Psychologist William Cross, author of Shades of Black:
Diversity in African American Identity, has offered a theory of
racial identity development that I have found to be a very useful
framework for und standing what is happening not only with David,
but with those Black students in the cafeteria. According to Cross’s
model, referred to as the psychology of nigrescence, or the psychology
of becoming Black, the five stages of racial identity development
are pre-encounter, encounter, immersion /emersion, internalization,
and internalization-commitment. For the moment, we will consider
the first two stages as those are the most relevant for adolescents.
In the first stage, the Black child absorbs many
of the beliefs and values of the dominant White culture, including
the idea that it is better to be White. The stereotypes, omissions,
and distortions that reinforce notions of White superiority are
breathed in by Black children as well as White. Simply as a function
of being socialized in a Eurocentric culture, some Black children
may begin to value the role models, lifestyles, and images of
beauty represented by the dominant group more highly than those
of their own cultural group. On the other hand, if Black parents
are what I call race—conscious—that is, actively seeking
to encourage positive racial identity by providing their children
with positive cultural images and messages about what it means
to be Black—the impact of the dominant society’s messages
In either case, in the pre—encounter stage,
the personal and social significance of one’s racial group
membership has not yet been realized, and racial identity is not
yet under examination. At age ten, David and other children like
him would seem to be in the preencounter stage. When the environmental
cues change and the world begins to reflect his Blackness back
to him more clearly, be will probably enter the encounter stage.
Transition to the encounter stage is typically precipitated
by an event or series of events that force the young person to
acknowledge the personal impact of racism. As the result of a
new and heightened awareness of the significance of race, the
individual begins to grapple with what it means to be a member
of a group targeted by racism. Though Cross describes this process
as one that unfolds in late adolescence and early adulthood, research
suggests that an examination of one’s racial or ethnic identity
may begin as early as junior high school.
In a study of Black and White eighth graders from
an integrated urban junior high school, Jean Phinney and Steve
Tarver found clear evidence for the beginning of the search process
in this dimension of identity Among the forty-eight participants,
more than a third had thought about the effects of ethnicity on
their future, had discussed the issues with family and friends,
and were attempting to learn more about their group. While White
students in this integrated school were also beginning to think
about ethnic identity, there was evidence to suggest a more active
search among Black students, especially Black females. Phinney
and Tarver’s research is consistent with my own study of
Black youth in predominantly White communities, where the environmental
cues that trigger an examination of racial identity often become
evident in middle school or junior high school.
Some of the environmental cues are institutionalized.
Though many elementary schools have self-contained classrooms
where children of varying performance levels learn together, many
middle and secondary schools use “ability grouping’
or tracking. Though school administrators often defend their tracking
practices as fair and objective, there usually is a recognizable
racial pattern to how children are assigned, which often represents
the system of advantage operating in the schools.
In racially mixed schools, Black children are much
more likely to be in the lower track than in the honors track.
Such apparent sorting along racial lines sends a message about
what it means to be Black. One young honors student I interviewed
described the irony of this resegregation in what was an otherwise
integrated environment, and hinted at the identity issues it raised
It was really a very paradoxical existence, here
I am in a school that’s 35 percent Black, you know, and
I’m the only Black in my classes.. . . That always struck
me as odd. I guess I felt that I was different from the other
Blacks because of that.
In addition to the changes taking place within school,
there are changes in the social dynamics outside school. For many
parents, puberty raises anxiety about interracial dating. In racially
mixed communities, you begin to see what I call the birthday party
effect. Young children’s birthday parties in multiracial
communities are often a reflection of the community’s diversity.
The parties of elementary school children may be segregated by
gender but not by race. At puberty, when the parties become sleepovers
or boy-girl events, they become less and less racially diverse.
Black girls, especially in predominantly White communities,
may gradually become aware that something has changed. When their
White friends start to date, they do not. The issues of emerging
sexuality and the societal messages about who is sexually desirable
leave young Black women in a very devalued position. One young
woman from a Philadelphia suburb described herself as “pursuing
White guys throughout high school” to no avail. Since there
were no Black boys in her class, she had little choice. She would
feel “really pissed off” that those same White boys
would date her White friends. For her, “that prom thing
was like out of the question.’
Though Black girls living in the context of a larger
Black community may have more social choices, they too have to
contend with devaluing messages about who they are and who they
will become, especially if they are poor or working-class. As
social scientists Bonnie Ross Leadbeater and Niobe Way point out,
The school drop-out, the teenage welfare mother,
the drug addict, and the victim of domestic violence or of AIDS
are among the most prevalent public images of poor and working-class
urban adolescent girls. . . . Yet, despite the risks inherent
in economic disadvantage, the majority of poor urban adolescent
girls do not fit the stereotypes that are made about them.
Resisting the stereotypes and affirming other definitions
of themselves is part of the task facing young Black women in
both White and Black communities.
As was illustrated in the example of David, Black
boys also face a devalued status in the wider world. The all too
familiar media image of a young Black man with his hands cuffed
behind his back, arrested for a violent crime, has primed many
to view young Black men with suspicion and fear. In the context
of predominantly White schools, however, Black boys may enjoy
a degree of social success, particularly if they are athletically
talented. The culture has embraced the Black athlete, and the
young man who can fulfill that role is often pursued by Black
girls and White girls alike. But even these young men will encounter
experiences that may trigger an examination of their racial identity.
Sometimes the experience is quite dramatic. The
Autobiography of Malcolm X is a classic tale of racial identity
development, and I assign it to my psychology of racism students
for just that reason. As a junior high school student, Malcolm
was a star. Despite the fact that he was separated from his family
and living in a foster home, he was an A student and was elected
president of his class. One day he had a conversation with his
English teacher, whom he liked and respected, about his future
career goals. Malcolm said he wanted to be a lawyer. His teacher
responded, “That’s no realistic goal for a nigger,”
and advised him to consider carpentry instead.
The message was clear: You are a Black male, your
racial group membership matters, plan accordingly. Malcolm’s
emotional response was typical—anger, confusion, and alienation.
He withdrew from his White classmates, stopped participating in
class, and eventually left his predominately white Michigan home
to live with his sister in Roxbury, a Black community in Boston.
No teacher would say such a thing now, you may be
thinking, but don’t be so sure. It is certainly less likely
that a teacher would use the word nigger, but consider these contemporary
examples shared by high school students. A young ninth-grade student
was sitting in his homeroom. A substitute teacher was in charge
of the class. Because the majority of students from this school
go on to college, she used the free time to ask the students about
their college plans. As a substitute she had very limited information
about their academic performance, but she offered some suggestions.
When she turned to this young man, one of few Black males in the
class, she suggested that he consider a community college. She
had recommended four-year colleges to the other students. Like
Malcolm, this student got the message.
In another example, a young Black woman attending
a desegregated school to which she was bussed was encouraged by
a teacher to attend the upcoming school dance. Most of the Black
students did not live in the neighborhood and seldom attended
the extracurricular activities. The young woman indicated that
she wasn’t planning to come. The well-intentioned teacher
was persistent. Finally the teacher said, “Oh come on, I
know you people love to dance?’ This young woman got the
-Tatum, Ph.D., Beverly Daniel. “Why Are All the Black Kids
Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Basic Books, New York,
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
Reflection Exercise #3
The preceding section contained information about racial
identity development. Write three case study examples regarding
how you might use the content of this section in your practice.
What is part of the task facing young Black women in both
White and Black communities? Record the letter of the correct
answer the .