This WWW site is developed and revised by Shane R. Jimerson, Ph.D. at
the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The authors of each of the topics are graduate students enrolled in the Adolescent Development seminar at UCSB.
Each year, we will continue to post additional papers addressing current issues in adolescent development.
If you have questions or comments please e-mail Dr. Jimerson at Jimerson@education.ucsb.edu
The Identity Development of African American/Black Adolescents
by Timmy Lee & Lori Wicker
University of California, Santa Barbara
Erik Erikson proposes that humans develop through eight stages
1) Trust vs. mistrust
2) Autonomy vs. shame and doubt
3) Initiative vs. guilt
4) Industry vs. inferiority
5) Identity vs. identity confusion
6) Intimacy vs. isolation
7) Generativity vs. stagnation
8) Integrity vs. despair.
Further, he proposes that during the years of adolescence, individuals are typically
at the fifth stage, identity vs. identity confusion. Identity development
is a major developmental process that takes place during the years of
adolescence. During this time adolescents strive to discover who they
are as a person. They attempt to understand themselves by exploring
their true personal characteristics (i.e., outgoing, shy), their
extracurricular interests (sports, literature, music), their
relationships (family, romantic, and peer), and their vocational
interests (i.e., computers, medicine). As Erikson proposes, identity vs.
identity confusion is a time when individuals are exploring who they are, what they are about, and where
they are going in life (Santrock, 1998) .
It is important to note that in addition to the aforementioned
issues that adolescence explore during this identity stage, adolescents
from ethnic minority groups explore their cultural identity. One may
argue that White adolescents also explore their cultural identity.
However, the racism, discrimination, and oppression that ethnic minority
individuals encounter, as a result of living in a society dominated by
the standards and norms of the White society, has an impact on their
identity development. Ethnic minorities not only explore their cultural
identity, but also explore their identity as a person from a culture
who's "way of being" (i.e., physical appearance, style of dress, manner
of speech, etc.) are different from that which society has proposed to be
the superior or best "way of being". Thus, adolescents from ethnic
minority backgrounds progress through the same identity stage, as
proposed by Erikson, that White adolescents do, but they undoubtedly
progress through an additional stage of development, that being their
individual cultural identity within a dominant culture that often
devalues or does not support their "way of being".
In this paper we will address specifically the identity
development of African American/Black adolescents. We propose that when
examining the identity development of African American/Black adolescents
one must consider their identity not only as an adolescent, but also as
an African American/Black individual. Although there are countless
factors to consider when exploring the cultural identity of an African
American/Black adolescent, we will focus on the ways in which an
adolescent may view his or her cultural identity in comparison to the
White culture. William Cross's theory of Nigresence will be used as the
basis of our argument.
William Cross, a prominent researcher in the field of psychology,
specializing in Black psychology, developed a five stage model of
identity development for African Americans. The 5 stage model is founded
in a theory known as Nigrescence which is a French word meaning "the
process of becoming Black" (Cross 1994). The Nigrescence model attempts
to capture the stages that African Americans transverse when experiencing
a major shift in their racial self-identification (Cross 1994).
Specifically, this model involves five separate stages which are:
Pre-encounter, Encounter, Immersion-Emmersion, Internalization, and
Internalization-Commitment (Cross,1995; Cross,1978).
A person in the pre-encounter stage hasn’t begun the identity
development process. This stage is marked by self-hatred which is
expressed through issues dealing with: low-salience and pro
white/anti-Black attitudes (Cross 1995). Individuals with low-salience
attitudes consider the fact that they are African American to hold little
or no significance for them (Cross 1995). Regarding pro-White/anti-Black
attitudes, Cross proposes that individuals with pro-white attitudes
derive their “notions of beauty and art from a White and decidedly
western aesthetic” (Cross 1995). Anti-black attitudes cause these
individuals to dislike their own ethnic group, culture, and community.
While there is no pathology associated with the appreciation of other
cultures, individuals in this stage tend to value the western aesthetic
and to devalue their own.
Cross claims that several other factors influence individuals
this stage of development: miseducation, race image anxiety, and
assimailation-intergration. In the schools, history is presented from a
Eurocentric perspective, emphasizing and exaggerating the accomplishments
of Europeans and de-emphasizing and downplaying the role of Africans.
This cultural miseducation makes it difficult for African Americans to
develop an affirming view of their history which can lead to self hatred
and a distorted view of self, community and ones culture (Cross 1995).
Race image anxiety refers to a hyper sensitivity towards issues of race
which can lead African Americans to be constantly on the look out for
situations where they are being attacked or demeaned by Whites (Cross
1995). Lastly, assimilation-integration refers to a pre-disposition
among Blacks to consider their ethnicity the source of their problems
(Cross 1995). This perspective causes African American to see themselves
as needing to correct or overcome any and all obstacles that are placed
in their path. The difficulty with this perspective is that if they
cannot overcome a certain obstacle they will tend to blame themselves,
even if they are actually a victim of circumstances that are beyond their
Thus, an adolescent in the pre-encounter stage may either not
acknowledge their ethnicity to be a salient part of their identity or
have very negative feelings about their cultural/ethnic background. An
example would be an African American/Black girl who has a very negative
self concept of her appearance. Although it is not unusual for
adolescents to feel self conscious about their physical appearance, this
girl may feel that specifically her Afrocentric physical characteristics
(i.e., thick lips, dark skin, short dark hair) are unattractive compared
to the Eurocentric physical characteristics of a White peer (i.e., thin
lips, light skin, long blond hair).
Stage two of the Cross model is the Encounter stage, during this
stage the person has some sort of experience that shatters their current
identity (Cross 1995, Cross 1978, Cross et al 1991). This need not be a
single event, it can also be a series of smaller events. This stage
contains two steps: experiencing the encounter, and personalizing the
encounter. When a person experiences the encounter their reaction may
include "confusion, alarm, anomie, and depression" (Cross 1995, Cross
1978). After the actual experience the person will usually continue on
with his or her life, however, there is now a conflict occurring
internally within this person. Their old identity is being overwhelmed
by the encounter experience (Cross 1978). This brings with a
considerable amount of guilt, shame, anxiety and depression. During this
time the person is actively involved in internalizing the encounter
experience and this stage ends when this internalization is complete
Guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression are not feelings that one
would consider unusual for an adolescent to experience. However, when
considering this occurrence with African American/Black adolescents it is
important to examine whether or not these feelings resulted from than the
typical issues that bring about these feelings within adolescents. For
the African American/Black adolescent these feelings may be attributed to
a realization that he/she is a member of an ethnic/cultural group that is
not fully valued or appreciated in this society. In fact, it is not
unusual for adolescents to experience some type of racism or
discrimination either in school from peers and/or teachers, or outside
of school (i.e., in a local grocery and/or department store).
Stage three is the Immersion-Emmersion phase, and in this phase
the person attempts to: “Destroy all vestiges of the old perspective,”
while simultaneously experiencing, “an equally intense concern to clarify
the personal implications of the new frame of reference” (Cross 1978).
The persons level of Blackness is high but their level of internalization
of the new identity is minimal (Cross 1978).
Immersion is the first step in this stage. It entails
person immersing into the "world of Blackness." Persons at this step
begin to soak up African American culture and attempt to reflect this
through patterns of thought, dress, action, and speech. This is the
stage when the actual conversion to the new identity is occurring (Cross
1995, Cross 1978). As a result of this transition, individuals often
feel out of control. This feeling of being out of control results from
experiencing a loss of self while simultaneously gaining a new sense of self.
Changes in style of dress, speech, friends, general interest,
etc. is viewed as a typical “stage” that adolescents go through. African
American/Black adolescents may go through this “stage” as adolescents,
but they additionally or simultaneously may change their style of dress,
speech, friends, interest, etc. based on their newly affirming
self-identification as a Black person. For example, an African American
adolescent in the immersion stage may begin to spend more time with
his/her African American/Black friends, eventually associating very
little, if at all with his/her non-Black friends.
After the immersion into Blackness the next step is emergence
from the emotionality and oversimplified ideological aspects of the
immersion experience (Cross 1995). During this step the person begins to
regain control of his or her emotions and intellect. This Emmersion is
facilitated by a need to regain control and is promoted by interactions
with role models. These role models have a positive influence if they
tend to exhibit a calmer demeanor while still being recognized as having
experienced the Immersion/Emmersion phase. The person begins to see this
role model as operating at a higher stage of development and decides that
he or she will attempt to become more like his or her model. The person,
by working through the Emmersion step, has already begun to approach the
next stage of Cross’s model (Cross 1995). Accordingly, African
American/Black adolescents may look for a role model who's feelings about
their Blackness as well as their interaction within society (with both
Blacks and Whites) is admired.
The internalization stage is the fourth stage in the Cross
model. This stage "signals the resolution of conflicts between the old
and the new," (Cross 1978) and is exhibited through a calm secure
demeanor. This security combined with a decline in anti-white sentiment
make it possible for the person to have White friends and associates.
However, African Americans remain the primary reference group (Cross
1978). According to Cross this stage is marked by a shift in
perspective: The shift is from concern about how your friends see your confidence in
ones personal standards of Blackness; from uncontrolled rage toward White
people to controlled anger toward oppressive and racist institutions;
from symbolic rhetoric to quiet, dedicated , long-term commitment; from
unrealistic urgency to a sense of destiny; from anxious, insecure, rigid,
inferiority feelings to Black pride, self-love and a deep sense of Black
communalism (Cross 1978).
Similarly, an African American/Black adolescent at this stage would
comfortable in relationships with both Black and non-Black peers.
The last stage is Internalization-commitment. After developing a
Black identity individuals in this stage continue to be long-term
activists. These people demonstrate a commitment not only to
incorporate the new identity but also to “struggle to translate personal
identity into actions that are meaningful to the group” (Cross 1978).
This stage is marked by a long-term commitment to the advancement of not
only the Black community, but society as a whole. This stage is only
attainable to individuals that have successfully completed the other
stages of the Cross model, and would most likely apply to individuals in
It is possible for adolescents to be in either of the first four
stages previously discussed. Without knowing how an adolescent views
him/herself as an African American/Black person in society, one cannot
accurately and comprehensively assess how that person identifies him or
herself as an adolescent. We propose that when examining the identity
development of African American/Black adolescents, one include factors
that are associated with the adolescents development and awareness of
their cultural/ethnic background. Their development should be examined in
the context of their views and feelings about their ethnicity. Although
this paper was directed toward African American/Black adolescents,
adolescents from other diverse groups (i.e., gays/lesbians, adolescents
with a disability, various ethnic/cultural groups) may also experience a
process of development related specifically to their group membership;
that aspect of their development becomes an important fact to consider in
order to obtain a compete and comprehensive view of their identity
Cross, W.,& Fhagen-Smith, P. (1996). Nigrescence and
identity development: accounting for differential Black identity
patterns. In Perdersen, P. & Draguns, J.& Lonner, W.,& Trimble, J.
(eds.), Counseling Across cultures (pp. 108-123). Thousand Oaks, Ca.
Cross, W. (1995). The psychology of Nigrescence: revisiting
Cross model. In Pontero, J. & Casas, J. & Suzuki, L. and Alexander,
C.(eds.), Handbook of Multicultural Counseling (pp. 93-122). Thousand
Oaks, Ca. Sage Publications
Cross, W. (1994). Nigrescence theory: Historical and explanatory
notes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 44, 119-123.
Cross, W., & Parham, T., & Helms, J. (1991). The
stages of Black
identity development: Nigrescence models. In Jones, R. (eds.), Black
Psychology (pp. 319-338). Berkeley, Ca. Cobb & Henry.
Cross, W. (1978). The Thomas and Cross models of psychological
Nigrescence: a review. The Journal of Black Psychology, 5, 13-31.
Santrock, J. (1997). Adolescence (7th Edition). New
Relevant Web Sites
Poll: Black teen-agers find racism has little impact on their lives
This site summarizes the finding of a poll taken on Black teens,
examining their thoughts and feelings about the impact racism has on
their lives. The results indicate that the majority of teens felt that
racism has little impact on their lives. However, most of the teens
surveyed did feel that racism is a “big problem”. The poll was conducted
by Yankelovich Partners, and is part of a story called "Kids and Race"
which is published in the Nov. 24 issue of Time.
Black dads' support helps teen sons most
This site discusses a research study that examined the influence
of the father-son relationship on Black teens. The results indicated
that a strong relationship between Black fathers and their sons was more
important than their actual presence or absence in the home. Many of the
teens identified their father as their role model.
Children and Youth
This site referenced 15 articles that are relevant to Black
adolescents. Some of the topics examined in these articles are cigarette
smoking, self-perception and locus of control, and self-esteem.
Resilience and Cultural Integrity
This site briefly discusses two projects conducted on urban
African American youth and adolescence. The first project includes three
studies that examine the resilience of African American youth. The
second project includes two studies that examine the cultural factors
that influence the cognitive development of African American students.
Ethnic Identity and Attitudes Toward School: Sources of Variation in
Educational Achievement of African-American High School Students
This sight was created by William T. Brown and Robert F. Simons
of the University of Delaware. It highlights a study that examined the
value of racial/ethnic identity for African Americans, as it relates to
academic performance. This implications for using racial/ethnic identity
to study African Americans Academic performance are presented
The Handbook of Multicultural Counseling
The Handbook of Multicultural Counseling presents the work
of leading and emerging researchers in the field of multicultural
counseling. This publication attempts to account for the major issues
involved in counseling individuals from diverse cultural populations
African-American Women and Identity Bibliography
This website features a bibliography of journal articles and
books on the topic of Identity as it relate to African American Women.
This site presents many of the theories of African American identity
development including the ground breaking work of Dr. William Cross.
Timmy E. Lee
Counseling Clinical School Psychology Program
University of California Santa Barbara