Tips on Overcoming Racial Identity Issues

Do you find that you have racial identity issues? Are you unsure on how to overcome racial identity issues? To help understand where racial identity issues stem from and what you can do to overcome racial identity issues, I have interviewed clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, Dr. Denise L. Newman.


Tell me a little bit about yourself. 
“I am a clinical psychologist in practice in New Orleans, Louisiana . I am also on faculty at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center .”

Where does racial identity issues typically arise? 
“In the common usage of the word, the term race refers to differences in physical appearance that have some inherited basis and are biologically generated characteristics. Skin color or darkness of pigmentation, along with other characteristics such as eye shape, facial structure, hair color and consistency, all contribute to what people think about when they think about racial characteristics. Closer thought and inspection of these so-called racial characteristics reveals that each one of them is actually on a continuum, and not a categorical, difference in appearance (for example, lightness and darkness of skin pigment ), and that any one racial characteristic taken alone doesn’t make people fall into a racial group (e.g. straightness or kinkiness of hair). In other words, racial categories are fuzzy sets that loosely and imprecisely cluster people together and make for simplified types among the infinite varieties of people and appearances in the world. Also, the terms ethnicity and race are some times also used interchangeably, but ethnicity is generally used to refer to cultural differences such as language, traditions, religion, food, etc., whereas race is more specific to the idea of differences in appearance among people.

The whole concept of race and racial categories has a controversial and much disputed utility among academics and scientists. Scientists dispute whether there is really any such thing as human races at all, especially now that we have a better understand of the human genome and genomic diversity. However, the idea that there are races, and therefore, racial differences among human beings is something that is widely believed to be of significance in popular culture. The idea of race is very compelling to people because it is linked to appearances and to the ease of grouping people together based on visual similarities. Beliefs that the physical appearances of people have significance for predicting something about their cultural or social ranking, their values, their status, or their likely behavior seems to have a longstanding evolutionary purpose: it helps people to sort out who’s who among members of a social group, and who’s unfamiliar among non-group members. In complex modern society such as that in the United States racial appearances help people to make quick, if not always correct, “sorts” out of people who are strangers.

When we are very young, we look around us and begin to think about appearance concepts and where we get our traits. We are told in our family that we get traits and characteristics from other people in the family that have come before us, from our ancestors. We learn a kind of folk genetic lore that has been around for thousands of years, far, far longer than any modern genetic science. We are told for example, that we get our piercing blue eyes from our father or our kinky hair from our mother’s mother. Some traits we like (‘good’ skin like your aunt); some traits we aren’t so sure we’re proud of (your grandfather’s temper).

There are likewise many people who don’t look particularly like the people with whom they grew up. As children, they were keenly aware and sensitive to this fact. This is especially true for children who are cross-racially adopted (e.g. a Korean-born child adopted by European-decent American parents) or children who are the product of a so-called ‘mixed race’ union (a Black mother and a White father). Children who are racial minorities in their community, children who are adopted, or children whose parents defied conventional racial and ethnic boundaries, are the most likely to face adolescent and young adult years keenly aware of the impact of race in forging their personal identity. These are people who most often struggle with a conscious racial identity issue. For some people, racial identity issues remain more or less sub-conscious or unknown to awareness.”

What type of impact can racial identity issues have on someone’s overall life? 
“Identity issues in general are things everyone must grapple with at some point in their life. Racial identity issues are just part of that bigger package of addressing the fundamental question: “Who am I as a person in society?” Conflicts about racial identity sometimes manifest as tension, feelings of uncertainty, feelings or belonging or not-belonging, and feelings of inferiority or of anger. Racial identity issues are most likely to first surface in adolescent and young adulthood years, but even young children have budding awareness about their appearance and the meaning of differences or similarities they feel from family and friends. Infrequently, racial identity issues are troubling enough to children or adolescents to underly mental health problems relating to self-esteem, peer relationships, or depression.”

What are some tips for overcoming racial identity issues? 
“Probably the best way to overcome the anxiety, tension, self-criticism, and uncertainty that is experienced in relation to racial identity is to connect with others who have made or are making a similar personal exploration or journey in coming to terms with who they are. There are a number of forums by which to explore one’s cultural roots and heritage and to express one’s sense of identity – the arts (music, visual media, dance, cooking, poetry and prose) are the most popular means by which people express themselves and their personal identities. Individual or group psychotherapy is another forum for talking about that one is and having a witness listen while the exploration process unfolds. Youth groups that center around cultural activities or common career goals (traditional dancing, service organizations, young leadership forums, etc.) can also provide important experiences.”

What type of professional help is available for someone that has a difficult time overcoming racial identity issues? 
“A psychotherapist who is sensitive to the complexity of multicultural issues, including race, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, family tension, but also the multigenerational tensions of politics and history, can be helpful to a person who is feeling anxious, depressed, or subjectively in crisis about their identity. The psychotherapist does not have to be an expert on race or a particular culture, nor do they need to be of the same race or culture as the client. They just have to be willing and interested to talk about it, like anything else. A good psychotherapist is aware of the very complexity of human personality, including racial and ethnic issues, in understanding the individual and collective story of human struggle, and of that fundamental human striving to become a person.”

Thank you Dr. Denise Newman for doing the interview on overcoming racial identity issues. For more information on Dr. Denise Newman or her work you can check out her website at www.nolapsychologist.com.