonym) is based on the observation of verbal and nonverbal cues from an interview with Mary conducted in the fall of 2011.  Mary White is a 32-year-old, Caucasian American, divorcee with no children.  Keeping in mind the six statuses as proposed by Janet Helms, the interview with Mary set-out to discern her racial identity and attitudes to include her biases, prejudices, conflicts, tolerance, etc.

Mary was an extremely willing participant of the racial identity interview.  Her interest in the interview was shown through her expression as Mary immediately displayed a certain confidence of which I initially could not discern the reasoning.  This confidence, however, was the first of several cues that eventually led to my description of Mary’s identity.  Quickly identifying herself as a White American she explained an abbreviated version of her life history—growing up in South Carolina to a White mother and father and having a “pretty normal, average life.”  She was taught that all people were “equal” and, despite ever feeling that she experienced racism, did acknowledge that it exists.  Through her teen years her contact with races other than her own was limited to casual encounters in public places and exposure through media.  Mary claimed that there were a total of 3 Black people and “maybe ten or so” Hispanics that attended her school (K-12).  She recalls that one of the Black persons who attended her school was an athletic female who came to the school in tenth grade and happened to be in Mary’s class until graduation.  Mary remembered this individual as friendly and when asked about her relationship with the individual stated, “I would consider us to have been friends.  We never really hung out exclusively, but I’d say we were friends.  We held small talk… about to the degree that I had with most of my classmates vice my real good friends.”  She admitted to never having a “real” interest in dating a non-White person, but only considered her lack of interest to be a result of a lack of commonality and physical attraction.  “It’s not that I wouldn’t or won’t date a Black man, it’s just that I don’t typically find them to be attractive.  I have yet to really meet a person of another race that has similar interests as me.  Additionally, I don’t even think I was introduced to a non-White male my age until after I was married.”  I concluded this topic of conversation by asking Mary her opinion concerning interracial dating/marriages.  Shrugging her shoulders, she retorted that the idea doesn’t bother her at all, stating, “it’s really up to the people involved, it’s really none of my business… whatever makes a person happy.”  At this point I had already identified Mary’s Contact Status as well as noticed certain mild characteristics of disintegration.

As the interview progressed, I moved towards probing into Mary’s marriage.  Mary claimed to be “a little shy in school when it came to interacting with boys.”  She remained “single” until she started dating John during her senior year of high school (John was a junior at that time).  John was white and shared similar interests as Mary.  In fact, Mary and John had known each other since John came to Mary’s school a year earlier, as they were members of the girls’ and boys’ tennis teams respectively.  Mary explained that she and John rarely discussed race, but she had always assumed their view of the subject was similar.  She did always notice that, in casual conversation, when John described an individual of another race he always included the person’s race in the description of the person.  Mary said that this cognitive inclusion stood out to her because she felt she rarely ever did that herself.  Mary claimed that her own exclusion of race as a descriptive measure was not purposeful; “it’s just the way I’ve always been” she exclaimed.  It appeared that even at 32-years-old, and despite claiming to acknowledge racism, Mary had not moved into the statuses of Pseudo-Independence, Immersion/Emersion nor Autonomy as described by Helms.

Mary’s relationship and five-year marriage ended with John eight years ago when she was 24-years-old.  She feels that the marriage “fell apart because they had tried hard to have a child with no luck and he (John) had gotten really involved with his job.”  She explained that John claimed they “had grown apart over the years,” whereas her mother claimed that she and John “married too young.”  Since that time, Mary has dated “a few men.”  Not to my surprise, none of these dates were with a person of a non-White race.  Despite her persistence with dating men of her own race, her interaction with members of various races had increased over the last ten or so years.  This increase in interaction began when she attended college, where she saw “several people of a variety of races around campus.”  However, having been married at the time, she commuted to college and only attended classes.  “In general, I only interacted with classmates and that interaction was typically mandated by group projects,” explained Mary.  Mary has worked at her local community bank since college.  She works with mostly white females; however, there is one White male and two Black females who currently work with her in the bank.  Mary claims that “most of our customers are White, but there are people of every race that come to the bank nearly every day.”  It was at this point that I was concerned that, despite Mary’s excitement with participating in the interview, it seemed her state of oblivion limited a complex dissertation regarding her Racial Identity.  Despite my concern, however, it was also during this stage of the interview that the quality of Mary’s racial socialization became evident.

Considering Mary’s limited interaction with non-White races, I began more deliberate questioning regarding her understanding and knowledge of races and, in particular, racism.  Her basic stand on racism was that “slavery was a long time ago but it’s evident that not everyone feels that all races are equal.”  As she continued to claim her own acceptance of all races, she attempted to vet her declaration by stating that she studied about racism in both high school and college.  She experienced classroom debates that often created a great deal of emotion in various classmates.  During these debates she felt a bit removed from emotionality, and Mary was often standoffish in such class discussions.  When asked to explain her opinion of reparations, Mary said, “I know it causes a lot of debate.  Even at my job I’ve heard that the management has to have minorities on the staff.  I don’t really care who I work with as long as they are proficient.”  When I asked her if she had ever heard of anyone being hired simply because they were a member of a minority race despite interviewing against White’s who were more qualified, she said she doesn’t really think that happens.  Mary maintained a naïve attitude regarding the reality of the current level of prejudice and racism present in society.  Despite her potential for Autonomy, being generally knowledgeable of the historical context of racial issues, Mary maintained a very selective perception.  For example, she acknowledged no reason for herself or society to “help non-White races any more than Whites”, showed little vigilance for Immersion/Emersion and was overall inflexible, denying herself the attainment of Autonomy.  In general terms, I concluded that Mary was suspended in the Contact Status.  Despite being knowledgeable of racism, she remained oblivious to and unaware of racism in today’s society.  She explained how she felt as if she was “a fair and impartial person” in regard to race, and claimed that to her “race is not important.”

In conclusion, through the interview with Mary White I was reminded of the various degrees to which persons in society are truly unaware of the issues of racism that exists today.  It is my assertion that with Mary, her life experiences (or lack of) have weighed much heavier in the determination of her Racial Identity than any influence of media, education or publication.  For some people, even direct experiences with racism may remain unacknowledged despite a general knowledge of the subject.  In summation, Mary seemed to be a person who had inadvertently been successful at abandoning racism; however, she lacked any significant development of a nonracist White identity.  In layman’s terms, Mary’s interview suggested she was “obliviously non-racist.”  Due to Mary’s obliviousness to racial dynamics, it proved difficult to assess her methods for coping with such dynamics (thus challenging to assess any status other than Contact), yet Mary in turn was the quintessential reference for the Contact Status.

References

Helms, J.E. (1997). Implications of Behrens for the validity of the White Racial Identity Attitude Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 44, 13-16.

Helms, J.E. (1999). Another meta-analysis of the White Racial Identity Attitude Scale.  Measurement and Evaluations in Counseling and Guidance, 32, 122-137.

Helms, J.E. & Carter, R.T. (1991). Relationships of White and Black racial identity attitudes and demographic similarity to counselor preferences. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 446-457.

Atlas Concepts, LLC_Jordache Williams

Jordache Williams is currently based in Rock Hill, SC and is the Program Manager for Atlas Concepts, LLC. He is a Certified Life Coach and holds a Master’s Degree in Human Services.

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