What does Racial Identity have to do with Narrative? Or: Answering Exam Question 2

So my second exam question on my fourth preliminary exam (the one that deals specifically with my anticipated dissertation subject–no pressure!), has to do with the role of narration in racial identity (R.I.) development theory, and then put that in conversation with a narrative theorist.

The problem I’m running up against is that these two theories are not explicitly in conversation already, so it’s a constructive (read: first time anyone’s written about it and hence no one I can turn to) project. Yes, the critical race theorists I have read from sociology and other scholars of critical theory have drawn from narrative–they challenge the narrative of race at its very core. But racial identity development is a different project altogether.

Racial identity development theorists have a distinct telos in mind: help people feel better about themselves while living in a racist society. That is, R.I. theorists have as their goal to help persons of color and white people (the typical victims and villains in the narratives told by critical race theorists) feel better about being people of color and white people, respectively.

But narratives are central to the various stages of racial identity development–narratives are told to describe the kind of feelings persons have about being part of a particular group, as the theorist tries to explain the various stages or statuses along the developmental spectrum. So in communicating about the stages, theorists tell stories, and they describe the kinds of counter-narratives that the individuals learn that prompt them into new stages of development. One of the stages, Immersion/Emersion, deals explicitly with learning the history of persons who are white who have worked against racism, or for persons of color to learn about the leaders in their history who have worked to end oppression.

In the description of the various stages, it seems a consistent factor that new encounters and hence new narratives are what precipitate adjustments to one’s own understanding of oneself as a member of a particular racial grouping. Thus, while theories about narrative are not necessarily described or addressed in any detail by racial identity development theorists (these are psychologists and social scientists, whereas narrative theorists seem to come more frequently out of theology and philosophy), narrative seems to play a significant role within the process of R.I. development and hence is a ripe subject to be explored for persons interested in drawing upon these two resources. In a later post, I will try to draw the connections I see between the work of narrative theorist Alasdair MacIntyre and the goals of R.I. development.

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