(Racial) Identity Crisis

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According to psychological theorist, Erik Erickson, identity is, “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image,” (Erikson, 1970). His work is often associated with psychosocial development, with identity development as a stage for adolescents, referred to as identity vs. role confusion. In this stage he theorizes that individuals will either enhance a strong sense of self to succeed or fail and will struggle with who they are due to a weak sense of self.

Identity, however, is a never ending self-exploration of who we are. Studies show that individuals with a strong identity are more confident, content, and are overall psychologically healthier. It helps to give us a sense of conformability and assurance knowing who we are and what we stand for and encompasses every aspect of our lives from race, gender, age, economic status, education, political stance, personality, preferences, etc. Identity is also malleable and is dependent on context. Therefore, depending on where you are, say a classroom or family gathering, different aspects of your identity will be exposed in certain settings but may not in others.

How does racial identity development apply to Puerto Ricans in the U.S.?

racialidentity2Racial identity is a topic that is often under-discussed but quickly labeled for individuals of color. Race, like identity, is a subjective term used to categorize individuals based on commonality, like skin color, language, and country of origin. For Puerto Ricans, racial identity development is complex. Puerto Ricans have to deal with not only automatic second class U.S. citizenship but similar acculturation issues as other (citizen and non-citizen) Latinas/os and groups of color. Furthermore, when compared to other racial groups Puerto Ricans tend to suffer significantly more from economic instability, chronic diseases (e.g., asthma and diabetes) and mental illnesses (e.g., depression and substance abuse) than other Latina/o and groups of color.

According to a dissertation by Puerto Rican psychologist Janette Rodríguez-Varela, colonialism has negatively impacted the collective identity of Puerto Ricans, which is thought to be the reason for the multitude of disparities that Puerto Ricans suffer. Overall, Puerto Rican identity has been disrupted by the U.S. and its culture(s) is being stripped and commercialized for backyard play. Furthermore, recent census data shows that more Puerto Ricans live in the U.S. than in Puerto Rico. Algo tiene que ver.

The focus on racial identity development, which has been theoretically framed by psychologists Janet Helms, Derald Wing Sue, and David Sue, purports, that a strong racial identity can not only buffer psychological symptoms but bring awareness to White privilege and institutionalized racism.  The Racial/ Cultural Identity Development model by Sue & Sue (2011) (demonstrated below), “defines five stages that oppressed people experience as they struggle to understand themselves in terms of their own culture, the dominant culture, and the oppressive relationship between the two cultures”.

There is no doubt that colonialism has biologically, socially, and psychologically impacted the livelihood of Puerto Ricans on the island and the Diaspora. The efficacy of the racial identity model can be used to understand collective differences. Furthermore, the ongoing debate on whether Puerto Rico’s political status is impacted by individuals in different identity stages. I hypothesize that those in the earlier stages may consider statehood but may also suffer from more psychological symptoms when compared to those in the advanced stages who would prefer independence and have less psychological symptoms.

It is imperative that racial identity development be recognized and understood by collective members because it creates an in depth dialogue as well as insight on how to collaborate and move forward. However, due to its complexity and nonlinear progress, negotiating agreements between members on opposing ends of the model may create more harm than good.

The model is intended to be presented as a process that occurs throughout the lifespan and will indefinitely change pending on the context, in which regression to earlier stages may occur. Furthermore, the purpose is to develop a keen understanding on social justice advocacy as well as allowing for self-exploration through education and exposure. Conversations on collective identity with respect to racial identity development are needed to understand the bio-psycho-social dynamics that occur among Puerto Ricans; as well as awareness of colonialism’s impact and the future of Puerto Rico’s status and what it will mean to the population.

Stages of Racial/ Identity Development Model

Stage1—Conformity: “Members of oppressed minority groups are aware of, agree with, consider personally relevant, and consider interpersonally significant the negative perceptions and messages generated by the dominant group” (Organista, 2007, pp. 72; Sue & Sue, 2011).

Ex: Puerto Ricans are poor

Stage 2—Dissonance: “Cognitive dissonance occurs when people in the conformity stage are exposed to experiences or information that contradicts their prejudices socialization. “Disconformity” experiences need not be directly experienced, as in the case of news stories or the negative experiences of others in one’s social environment” (Organista, 2007, pp.74).

Ex: Blaming the victim, Puerto Ricans who abuse federal aid.

Stage 3—Resistance and Immersion: “The hallmarks of this stage are resistance to and wholesale condemnation of the dominant culture along with a passionate, ethnocentric immersion into one’s culture of origin as a way of experiencing newfound ethnic pride and expressing anger at social injustice. Members in this stage are frequently exemplified by ethnic political activism, overvaluing of all things ethnic, and near total devaluation of the domination group’s culture, history, and humanity, including harsh criticism and rejection of Latinos in the conformity stage, who are viewed as brainwashed” (Organista, 2007, pp.74).

Stage 4—Introspection: “This pensive stage of development involves looking within and seriously questioning the basis for one’s idealized attitudes towards one’s own and other ethnic group, as well as one’s overdevaluation of the domination group. Such personal analysis typically results in a more balanced and fairer assessment of the negatives and positives in all groups” (Organista, 2007, pp.76).

Stage 5—Integrative awareness: “Individuals with integrative awareness are described as taking social justice issues to the highest level by addressing human rights for all oppressed groups. Individuals at this more developed level are also critical of oppression within their own group, such as sexism and homophobia, that are viewed as dehumanizing and divisive” (Organista, 2007, pp.76-77).

Erikson, E.H. (1970). Reflection on the dissent of contemporary youth. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 51, 11-22.
Organista, K.C. (2007). Solving Latino psychosocial and health problems: Theory, practice, and populations. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Sue D.W. & Sue, D. (2011). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (4th ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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  6 comments for “(Racial) Identity Crisis

  1. August 16, 2013 at 1:29 am

    Nice…thanks for this.

    • Dorian Ortega
      August 26, 2013 at 11:03 am

      You’re welcome. Thank you for your interest.

  2. August 18, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    We are a group of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your site provided us with valuable information to work on. You have done a formidable job and our entire community will be grateful to you.

    • Dorian Ortega
      August 26, 2013 at 11:06 am

      Thank you for sharing. I am humbled to be apart of a great team that provides such a community space where others can reframe for their own spaces.

  3. Gilbert Fernandez
    August 19, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I reject the notion that as a Puerto Rican descendant that I am somehow a second class citizen. In my 20 years of service in the military and working in the private sector, I have never been treated as anything but a first class citizen. If anything the people who have viewed me with contempt were my very own when I went back home to NYC. I appreciate the article because it does shed light to things that I have never experienced.

    • Dorian Ortega
      August 26, 2013 at 11:14 am

      I appreciate your comment and thank you for sharing your personal experience. I understand that those who have served in the military may have different experiences than those who have not. I am glad to share this information so that others can reflect on their identity and where they may fall in the stage models. Puerto Ricans are a complex community making our individual experiences and identities even more complex.

      Much love,


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