Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name


Degree Program

Urban Studies


Planning and Urban Studies

Major Professor

Jeffrey Ehrenreich

Second Advisor

David Gladstone

Third Advisor

Michelle Thompson


“Race” and racial identity are concepts that have rarely been explored as psychological or emotional phenomena. The concept of “race” itself is often taken for granted as a “natural” human category; there has been little attention to the emotional consequences of coming into awareness about one’s racial identity, especially in the case of white racial identity. This qualitative study explores the racial identity formation process by examining life history narratives of ten social justice activists with self-described “strong spiritual practices” in the Northeast region of the United States. Six important themes emerged from this project: (1) racial identity formation is marked by shame, trauma, grief, and, for some, spiritual growth and expansion, (2) white racial identity formation is deeply marked by the experience of shame, not to be confused with guilt, (3) shame and trauma share many physiological, emotional, and psychological features, (4) spirituality has been used to personal transmute, transform, and transcend the cultural pain and suffering of racial trauma and shame, (5) social justice and anti-oppression activism appears to be an expression of what the literature has termed “post-traumatic growth,” and (6) spirituality informs how the study participants reconciled racial subjectivity and activism. The study concludes that addressing racism cannot be a purely intellectual exercise. “Race” and racism are embodied phenomena fraught with human emotion and the essence of identity or personhood. As such, there is a need for much research that seeks to understand the role of human emotion in racial identity formation and in healing racism.


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