Phinney (1989) created a three-stage model of ethnic identity development that uses the idea of an Eriksonian ego identity as the foundation for development. Phinney (1989) pays close attention to the evolution of childhood ethnic identity, and how these beginning experiences and conceptions affect later confirmations of ethnic identity in adolescence. Phinney’s model resembles Erikson’s model such that ethnic minorities must undergo crises that later lead to a period of discovery of what it means to be an ethnic person in his/her society. A resolution is then formed as the identity is internalized. It is important to note that Phinney’s model is nonspecific in that it generalizes all ethnic minorities under one identity development process. This sort of ethnic generalization can become problematic not only for the diversity between ethnic groups, e.g. African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans, but within groups as well.
Phinney’s first stage of unexamined ethnic identity is where the ethnic person’s worldview is dominated by their idealization of Whiteness, European American culture, and White institutions. Ethnic minorities can see themselves through the lens of White society, and furthermore see Caucasian people as their reference group (Phinney, 1989). She divides identification with White people into active and passive categories. Active identification with Caucasians is an underlying factor of the notion of colorblindness. In this stage, ethnic minorities do not perceive differences between Caucasians and themselves and, consequently, minimize their ethnic selves (Phinney, 1989). In comparison, passive identification is when a person realizes that they are not White, but they wish to look like Caucasians and receive the privileges that they do not have as ethnic minorities (Phinney, 1989). While Phinney briefly mentions contextual factors that could impact the reality of this phase, such as parents and ethnic community, she does not truly integrate the idea of “place” into her model. How does the racial make-up of a community, peers and relationships, parents, and schools relate to how much one idealizes White standards? This question will be explored throughout this paper as an important critique of ethnic identity development.
Phinney’s next stage of ethnic identity search/moratorium is encompassed by a situation that changes an ethnic individual’s worldview such that the person realizes he/she cannot completely assimilate into White, European American society (Phinney, 1989). As a direct result of this, the individual feels anger and frustration towards White society, and, consequently, retreats into his/her respective racial group (Phinney, 1989).
The last stage of ethnic identity achievement is when uncertainties and insecurities surrounding ethnic identity are surmounted, and ethnic identity is accepted and integrated with the rest of one’s personal identity (Phinney, 1989). In addition, the individual has made a commitment that will guide him/her in future endeavors (Phinney, 1989).