5 Stages of African American Identity
Cross relates the transition of the Black identity through a five-stage theory of acquisition of Black identification. He called this theory Nigrescence, which is translated as: “the process of becoming Black.” The five stages progress as follows:
- Pre-encounter– the identity before the encounter, and thus refers to the initial being or frame of reference that will alter upon facing the encounter. In this stage, one is unaware of his/her race and the social implications that come with it.
- Encounter– individuals undergo an experience that suddenly and sharply calls race into perspective, and is generally an awakening to racial consciousness. This encounter makes the individual vulnerable to a new racialized worldview. Oftentimes, this occurrence is easily recalled as the first time a child was treated differently because of the color of his/her skin.
- Immersion/Emersion– the individual acts as though he/she has “just discovered Blackness.” This individual often becomes adamant in “proving that one is black,” while taking an apparent pride in their blackness and simultaneously disparaging White culture. One becomes more consciously involved with members of his/her own ethnic group to the exclusion of those from other groups. This stage is often marked by a full-fledged immersion into Black culture and a Black reference frame, and a subsequent emersion from the oversimplified, and often racist immersion experience that floods the early part of this stage. Eventually, the individual’s highly emotional response to the encounter begins to plateau and this “psychological defensiveness” is replaced by “affective and cognitive openness,” which allows for a more critical analysis and worldview formation.
- Internalization– individual’s comfort with rejoining society with a strong enough sense of his own racial/ethnic identity to be able to forge relationships with members from other racial/ethnic groups. In this stage, the individual is able to begin resolving conflicts between their worldview prior to the encounter and after the encounter. Prior to this stage, the individual is insecure about his self-identity; for instance, a Black person may have concerns with whether he/she is “Black enough,” according to his internal representation of what it is to be a good Black person. This racial/ethnic anxiety often leads to the rejection of other racial groups, accompanied by an over simplistic and stern code of Blackness, rather than a positive affirmation of pro-Black ideas and actions.
- Internalization-Commitment– involves reaching a balance of comfort in one’s own racial/ethnic identity as well as the racial/ethnic identities of others. This stage makes the distinction between individuals who have internalized their new identity but discontinue their involvement in the movement for social change, and those that have internalized their identity and continue to be agents of social change. For a “successful” transition into this stage, the individual must become their new identity, while engaging in meaningful activities to promote social equality and political justice for their group members.
According to Cross, people of color are socialized to perceive an unracialized reference frame, and are thus resistant to any information that threatens this unracial perspective. The final stage of the identity transition, internalization-commitment
Throughout one’s life one may revisit different stages and repeat steps of this process and reformulate their racial identity and opinions. Repeating stages is not a regression but often a part of greater process of integrating new information and reevaluating ideas from a more mature standpoint.