William Cross

William E. Cross, Jr., is an African American social psychologist who is best known for his Nigrescence model of Black racial identity. The power of Cross’s original Nigrescence model, which was first articulated in 1971, is evident by its adoption in the theorizing about other cultural identities, including minority, racial, ethnic, feminist, womanist, and gay/lesbian identities. The later versions of the model (i.e., the revised and expanded models in 1991 and 2001, respectively) have not only advanced the theorizing about Black racial identity, but the 2001 revision also resulted in a psychometri-cally supported measurement model, the Cross Racial Identity Scale. Cross is one of the most frequently cited names in the Black racial identity literature.


Cross’s interest in the identity of African Americans came, in part, out of the segregated social context of the times in which he grew up. He was the fourth child and first son of William and Margaret Cross; his father was a Pullman porter, a job that was steady and resulted in economic security, and his mother worked at different times as a maid and a factory worker. Although both of his parents had about 2 years of college—advanced education for their time—the social context did not allow them to translate their education into related employment. Thus, although Cross’s parents valued education, they did not see it as a guaranteed avenue leading to advancement.

Cross’s parents encouraged their children to read broadly and to value learning, but they also communicated messages to their children that are now well documented in the research literature. Cross’s father encouraged him to go to college but also pressured him to pursue a skilled trade that would enable him to support himself as an adult. He did not want his son to be educated but unemployable. Cross chose not to pursue a skilled trade, initially a source of tension between him and his father, and was the only one of his siblings (Dolores, Shirley, Charlene, Charles, and Judith) to attend college. Cross’s mother communicated a different message. She insisted that Cross could do anything he wanted to do, but she also pointed out that to be successful, he needed to be much better at it than others, if he expected to succeed and be taken seriously. She also indicated that even if he were better than others, he might not be rewarded at the level that he should. Thus, there was this unstated notion of a racialized world, present in the household but never made explicit. However, until he was about 10 years old, Cross’s mother actively protected him and his siblings from some of the negative events that were happening in society as they were growing up. Cross describes the notion of becoming aware of race at about age 10 as a sledgehammer that initially took all of the fun out of life.

Origins of Cross’s Nigrescence Model

Although there were many things that contributed to the development of the original Nigrescence model, three of these stand out: pursuing clinical psychology for his master’s degree, the Black Power movement in the mid- to late 1960s, and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. After completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology, Cross enrolled in a master’s program in clinical psychology in 1963. In this program, with its emphasis on process, Cross developed a keen interest in identity change and became fascinated with experiencing changes in the self without conscious awareness of the process.

Although Cross had encountered Black professionals before he had attended college, he describes these individuals as too different from his experiences to identify with as role models. However, the Black movement’s emphasis on African Americans having the power to be anything they chose to be—an idea initially inculcated by his mother—led him to embrace this idea in a way that he had not done earlier. Reading books like From Superman to Man, with its documentation of the consanguinity of many Blacks and Whites, supported this notion. Cross concluded that what the Black movement and specific subgroups like the Black Panthers were doing was putting African Americans through a conversion experience that resulted in a change in African Americans’ conceptualization of being Black. In keeping with his training as a psychologist and the preeminence of stage theories in the psychological literature (e.g., Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson), Cross conceptualized this identity change in terms of five stages: pre-encounter, encounter, immersion/emersion, internalization, and internalization/commitment.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 served to further the development of Cross’s thinking. This event became his encounter, as described in the original Nigrescence model, leading him to immerse himself in Blackness, something that he had not yet fully done. The assassination reminded Black people in the United States of (a) the hatred and segregationist beliefs grounded in miseducation, (b) their existential connections to being Black, and (c) the importance of responding as a community. Going to Princeton in 1969 put Cross in a forum where he could discuss his ideas with other intellectuals; this environment supported the seminal publication of his original Nigrescence model in the journal Black World in 1971.

From the Original to the Expanded Nigrescence Model

In 1991, Cross revised his model to account for greater identity variability at the pre-encounter and internalization stages. In the original formulation, everything linked to pre-encounter was thought to be negative and potentially pathological. Cross realized that the pre-encounter stage also needed to account for African Americans who do not base their identity on an attachment to Black people and Black culture (i.e., people with low racial salience). To capture the negative dimensions of pre-encounter, themes of racial self-hatred and miseducation were advanced. Thus, the revised model separates negative (miseducation and racial self-hatred) and low-salience (assimilation and other low racial salience exemplars) dimensions in the explication of pre-encounter.

This multidimensionality was also extended to internalization. All internalization identities accorded moderate to high salience to Blackness, but some were monocultural perspectives (e.g., Black Nationalist or Afrocentric perspectives), others had a dual-cultural frame (Black bicultural and biracial perspective), and others seemed to combine their sense of Blackness with two or three additional identities (multicultural perspectives). In the revised model, Cross also argued that the content of the identity stage was unrelated to individual well-being. In other words, assimilation, Afrocentricity, and multiculturalism identities may be divergent but equally efficacious pathways toward mental health.

The revised model explicates that at some point in life, a person may experience Nigrescence or Black identity change as a corrective to negative identity dynamics (miseducation or racial self-hatred). Change may also occur in a person who starts out in life with an assimilated worldview but, due to some encounter, may gravitate toward an identity that accords moderate to high salience to race. Thus, the revised model allowed researchers and therapists to better predict and explain the wide range of identity types and levels of well-being found in any large sample of African Americans.

The development of the expanded Nigrescence model in 2001 was due, in large part, to the development of the Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS), a scale that was originally conceived of as an operationalization of the revised model. In developing the CRIS, Cross and his colleagues began to describe racial identity in terms of attitudes rather than stages. The expanded model consists of four sets of attitudes (with the same names as the original four stages), each incorporating several worldviews that are relatively independent. Thus, an individual’s racial identity is best described in terms of his or her racial identity attitude profile and not the stage that the individual is in.

Cross’s Legacy

Cross’s contributions to counseling and psychology have been tremendous. First, he has made a tremendous contribution in the theoretical realm. His initial conceptualization of Black racial identity as a stage model with movement from poor mental functioning to mental health stimulated several decades of research and theorizing on Black identity and other cultural identities and continues to have an impact on these fields to this day. The changes in the Nigrescence model over the past 3 decades (1971, 1991, 2001) have also demonstrated the important and oft-neglected relationship between theory and empirical research, and the most recent conceptualization is likely to stimulate another generation of researchers.

Second, although Cross’s place as a theorist is well established, he has also had a tremendous impact on the empirical literature. There have been numerous empirical studies on the stages that he proposed in 1971 and the relationship of those stages to psychological functioning. The Racial Identity Attitude Scale, developed by Thomas Parham and Janet Helms in 1981, was based on a Q-sort that Cross had developed to examine Black racial identity stages, and was the preeminent measure of Black racial identity attitudes for more than 2 decades. Scores on the CRIS, which is the operationalization of the expanded model, have been validated for use in adolescent, emerging adult, and adult populations (a feat that has not been accomplished with any other measure of this type) and provides a context for the study of Black racial identity attitudes from a life-span perspective. Additionally, generalizable profiles of Black racial identity attitudes based on the expanded Nigrescence model have been reported for the first time in the empirical literature.

Cross’s work has demonstrated that Black identity is a complex construct that is worthy of serious research scrutiny. He and his colleagues have shown that it is possible to develop a sound measure of Black racial identity attitudes that holds up under rigorous psychometric scrutiny. Finally, although Cross’s focus has been on Black identity, his ideas are applicable to other cultural groups and are likely to have a continuing and profound impact on research examining cultural identity attitudes.


  1. Cross, W. E., Jr. (1971). The Negro-to-Black conversion experience. Black World, 20(9), 13-27.
  2. Cross, W. E., Jr. (1991). Shades of Black: Diversity in African American identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  3. Cross, W. E., Jr. (2001). Encountering Nigrescence. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 30-14). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Cross, W. E., Jr., & Fhagen-Smith, P. E. (2001). Patterns of African American identity development: A life span perspective. In C. L. Wijeyesinghe & B. W. Jackson (Eds.), New perspectives on racial identity development: A theoretical and practical anthology (pp. 243-270). New York: New York University Press.
  5. Cross, W. E., Jr., & Vandiver, B. J. (2001). Nigrescence theory and measurement: Introducing the Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS). In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 371-393). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Gardner-Kitt, D. L., & Worrell, F. C. (2007). Measuring Nigrescence attitudes in school-aged adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 30, 187-202.
  7. Vandiver, B. J., Cross, W. E., Jr., Fhagen-Smith, P. E., Worrell, F. C., Swim, J. K., & Caldwell, L. D. (2000). The Cross Racial Identity Scale. Unpublished scale.
  8. Vandiver, B. J., Cross, W. E., Jr., Worrell, F. C., & Fhagen-Smith, P. E. (2002). Validating the Cross Racial Identity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49, 71-85.
  9. Worrell, F. C., Vandiver, B. J., Cross, W. E., Jr., & Fhagen-Smith, P. E. (2004). The reliability and validity of Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS) scores in a sample of African American adults. Journal of Black Psychology, 30, 489-505.
  10. Worrell, F. C., Vandiver, B. J., Schaefer, B. A., Cross, W. E., Jr., & Fhagen-Smith, P. E. (2006). Generalizing Nigrescence profiles: A cluster analysis of Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS) scores in three independent samples. The Counseling Psychologist, 34, 519-547.

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