Guest Blogger Dr. Mary B. Johnson on Race and Workplace Relationships

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Understanding Racial Identity Development

Introduction

In the latest addition to YWCA Northeast Indiana’s Racial Justice 101 blog series, Dr. Johnson shares how race can impact a supervisory relationship in the workplace. Dr. Johnson walks us through how a white supervisor’s racial identity changes and develops from interactions with their supervisee of color. 

Racial Considerations in Supervision 

Different levels of racial identity are known to be related to more negative or positive responses. In the first stage of white racial identity development, according to Helms (1990), the white supervisor may exhibit either a naïve curiosity, timidity, or fearfulness concerning Black supervisees during early stages of contact. The supervisor may previously have had limited interracial social or occupational interaction with Black people and could be influenced by negative information about Black people.  

In the second stage, the disintegration stage, the white supervisor may become a little confused about racial issues as he/she feels challenged to review his/her role in the fight against racism in the United States. The supervisor may feel pressure from the general culture to treat Black people negatively, but believe that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, leading to a great deal of cognitive dissonance in the disintegration stage.  

In the third stage, the reintegration stage, the supervisor may develop stereotypical thinking and feelings of fear and anger towards Black people. Typically, similarities between Black people and white people are minimized or denied by the white individual. 

During the first three stages, the supervisory relationship may feel a little uncomfortable, but as racial development continues, the relationship tends to become smoother, leading to the fourth stage of white racial identity development: pseudo-independence. The supervisor develops an intellectual understanding of multicultural issues and first begins to redefine a positive white identity. The supervisor becomes unwilling to participate in racist thinking or behavior. The Black supervisee may feel that the white supervisor is overly concerned with helping Black people and there may be trust issues in the relationship.

Finally, in the last stage of white racial identity development, autonomy, the white supervisor becomes integrated and moves from tolerance to acceptance of the Black supervisee. The white supervisor makes a commitment to battle all forms of oppression. The white supervisor becomes self-actualized concerning racial issues, and the supervisor-supervisee relationship becomes more trusting.

These stages may not always be directly correlated as such with attitudes producing certain behaviors.  But, in general, they may occur as described.

Take Action

If you are white, find some time to be introspective and evaluate where you currently are at in the stages of racial identity development and where you have been in the past. What do you need to do to reach a better understanding of race? Set one goal to work on in the coming months and share it with a friend. 

About the Author

Dr. Johnson has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Ball State University and specializes in Marital and Family Counseling. Her areas of research are race/gender issues as well as supervision. Dr. Johnson has been counseling since 1979; she has taught many college courses, authored two books, and produces a television program called Words of Encouragement on Access One. She is currently researching college student success and Christian rights issues.