Black Racial Identity Development

Black racial identity development (BRID) theory explains the processes by which Black people (the term Black is used here, rather than African American, to reflect the terminology in models of identity development) develop a healthy sense of themselves as racial beings and of their Blackness in a toxic sociopolitical environment. BRID is generally viewed as a derivation of more general racial/cultural development theory, in that it describes the importance of race in an individual’s self-concept. However, BRID is distinctive in its attention to the unique experience of Black people in dealing with racial discrimination and oppression.

The concept of race has played a historically important role in the lives of Black people in the United States, as reflected in the early writings of W. E. B. Du Bois. In the most recent literature, Black identity development has been associated with factors such as psychological health, academic achievement, acculturation, psychosocial competence, self-actualization, self-esteem, and student involvement.

Models of Black Racial Identity Development

Black racial identity development has often been conceptualized in models that describe linear stages through which Black individuals move from a negative to a positive self-identity in the context of their racial group membership. One of the earliest and most influential models of BRID was developed by William E. Cross, Jr., as part of his Nigrescence (the process of becoming Black) theory. Cross used a five-stage model to describe a Black person’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors as he or she moves from a White frame of reference to a positive Black frame of reference: pre-encounter, encounter, immersion/emersion, internalization, and internalization/commitment.

In the pre-encounter stage, Black people consciously or unconsciously manifest an anti-Black worldview while seeking to assimilate and acculturate into dominant White society. Low self-esteem and poor psychological health are characteristic of individuals at this stage. The encounter stage is marked by two processes: (1) an experience that challenges the pre-encounter individual’s pro-White/anti-Black world-view, and (2) a reinterpretation of one’s racial identity as a result of this experience. At this stage, a Black person finds support in the search for a Black identity and makes the conscious decision to identify with being Black. A strong pro-Black attitude and withdrawal from, and hostility toward, dominant White culture typifies the immersion/emersion stage, signifying a switch from the “old” anti-Black/pro-White worldview. The individual has an acute sense of Black pride, but a positive Black identity has not yet been internalized.

Feelings of guilt and anger at having been conditioned by White culture are common. At the internalization stage, Black people succeed in reconciling the antagonism of their pre-encounter and immersion/emersion worldviews. The individual’s resentment of White culture subsides and a nonracist, multicultural orientation prevails. Social action demarcates the ultimate stage, internalization/commitment, from the previous stage. Here, Black people not only incorporate a positive Black racial identity into their self-concepts, but they also make a commitment to activities that promote social justice and civil rights.

The Nigrescence model has received the most attention in the psychological literature of all the BRID models, particularly for its association with a measurement instrument developed by Janet Helms— the Racial Identity Attitude Scale-Black—which has been used to operationalize BRID in a number of studies. Cross and his colleagues have since revised the Nigrescence model, collapsing the internalization and internalization/commitment stages into one stage (internalization) and expanding each stage into multiple “identity clusters” to address the criticism that numerous identities may be manifested at each stage.

Another model of BRID, proposed by Bailey Jackson, explains a slightly different version of racial identity development. Whereas Cross suggested that dominant culture worldviews could be internalized on a subconscious level, characteristic of his pre-encounter stage, Jackson’s four-stage model describes an initial passive acceptance stage in which Black people accept and conform to White cultural norms. The second stage, active resistance, is characterized by the rejection of, and feelings of anger toward, White culture. The redirection stage is associated with pride of one’s Black culture and a mollified anger toward White culture. Thus, although Cross combined elements of these two identities into one stage, immersion/ emersion, Jackson conceptualizes them as two distinct processes. Finally, the internalization stage is marked by both an acceptance of the healthy aspects of the dominant White culture and a commitment to taking action to redress the deleterious aspects.

Mainstream Versus Underground Theories

The BRID theories previously described focus on the universal processes of group identity development that Black people undergo to arrive at a psychologically healthy racial self-concept. These models have been referred to as mainstream theories of Black racial identity. Another set of theories—called underground theories for their relative noninclusion in the broader psychological community—generally take a more Africentric perspective and do not hold the assumption that all Black individuals begin the process of identity development with anti-Black attitudes. Historically, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that Black sociocultural influences can aid in racial identity development and that one’s self-concept is not necessarily a reaction to racial oppression. According to underground theories, the reconciliation between one’s “African self” and one’s “American self” is the essential task in developing a healthy BRID. However, there is disagreement among underground theorists over how to reconcile these two “selves”: Some theorists claim that African Americans benefit from attending to both their “Blackness” and the broader White society, whereas others argue that an integrated identity comes only when one strongly identifies with all things Black.

Applications for Training and Counseling

BRID theories have important practical implications in their capacity to help counselors recognize the differences in racial identity development among Black clients. An individual’s level of racial identity development has an important bearing on his or her attitudinal and behavioral predispositions in the counseling relationship. Helms used the updated four-stage Nigrescence model to project the nature of counseling relationships with a Black counselor and client across the stages of identity development.

For example, a pre-encounter client would likely be disappointed about being assigned a Black counselor and would exhibit hostility or embarrassment toward the counselor. A pre-encounter counselor may treat Black clients in a punitive, condescending fashion. Black clients in the encounter stage may be hypersensitive to the approval of a Black counselor and may, accordingly, be apologetic and avoid issues they deem non-Black. A counselor in this stage can show fear over whether or not the Black client will approve of him or her and also anticipation for the opportunity to connect with a member of his or her racial group. Clients in the immersion/emersion stage will feel positively toward a Black counselor only after determining that the counselor has a high enough level of “Blackness.” There may, therefore, be an early combative, testing element to the relationship.

The internalizing client may prefer a Black counselor, but race no longer has primacy in the selection process. Counselors in the internalizing stage aim to help the client achieve self-actualization, and they focus on the issue of race insomuch as it is an important part of actualization.

Helms states that for a counselor to help a client progress through stages of racial identity development, he or she must be at least one stage ahead of the client in his or her own development. If the counselor and client are at the same stage, or if the client is at a more advanced stage than the counselor, then a counseling impasse may occur.

Another important application of BRID to counseling is its role in helping counselors understand the role that oppression plays in Black clients’ development. This awareness serves as a clarion call for many to explore systemic interventions and take action outside the confines of their offices to combat sociopolitical factors, such as racism and poverty, that impact clients’ psychological health.

Future Directions

Early formulations of BRID, such as Cross’s Nigrescence model, have been criticized for conceptualizing BRID as a linear process and focusing upon BRID in late adolescence/early adulthood. However, Thomas Parham and Janet Helms have reconceptualized BRID to reflect a more fluid notion of identity development in which individuals can move both forward and backward through the different statuses across the life span.

Eleanor Seaton and colleagues recently found that Black individuals may both progress and regress across BRID stages over time, supporting this more fluid conceptualization of racial identity development. Tabbye Chavous and colleagues have further illuminated the complexity of BRID via cluster analyses, suggesting BRID may also involve the salience of race in one’s identity, feelings regarding one’s racial group, and attitudes regarding how Blacks are perceived by others in the United States. The complexity of BRID in recent research provides promising future directions for theory and research.

Although theories of BRID have done much to explain an individual’s racial identity, there has been less exploration of the intersections of BRID with other aspects of identity, such as gender, class, and sexual orientation. The interactions of these factors with Black identity may have important implications. Likewise, there may also be important yet unexplored geographic considerations in BRID. Most BRID theories were conceived in the climate of Western cultures; the development of Black people’s racial identities in non-Western cultures is much less understood. Similarly, theories of BRID, and underground theories in particular, emphasize the importance of reconnecting with aspects of one’s African heritage, yet the processes for doing so are still unclear.


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  2. Constantine, M. G., Richardson, T. Q., Benjamin, E. M., & Wilson, J. W. (1998). An overview of Black racial identity theories: Limitations and considerations for future theoretical conceptualizations. Applied & Preventive Psychology, 7, 95-99.
  3. Cross, W. E. (1971). The Negro to Black conversion experience: Toward a psychology of Black liberation. Black World, 20, 13-27.
  4. Helms, J. E. (1984). Towards a theoretical explanation of effects of race on counseling: A Black and White model. Counseling Psychologist, 12, 153-165.
  5. Sellers, R. M., Shelton, J. N., Cooke, D. Y., Chavous, T. M., Rowley, F. A. J., & Smith, M. A. (1997). Multidimensional model of racial identity: A reconceptualization of African American racial identity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 18-39.
  6. Vandiver, B. J., Cross, W. E., Worrell, F. C., & Fhagen-Smith, P. E. (2002). Validating the Cross Racial Identity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49, 71-85.

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