Celebrating 50 Years of Black Identity Scholarship

Honoring William Cross and the psychology of Nigrescence.

Posted Feb 21, 2021

One of the truly remarkable aspects of Black psychology is that some of the most influential writings and profound insights into Black behavior have come outside of an academic context. This is because historically mainstream academic psychology was limited by Eurocentric conceptualizations of behavior, which then limited the ability of Black scholars to write about Black behavior in culturally authentic ways. This led to the first articulation of a Black psychology not in an academic journal, but in Ebony magazine.

Ebony magazine was one of several magazines created to fill the void of positive stories and representation of Black people. Along with Ebony magazine was Jet magazine and the Negro Digest. Founded in 1942 by John H. Johnson of the Johnson Publishing Company, the Negro Digest was later renamed Black World. The mission of Black World was to cover positive stories about the African American community.

It is appropriate during Black History Month that we recognize the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential Black psychologists, William “Bill” Cross, and his influential article published in Black World, “The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience: Toward A Psychology of Black Liberation.” (Cross, 1971). Bill Cross is most deserving of recognition because psychology has not done a good job of recognizing the discipline shaping contributions of BIPOC scholars (e.g., see study by Haggbloom et al., 2002 of 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century).  

Just as Joseph White’s article “Toward A Black Psychology” helped to usher in the modern multicultural psychology movement, Bill Cross’ article introduced the Nigrescence model of Black racial identity that would be the basis of one of the most influential themes in not only Black psychology, but also multicultural psychology research and practice.

Nigresence Model—A Primer

Having been influenced by Joe White’s article, Bill was interested in articulating a psychology of Black liberation under the conditions of oppression. Keep in mind that Bill was a young man living through the civil rights movement and Black power movement. During the protests, civil disobedience, and social discord that characterized much of the 1960s and early 1970s, Bill carefully observed the experiences and behavior of Black people. Using phenomenological data (i.e., participant observation and interviews), he identified what he believed to be five stages of the development of a psychology of Black liberation.

Stage 1: Pre-Encounter

In this stage, the person is socialized to view and think of the world as being non-Black or anti-Black. The person has a predominantly Eurocentric worldview and thinks and behaves in a manner that degrades Blackness. For this person, there is a paradox in becoming assimilated or “a good American” that results in the person becoming anti-Black and anti-African.  

Stage 2: Encounter

In this stage, there is an experience that shatters the person’s feeling about herself/himself and their interpretation of the condition of Black people in America. For many Black people, the death of Martin Luther King Jr. was so unsettling that it caused those who were previously in the Pre-Encounter stage to search for a deeper understanding of the Black experience and the Black Power movement. Common encounters include witnessing a friend being assaulted by the police and watching televised reports of racial incidents. Experiencing the encounter resulted in the individual either feeling guilty about having “left” the race (e.g., not being involved enough in issues impacting Black people) or for having engaged in behaviors that degraded their Blackness (e.g., engaging in negative racially stereotypical behaviors). Individuals in this stage also became increasingly angry because of the way they had been socialized to be anti-Black and oriented more toward white people. The combination of guilt and anger thrust the individual in search of their Black identity.

Stage 3: Immersion-Emersion

In this stage, the person completely immerses herself/himself in the world of Blackness, which is a liberation from whiteness. Everything that is Black is good and romanticized. These feelings are coupled with an intense dislike and hatred of white people. Individuals who fixated or stagnated at this stage are believed to have a “pseudo” Black identity because it is based on the hatred of white people rather than the affirmation of a pro-Black perspective. Stagnation at the immersion into Blackness is intense (Cross believed racist) to the point where a person begins to plateau and emerge out of the intense emotional place to gain awareness and control of their behavior.

Stage 4: Internalization

In this stage, the person achieves a feeling of inner security and is more satisfied with herself/himself. While the person is open to discussions or plans of action, they do not actually act on it. In other words, the person is not committed to a plan of action. Their pro-Black attitudes are more open, less defensive, and not rooted in anti-white attitudes.

Stage 5: Internalization-Commitment

In this stage, the person has moved from an uncontrolled rage toward white people to a controlled anger toward oppressive and racist institutions. The person channels this anger and is actually committed to a plan of action to fight all forms of oppression. The person actively tries to change their community. Individuals in this stage are compassionate toward people who have not completed their process of self-actualization and Black liberation.

Over the years the model has been critiqued for various methodological, theoretical, and philosophical reasons. For example, Afrocentric psychologists have criticized the model for epistemological limitations (i.e., trying to understand African people using non-African-based models and failing to recognize the centrality of spirituality) (Akbar, 1989; Nobles, 1989). In response to the critiques, Cross has consistently maintained an intellectual curiosity motivated solely by his consistent pursuit of better understanding Black identity.

Additionally, there has been a theoretical and empirical evolution that has resulted in reconceptualizing the model away from a developmental perspective (i.e., stages) and toward a recognition of individuals being able to simultaneously have different racial identity attitudes that should be conceptualized as identity clusters (Cross & Vandiver, 2001; Vandiver et al., 2001).  

The model remains very popular and is foundational for the psychology of identity. As a heuristic the model has proven to be an especially effective way to articulate how individuals from minoritized groups (e.g., LGBTQ individuals, women, other racial or ethnic minorities) go through a psychological process from being socialized to have negative beliefs about their social identity group, to experiencing a period of intense group love and romanticization combined with disdain toward the oppressor, to finally internalizing a healthy embrace of their identity that is not contingent upon the denigration of their oppressor. Arguably, this model is the foundation for every other model that examines how minoritized groups move from a place of pre-identity to identity salience.

The model also continues to be relevant today. When considering contemporary examples of Encounters, we see that Black people are still being assaulted by the police and watching televised reports of racial incidents. These encounters have undoubtedly contributed to the activism of Black people and our allies.  

The Nigrescence Model has been especially influential in my own professional development. In fact, learning about the model in my master’s program sparked my interest in racial identity and helped inspire me to pursue a doctoral degree in counseling psychology. The Nigrescence Model has been singularly impactful in not only my research, but also my teaching. I have taught the Nigrescence Model to scores of students for over 22 years and it continues to capture the imagination of my students.

This is yet another example of the importance of teaching about the seminal contributions of Black psychologists. Few scholars are able to say that they have made an intellectual contribution that stands the test of time. Bill Cross’ Nigrescence Model is one such contribution.

References

Akbar, N. (1989). Nigrescence and identity: Some limitations. The Counseling Psychologist, 17(2), 258–263. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1177/0011000089172004

Cross, W. E., Jr. (1971, July). The Negro-to-Black conversion experience. Black World, 13-27.

Cross, W. W., Jr., & Vandiver, B. J. (2001). Nigrescence theory and measurement: Introducing the Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS). In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. M. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds), Handbook of multicultural counseling (end ed;, pp. 371-393). Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.

Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., Russell, T. M., Borecky, C. M., McGahhey, R., Powell, J. L., III, Beavers, J., & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139–152. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139

Nobles, W. W. (1989). Psychological Nigrescence: An Afrocentric review. The Counseling Psychologist, 17(2), 253–257.  https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1177/0011000089172003

Vandiver, B. J., Fhagen-Smith, P. E., Cokley, K. O., Cross, W. E., Jr., & Worrell, F. C. (2001). Cross’s nigrescence model: From theory to scale to theory. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 29(3), 174–200. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2001.tb00516.x