To many Americans, America is the land of equal opportunity, freedom, and liberty. They are born into a middle to upper-class household, attend a good public or private school, live in safe and clean neighborhoods, and never have to worry about being denied a job, forced to live in poverty, and risk being targeted and arrested because of the color of their skin. Since 2012, when Trayvon Martin was targeted, harassed, and brutally murdered by a White Hispanic neighbor for being Black and a threat to the community, there have been thousands of cases of racial violence, resulting in murder towards African-Americans by police officers. 258 of those homicides took place last year in 2016 (Craven, 2017). Meanwhile the White perpetrators are let free, often not having to pay the penalty for their crime. It has become apparent that we live under a system of White Supremacy aimed at keeping one group of people on the margins while putting measures in place to ensure the advancement and security of the other group that is in power. Within this social context creates an interesting dynamic within the African-American that has caught the attention of some researchers in the field of psychology on the notion of ethnic identity. What exactly does it mean to be an African-American and how was this identity developed and shaped over time? These are complex questions that this paper attempts to answer by taking a look at several studies done over the years on the African-American population.
In 1971, William E. Cross developed the Cross Racial Identity Scale, a measure designed to assess African-Americans identity salience which places them in one of five nigrescence profiles, including: Miseducation-Pro-Black, Conflicted-Self-Hatred, Multiculturalist, Low Race Salience, and Conflicted-Anti-White within African-Americans (Worrell, Vandiver, & Cross, 2004). The term “nigrescence,” refers to the degree to which a person identifies with and appreciates his or her own Blackness. From a health perspective, having an appreciation for one’s own race and cultural traditions serves a positive function in their development as a person and in relation to their role in their family, church, and community. In traditional African culture, to be Black is to be strong, smart, and beautiful. However, over time, the concept of Blackness has changed and the way people view what it means to Black has also drastically changed.
Slavery in America was one of the first institutions created for the purpose of demoralizing and dehumanizing Blacks by stripping away their identity, traditions, culture, and way of life. The identity they once knew would slowly vanish and be replaced with a new identity of slave and servant to a cruel White master. Before the slave identity emerged, Africans embodied a sense of pride in who they were. How they ended up in shackles still remains a mystery, and what interests many psychologists is how Black identity has been influenced by slavery and institutionalized racism, a byproduct of the System of White Supremacy.
The process of becoming an “African-American” is heavily shaped by what it means to be Black. To be Black in America holds with it many connotations which come as a result of many systems that work to perpetuate an image of what Black is. It’s difficult to discuss the culture of Blackness without talking about the color of black itself. The systematic racial oppression African-Americans experience is tied directly to the color of one’s skin. If the color of one’s skin is Black, their experience while living in America will be drastically different than if they were White, or if the tint of their skin was even red or yellow. In US history, past and present, the color of one’s skin can determine many things – where you live; where you work; where you go to school; what kind of food you eat; the kind of car you drive; the amount of rights you have; how you can assert those rights; and overall, how you’re viewed by society and the law, which governs society. This experience of Blackness, inevitably will dictate the personal choices people of color make and more importantly their attitudes towards themselves, other Black people, and the world as a whole.
Knowing the context of how one’s racial and ethnic identity is shaped helps us understand the stages of identity development Blacks go through during their journey in life. According to Cross, Blacks go through five stages of identity development throughout their life, which include: Pre-encounter; Encounter; Immersion/Emersion; Internalization; Internalization-Commitment (Sue & Sue, 2013). These stages are not black and white, and often overlap. So a person can be experiencing more than one stage at a time or even revert back to an earlier stage, depending on external events in their environment and how they process those experiences (Pope-Davis, Liu, Ledesma-Jones, & Nevitt, 2000). This model for understanding ethnic identity in African-Americans is rooted in African-American’s perceptions and attitudes towards mainstream culture. So inherently, the more one becomes more accepting and acculturated to the dominant culture, the more likely they will be able to move from the pre-encounter phase where feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem and self-hatred exist towards the internalization-commitment phase, likened to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self-actualization. In this phase, one is purported to be more in tune with his own culture while having a greater acceptance towards the dominant culture, being able to put aside any ill feelings of hatred towards one’s self and others. A person in the final phase of the Cross’ Racial Identity Development Model has presumably reached a state of acceptance and appreciation, not only for one’s own culture but also for the dominant culture in which one must learn to adapt to and function in (Sue & Sue, 2013).
The advantage of having such a model as the Cross Racial Identity Development Model and scale is that they both help us to understand some of the crises and issues African-Americans could be experiencing under the context of racial oppression. It paints a picture of some of the phases of life Blacks are going through as they try to navigate through life. It also gives us a possible prototype or solution that may work in solving some of the identity crises and racial conflicts many African-Americans may be experiencing as a result of slavery and systematic racial oppression. From past research on ethnic identity, using the CRIS, we have learned that blacks typically fall under one of the five stages and identities (Worrell, Vandiver, & Cross, 2004). It’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions to the rule, but it does give us some insight as to what an African-American client may be experiencing when they’re sitting across from us in our office and are in deep distress. It helps us to consider the social context that has helped shaped their ethnic identity and psychological state of being. If we as clinicians can pinpoint the source of a problem, it gives us some insight on what tools we may need to use to fix it. In treating an African-American client, a therapist may not know where to begin because there could be a swarm of emotions or concerns that arise from various things that the client may or may not attribute to racism or systematic racial oppression. Some African-Americans take pride in being African-American while others despise the skin they are in and would do anything to trade it and become a difference race.
Regardless if an African-American client prefers to identify with the African culture or not, it is important when working with African-American clients to assess the client’s attitudes towards their race because it could explain the etiology behind the clinical issues that lead them to your office in the first place. If not for the purpose of effectively treating African-Americans, understanding ethnic identity development in the context of racial oppression is helpful to understanding the psychology of a group of people who are often ignored.
Cross Model of Identity Development highlights that African-Americans typically start from a position of shame, low self-esteem, and self-hatred before encountering some tragic racial event that causes them to question the status quo and the dominant culture. Following the encounter, they go to a period of Emersion/Immersion where they battle between trying to fit their own culture into the context of the dominant culture (Worrell, Vandiver, & Cross, 2004). This perhaps can be a very challenging stage to conquer and overcome because of the reality that the African-American is steadily battling between accepting the dominant culture and becoming an American, meanwhile fighting to hold on to their traditional values of their African culture (Sue & Sue, 2013). Being an African-American woman myself, I can attest that this experience can be the most challenging and usually is an ongoing battle that one has to face throughout the entirety of his or her life.
The final stages, Internalization and Internalization-Commitment are where the African-American has developed a greater sense of cultural identity and maturity that fits within the context of the American system of White Supremacy, whereby making a commitment to bring about change to social injustices imparted on their race by the dominant culture by joining forces with people from other cultures who are also oppressed and fighting injustices (Sue & Sue, 2013). To reach this stage of identity development, one has worked through their own negative attitudes and feelings towards the system of White Supremacy and is no longer negatively impacted by injustices of the dominant culture, where they feel shame and self-hatred, but however are motivated to come to an acceptance of themselves within the dominant culture to join with other ethnic groups to bring about social change.
Some of the criticisms African-Americans face with acculturating to the dominant culture and reaching a level of mature ethnic identity development, stem from how they are consequently perceived by other members of their group who are less acculturated to the dominant culture and are still in the pre-encounter or encounter stages. Typically, as an African-American becomes more acculturated to the dominant culture, inadvertedly, he or she becomes less immersed into their own culture. Often times, to advance within the American system and in corporate America, African-Americans are met with the challenge of sacrificing their own cultural values and traditions to meet the expectations and demands of the dominant culture. This experience is shared by many other minorities from other ethnic groups across America, especially among immigrants who move to America in search of a better life. They more than often find themselves having to give up their traditional values of family and collectivism to advance through the ranks in an individualistic, every man for himself, capitalist society. So forming an ethnic identity that works in the best interest of the African-American, his group members, and a racially biased White Supremist society can be very tough.
Developing a healthy identity for an African-American is a matter of accepting one’s own culture and values despite the negative connotations associated with the term “Black.” Perhaps this is why African-Americans have experienced so many different types of identities and have worn so many different names. First we were Africans; then we became niggers; then we were Negroes; Coloreds; Afro-Americans, African-Americans and now we’re back to being called “Black.” It’s interesting to see the disparity in preference by African-Americans in what they prefer to be called. Through personal observation, I’ve witnessed there are some Blacks who will give you the evil eye for calling them African-Americans because they refuse to be associated with Africa, being that they were born in America and not the land of their ancestors. To other African-Americans, dropping the “African” is a sign of self-hatred and a form of disowning one’s heritage and ethnic identity. There is no general consensus on what we should call ourselves, as some still prefer to “keep it real” and call each other “niggas.” The term that was once used to shame and ostracize a group of people has been redefined and repurposed into a term that is a sign of endearment and love. So you will hear many African-Americans refer to their brothers and sisters and friends and family members as “my nigga”.
There are some adaptive and maladaptive aspects of accepting one’s ethnic identity that are worth mentioning. If an African-American comes to an acceptance of their identity to the point of having self-pride, it can be seen as anti-White (Worrell, Vandiver, & Cross, 2004) or an act of nationalism, which in today’s society is being perceived as a terrorist act by some political groups. But embracing one’s identity and coming to an acceptance of self is vital to one’s mental, emotional, and physical health. So identity formation and acceptance for the African-American can be a very fine line to walk, literally and figuratively.
Considering Cross’ model for Racial Identity Development, it’s apparent that the stages of identity development for African-Americans are inconstant and vary over time. Consistent with the Baltes’ concept of normative history and age-graded life events and tasks (Baltes, 1987), it’s also evident that Cross wanted to make the claim that there are some life experiences that African-Americans are expected to go through. According to Cross, these experiences or stages are likely to occur across the span of a Black person’s life, beginning as early as infancy and childhood where the child is being shaped and directly influenced by their family and parent’s emulation of culture and response to the system of racial oppression (Yip, Seaton, & Sellers, 2006). We know that much of what a child knows is learned behavior, that is nurtured through their environment and interaction with their parents, families, teachers, and immediate surroundings. So ethnic identity is shaped early on before a child ever comes to an understanding of what color and racism even are. According to Cross and Fhagen-Smith, the racial identity development in African-Americans is characterized by repeated exposure to encounters that challenge their racial and ethnic identities (Yip, Seaton, & Sellers, 2006).
These special encounters experienced by most African-Americans are what set this race apart from other races because it forces them to question their own identity as a person, based merely on the color of their skin. A painstaking look back into history shows us a time when Blacks were considered 3/5 of a human being. Even after the abolishment of slavery, Blacks were treated less than human with the implementation of Black Codes that restricted their access to many resources that were afforded to Whites. Fast forward over 150 years, and we find ourselves with an African-American president of the United States of America. Having a positive representation of Blacks in the media with the election of President Barack Obama has served to empower many African-Americans, giving us a greater appreciation for our race and ethnic identity. Meanwhile, during his presidency, there was an influx of racially motivated killings of innocent Black men, women, and children by White police officers that sent the Black community back to a stage of fear, shame, and self-hatred.
Ultimately, the Cross Racial Identity Development Model is helpful for understanding African-American identity on an individual level, and even greater, on a social level. Just as we can observe an individual pass through these stages of identity development throughout his/her life, we can observe the Black community as a whole and watch their progression through the stages of the Cross Racial Identity Development Model. Collectively, many of us have already encountered instances of racism, that have moved us to do something about the injustices we are faced with. We eventually reach a state of self-acceptance and pride where we feel a sense of control, power, and freedom to exert our Blackness and express our identities without fear of repercussion, then something tragic happens that makes mainstream news that sets us back to a stage of anger, bitterness, self-hatred and insecurity.
Conclusively, it’s important to remember the unique way in which some groups of people form identities over time and develop. Not everyone fits the neat cookie-cutter model for development as described in most lifespan development models, such as Levinson’s Stages of Life or Erickson’s Stages of Life Development. It’s interesting to see how external and internal factors can play a significant role in shaping one’s identity and as clinicians, we must keep this in mind when working with clients from various ethnic minority groups.
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Photo retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/13/one-drop-rule-black-identity-photos-yaba-blay_n_4775100.html