Stage 4: Introspection. In which the person attempts to integrate their new identity into the dominant culture without compromising it.
After my 4 years at Michigan and an additional year in Ann Arbor, I moved to LA for grad school. Though LA has one of the largest Asian populations in the country, my grad school was housed in a seminary, so I anticipated that my community would look different than the one I’d been in for the last few years. That didn’t really bother me, though; after 5 years of almost total immersion, I felt ready to be a part of a community that was a little more integrated.
Within the first few weeks of arrival, I fell into a group of psychology and theology grad students that was mostly white, but still had a good number of people of color. To my surprise, the transition back into dominant culture wasn’t that difficult; I felt at ease with my new friends, but more remarkably, I still felt Asian American, even though most of the people around me were not. I was pleasantly relieved to find that my racial identity was no longer tied to what the people around me looked like; it felt like I had been successfully launched, like I was walking on my own for the first time.
Of course, the transition wasn’t seamless. I realized fairly quickly that I would need to make some adjustments. I couldn’t pick up the check every time I went to lunch with a friend, for example, if they weren’t going to fight me for it; that simply wasn’t sustainable, financially or otherwise. And since I no longer operated from the same cultural mindset as everyone around me, I couldn’t assume that they would intuit the subtext of my words and actions, as I could in college. It was like returning home after a long stint overseas; I had to re-learn the language of white culture, so to speak, after 5 years of speaking a different one.
But those kinks aside, my community was incredible. And it taught me, as cliche as it might sound, that at the end of the day, none of us are all that different. All of my friends, regardless of race, wanted more or less the same things: meaningful relationships, fulfilling work, happiness and safety for their loved ones, and so on. We all had wounds and pain. We had more in common than not. At the risk of sounding even more cliche, my time in this community made me feel connected to a broader human experience, not just an Asian American one.
Not to say that I didn’t need Asian Americans anymore. At the start of grad school, I was lucky to fall into another group of grad students, all Asian American women, who met for happy hour around once a month. As much as I loved my main circle, it was a gift to have a group of friends who understood each other culturally, who faced similar issues at home and at work, who were bothered by the same things about our program, with whom I didn’t have to explain things or worry about being misunderstood. These friends, and their validation and empathy, were invaluable during my time in grad school, and I suspect that I’ll need a group like this for the rest of my life. No matter how comfortable I am in majority culture, I think I’ll always need at least a few Asian American friends who just get where I’m coming from, with whom I don’t have to explain things.
Stage 5: Integrative awareness. In which the person can both appreciate and critique their culture and the dominant culture and comfortably identify as they choose.
Unlike the previous stages, I can’t identify a specific event that propelled me into this one, though I think it happened in my first few years of grad school. After swinging from one extreme to another, from unilateral rejection of my race to complete submersion in it, the pendulum came to rest in the center. I could see what I liked and appreciated about both cultures without idealizing either one. I could identify what I didn’t like without flipping out. I could still be fully Asian American even if no one else around me was. I could date (and eventually marry) a white guy and not feel like that was incompatible with my Asian American identity, as I might have in my immersion stage, or see it as a way of rejecting my heritage, as I might have in my conformity stage. I could feel as fully comfortable, fully myself in the dominant culture as I did in my own.
In addition, I started to understand that as meaningful and important as my personal journey was, being Asian American was not just about me.
It was also about belonging to a community, for whom I had a responsibility to advocate.
It was also about being a member of a minority group and advocating for the rights of other ones.
It was also about partnering with people of all races and backgrounds to make our society a more just one for all — not just in terms of race, but also sex, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, nationality, physical ability, and so on.
It was also about recognizing that I was part of something bigger, that I had a responsibility to other Asian Americans, other marginalized people, other people period. And that changed everything. It changed what I write about. It changed how I vote. It changed how I see the world and my purpose in it.
And that’s how I came to terms with being Asian American.
I may have gone through all the stages, but that doesn’t mean that the journey is over and my racial identity has been established forever and ever, amen. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this process isn’t always linear, and people can move to different stages at any point in their lifetime. I suspect, for example, that when I watch my (biracial and still purely hypothetical) children pass through these stages, I’ll revisit them to some degree as well, and my racial identity will have new meaning for me.
Obviously, my story is just one example of the process and doesn’t reflect the experience of every person of color. Not everyone goes through all the stages; some people are happy to camp out in immersion forever, which is entirely their prerogative, and some live their entire lives in conformity. And certainly, not everyone experiences the stages in the extremes that I did.
But for all its limitations, I’ve found this model of racial identity development to be incredibly helpful, because it illuminates so much for me.
It helps me understand why not everyone is happy or comfortable being a person of color. It helps me understand that just as not everyone feels the same way about their families or their jobs, not everyone feels the same way about their race. (This is true even for white people, by the way; there are also models of white racial identity development, which I find very helpful.) Everyone’s at a different stage in their process.
It helps me understand why I always see racially homogenous groups of students in the hallways of high schools and on the quads of college campuses. For some reason, it’s easy for us interpret these groupings as unhealthy or hostile or exclusionary, but more often than not, that isn’t the case. Groups like these are necessary in order for people to develop a positive sense of their racial identity, particularly at those ages. And ethnic-specific organizations, which provide space for these connections and conversations, can play an important role in that process.
It helps me understand why people of color can have such different experiences of the same event – and why my own experiences of similar events have varied so widely over the course of my life. Your experience largely depends on where you are in the process. Thus, I get why some people of color see injustice everywhere – and some deny that it happens at all.
It helps me understand my own story.
And it helps me know that I’m not alone.