The self can be defined as an individual’s sense of uniqueness (Harris, 1995). The self is experienced across contexts, varying in its expression, content, and function. Shweder (1990)
asserted that culture regulates “the human psyche, resulting…in ethnic divergences in mind, self, and emotion” (p. 1). In this sense, culture informs self-construals, like self-concept, which include cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions.
For groups that have experienced disenfranchisement, alienation, segregation, and institutional discrimination in the U.S. as a function of their racial and/or ethnic group membership, race and ethnicity may be especially salient in defining the self. The concept of race
generally refers to classification of a group based on shared physical and hereditary characteristics whereas ethnicity
generally refers to classification of a group based on shared ancestry, history, and cultural traits/traditions. Cornell and Hartmann (1998)
asserted that racial and ethnic identities, the respective corollaries of race and ethnicity, are two of the “most potent forces in contemporary societies” (p. 4). Thus, ethnic and racial identity may be particularly important in understanding the behavior and attitudes of African Americans.
Racial and ethnic identities represent two types of cultural identity. Analysis of these identities reveals how they are both products of “assignment (by others or society in general) and assertion (by the individuals within the group)” (Eggerling-Boeck, 2002
, p. 22). The construction of U.S. Black cultural identity occurred against the backdrop of slavery, a cultural and historical context that “erased ethnic identities” and socially assigned them to the racial identity of “Black” vis-à-vis de jure laws and related social practices. Yet, Black cultural identity is not simply derived from responses to perspectives imposed by the dominant social group (i.e., White Americans). Black Americans have also asserted themselves as an ethnic group, “…a self-conscious population that defines itself in part in terms of common descent (Africa as homeland), a distinctive history (slavery in particular), and a broad set of cultural symbols (from language to expressive culture) that are held to capture much of the essence of their peoplehood” (Cornell & Hartmann, 1998
, p. 33). One may wonder whether Black identity is a result of being Black or a result of not being White. The reciprocal processes of assignment and assertion in the formation of cultural identity highlight the dual social and psychological processes involved in racial-ethnic identity development. Black identity, thus, is partly self-affirmed and partly derived from interactions with the dominant group (Griffith, 1980
In discussing Black cultural identity, it is useful to consider the integration of ethnicity and race as ethnoracial distinctions of cultural identities. Ethnoracial identities are “historically contingent social constructions” (Bobo & Fox, 2003) that vary in salience across time and by intersections with other cultural factors including gender, socioeconomic status, and age. In this article, Black cultural identity is inclusive of both racial and ethnic identity. The terms racial and ethnic identity will be specified when citing research particular to the given construct. The following sections review the content and functions of Black identity.
Content of Black Cultural Identity
Several models exist that describe how individuals incorporate race/ethnicity into their self-construals. This section briefly describes both racial and ethnic identity models. The reader is referred to other publications for extended discussions of racial and ethnic identity theories and related measures (Cokley, 2007
; Helms, 1991; Phinney, 1990
originally articulated the process of nigrescence
for African Americans from which subsequent racial and ethnic identity theory emanated. Nigrescence describes a conversion experience wherein African Americans are psychologically transformed from non-Black worldviews to Black-oriented worldviews by progression through five statuses relative to racial identity attitudes. Although Cross and his colleagues (Vandiver, Cross, Worrell, & Fhagen-Smith, 2002
) have revised his original 1971 theory and related measure of Black racial identity, no vocational scholarship has been published using these revised resources. Thus, the literature cited herein is based on Cross’ original work and the related measure developed by Parham and Helms (1984) to assess Cross’ theory which only included four of the statuses.
The first status, Preencounter, is a race-dissonant state typified by a pro-White/anti-Black worldview. In the second status, Encounter, an African American person’s existing worldview is challenged by a critical personal experience, often prompting the individual to acknowledge the salience of his or her racial heritage within the social environment, seek out a new identity and establish identification with Black culture. The third status, Immersion/Emersion, is characterized by an increased pro-Black/anti-White orientation. The fourth status, Internalization, reflects a secure pro-Black identity and sense of self-fulfillment with acceptance of non-Blacks as well. Other articulations of racial identity development exist, including Sellers, Smith, Shelton et al.’s (1998)
Multidimensional Model of Racial Identity that conceptualized racial identity as varying across four dimensions: racial salience, racial centrality, racial regard, and racial ideology.
How relevant a person’s race is to a given context is a function of both the given situation as well as the person’s tendency to define himself or herself in terms of race (Sellers et al., 1998
). It follows then that racial identity may interrelate with the racial context of various occupational fields and environments. For example, being African American pursuing or employed in a science or engineering field where African Americans are underrepresented may make racial identity salient for one individual and yet may not be as salient for another. In this vein, both “person factors and situational cues” (Sellers et al.) give rise to individual differences in racial identity salience within the same vocational context. Racial identity salience informs how individuals interpret a situation and their subsequent behavioral responses to that situation. Accordingly, individuals’ racial identity should not be considered a static aspect of their self schema.
Ethnic identity deals with self-identification as an ethnic group member, sense of belonging to an ethnic group, involvement in ethnic group activities, and positive regard for the ethnic group (Phinney, 1990
). In a process that changes over time and context, individuals’ ethnic identity develops in a progression from attitudes of non-interest and low exploration of their ethnicity, to increased involvement in exploring and understanding what ethnicity means for them, and achieving a clear and confident sense of their ethnicity (Phinney). Thus, like racial identity, ethnic identity is also assumed to operate in a dynamic manner.
Functions of Black Cultural Identity
To understand the differing ways in which identities function, it is useful to consider how they permit efficiency in organizing, utilizing, and referencing cultural information in one’s environment. Cross and Strauss (1998)
postulated three functions of Black identity that operationalize how cultural identity helps African Americans adapt to their environment: bonding, buffering, and bridging.
Social identity theory postulates that individuals are driven to achieve a sense of belonging with in-group members, such as one’s racial and ethnic group(s) (Taijfel & Turner, 1986
). The feeling of connectedness or belonging to one’s referent racial-ethnic group motivates individuals to behave in ways that are congruent with the groups’ values and norms. Thus, individuals who positively identify with their racial-ethnic group are likely to feel a strong sense of pride in the groups’ traditions and history. Further, behaving in culturally-congruent in-group ways promotes not only identification with the in-group but recognition by the in-group as being a “good” member. This recognition, in turn, may increase African Americans’ access to culturally-relevant in-group support, whether directly received and/or indirectly perceived.
Research indicates that self-construal variables such as self-concept, self-efficacy and self-esteem are positively influenced by a grounded racial-ethnic identity (see Phinney, 1990
). The notion of bonding relative to Black cultural identity illustrates how strong cultural attachment to one’s referent racial-ethnic groups serves as a guidepost for culturally-congruent behavior and even situating personal achievement within the context of cultural group advancement (Oyserman & Harrison, 1998
Research has documented the persistent experience of racism in the lives of African Americans illustrating how it makes them psychologically and physically ill, restricts opportunities, and compromises their self-perceptions (Barnes, 2000
; Clark, Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999
; Nyborg & Curry, 2003
) and occurs in subtle forms across personal, vicarious, and group levels (Essed, 1991
). Many discriminatory situations are embedded within larger nonracist/nondiscriminatory contexts (Cross & Strauss, 1998
). As such, Black individuals must be able to sort out the stigmatizing or discriminatory elements of a given context, distinguishing their self-knowledge about their abilities from being the target of discrimination or stereotypes as a consequence of being a member of a socially marginalized racial group.
The buffering function of Black cultural identity can be facilitated by recognition of racism’s occurrence within the context of being Black (high racial salience) or by deemphasizing racism and stressing a colorblind perspective (low salience) (Cross, Strauss, & Fhagen-Smith, 1999
). Oyserman and Harrison (1998)
noted that an awareness of obstacles arising from racism (based on group membership) allows individuals to retain their personal sense of competence by providing “non self-denigrating explanations” for challenges or barriers. Black cultural identity can influence individuals’ perceived ability to (a) manage institutional and social challenges (e.g., getting a job) and (b) retain hope and motivation to realize their career aspirations (Hackett & Byars, 1996
; Jackson & Neville, 1998
). Indeed, racial identity has been shown to moderate the effects of discrimination, perceived racism and stereotype threat (cf. Davis, Aronson, & Salinas, 2006
). In short, Black cultural identity can bolster African Americans’ everyday resiliency against everyday racism, whether in an educational or occupational context or elsewhere.
Although a large percentage of African Americans live and receive k-12 education in predominantly-Black environments (Orfield, 2001
), many work in predominantly-White environments. Thus, comfort with interethnic interaction can be especially adaptive for individuals from minority cultural groups as they operate within a dominant society (Smith, 1991
). Black cultural identity informs ways of bridging with non-Black individuals and institutions (Cross & Strauss, 1998
). Research indicates that individuals who are secure in their own racial-ethnic identity have more positive attitudes toward other groups compared to those with less secure racial-ethnic identities (see Phinney, Ferguson, & Tate, 1997
Cross et al. (1999)
emphasized that Black individuals can interact with and immerse themselves into other racial-ethnic groups’ experience without losing their connection to or sense of Blackness. The psychosocial process of individuals retaining their personal racial-ethnic identity while interacting with others outside of their racial-ethnic group reflects the notion of biculturality. This process requires a blending of adaptive values and roles of both one’s native culture and the culture that surrounds them (LaFromboise & Rowe, 1983
). LaFromboise and Rowe argued that a competent, bicultural lifestyle includes skills to effectively communicate and cope with interactions across groups and skills to determine appropriate behavior across groups and contexts. A belief that facilitates biculturality is bicultural self-efficacy (BSE), the perceived confidence to interact with a cultural out-group, maintaining one’s in-group cultural identity without assimilating into that of the out-group. BSE facilitates competent navigation of multicultural situations across multiple domains (e.g., school, work) (Soriano, Rivera, Williams et al., 2004
Although operating in different cultures may result in bicultural stress if there are clashing values and self-concepts across those cultures (Smith, 1989
), Berry (1998)
argued that bicultural individuals may benefit from operating in and valuing both cultures rather than choosing one or the other. The positive benefit of a bicultural self
for African Americans is supported in research (Bell, 1990
; Soriano et al., 2004
The content of identity statuses reflect African Americans’ attitudes about how race and ethnicity fit into their self-construals. The three functions of African Americans’ Black identity inform their sense of belonging, interpretations of and coping with cultural contexts, and interactions with out-group members. In sum, the three functions of Black identity encompass the varying content of racial and ethnic identity and permit efficiency in referencing these cultural self-construals across diverse contexts (see ).
Functions and Content of Racial-Ethnic Identity