Understanding the Social Construct of Blackness

As a non “white” or non “black” Christian looking in as the church attempts to makes sense of whiteness, I have many concerns. When Christian’s resort to using terms like whiteness or blackness to explain the myriad of sinfulness expressions of partiality and with the current conversation more focused on the social construct of whiteness, very little attention is given to the social construct of blackness.

Psychological theories on Black racial identity began about 48 years ago with the premise that Americans with darker skin needed to find their own cultural identity.  William E. Cross’s 1971 Nigrescence Black Racial Identity theory proposed to define black identity by explaining the stages that a person of color goes through as they seek to “become more authentic in their identity”. Cross initially entitled his theory the Negro to Black Conversion Experience: Toward a Psychology of Black Liberation. In essence, Cross sought to offer a process of becoming “Black, with a capital B.

While James Cone, a prominent Black Liberation theologian was forming this thoughts to write Black Theology & Black Power in 1969 and A Black Theology of Liberation in 1970, Cross was growing as a prominent theorist on black identity and racial identity development. Where Cone’s theological goals consisted of asking black Christians to reject the “white church”, Cross’s research led him to ask black Americans to reject “white culture”. Both Cone and Cross used their academic influences to create black identity that was distinctively separate from white people in general, and “white culture” specifically, which today is called the “majority culture”.

Cross focused his entire career looking at the psychology of Black Americans, specifically on “psychological liberation under conditions of oppression”. Born in 1940, he earned a BA in psychology, along with completing a two year clinical internship in a mental hospital, which allowed him to observe and understand the role that process and development has on a person’s level of functioning. He bypassed the masters degree and completed his doctorate, which allowed him to jump start African American studies at Princeton.

Cross is a secular researcher, which did not allow him to consider the body/soul connection. He focused his studies and research solely on the body in relation to environment, or in this case, culture. Cross was transfixed by the identity process, specifically looking at how a person can change without intentionally pursuing that change. It is well known in the the field of psychology that researchers can make a name for themselves by developing their own systematic working theories on their human behavior. Suffice it to say, Cross attempted to model his Black Identity theory on Eric Erickson’s Stages of Psycho-social Development or Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Developmennt.

In reality, Cross wanted to move away from the term “Negro”, and all the historical baggage attached to that label. He theorized that a label can change people’s perceptions about themselves, without realizing or acknowledging that the only Biblical labels that have true motivational yet definitive qualities are “chosen, royal, holy” (1 Peter 2:9, Ephesians 1:3-4)

Like Cone, Cross was deeply influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to his Nigrescence Theory. Two main factors that helped him develop his theory were

1) his pursuit of the Black Power movement in the mid- to late 1960s, and 

2) the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968

Cross’s Black Identity model and Cone’s Black Liberation theology have become the foundation for similar contemporary identity models of various ethnic and minority groups, like Native American Identity, Women’s Identity, Gay-Lesbian Identity, and Asian American Identity, etc. Cross and other racial identity researchers assumed that assimilating into “white culture” was “psychologically unhealthy” and he sought to understand how black identity transformed throughout the historical timeline, as well as understand the conversion process to “Blackness”.

Cross writes, “I have attempted to construct a model depicting the various stages persons traverse to become Black oriented. In it’s current form (1971), it might best be called a phenomenological interpretation of the Negro to Black conversion experience“.

Nigrescence Black Identity Development Model

Cross’s theory proposed that Black identity is transformed from unhealthy to healthy through a 5-stage process. It went through a series of revisions and became a 4 stage model in 1991 after a psychological inventory, the unpublished Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS), was developed. Some of the statements on the CRIS inventory were :

  • I am not so much a member of a racial group, as I am an American.
  • Blacks place more emphasis on having a good time than hard work.
  • Privately, I sometimes have a negative feelings about being Black.
  • I had a strong feeling of hatred and disdain for all White people.
  • I see and think about things from an Afrocentric perspective.

The 1st process of the 1971 model is the Pre-encounter stage.

This is when a black person absorbs the beliefs and values of white culture or a “Euro-centric” identity. These individuals will believe that white is preferred and black is not. A black person will devalue their own worth and oftentimes be unaware that they are taking this position. It is assumed that there is no group cohesion with other’s who are black and the person prefers “dressing white” or wearing their hair in “white styles”.

Ekemin Uwan, a professing anti-racist public theologian seems to understand Cross’s model well. In a 2019 interview she states “a Black person may not have come into racial awareness in majority white spaces and have, in a sense, become imbibed that your culture is not as valuable, that it is not seen as the norm, not seen as the default, so you denigrate your own culture in order to assimilate

This stage is often used as the rationale for those who believe they are further along on this 5 stage model. Many who have become more enlightened in their Blackness will often accuse others who they believe are less enlightened as an “Uncle Tom” or “coon” or any number of uncharitable terms used to insult. They are often accused of hating their own, hating their blackness, trying to be white or seeking the approval of white gaze.

The 2nd process in Cross’s Black Identity theory is the Encounter stage.

This is when a black person is forced to acknowledge that racism is real and they should not try “to be white”. This typically follows a major event or series of events where the person must decide to fully become a member the Black community. Being fully black means that their emotions, their thinking, and their behaviors are now toeing the line with other Black Americans collectively, operating as a whole. This stage supposes that the event or series of events have challenged a person’s desire to “be white”. Guilt and anger is replaced by their lack of black consciousness and an emotion driven search for Black identity emerges.

Contemporary examples would be the events surrounding George Floyd, Trayvon Martin or any law enforcement involved shooting of a black person. These events seem to be the catalyst or the trigger for many to add to their identity an anti-racism activist label. For many Christians, these events become turning points in faith where they begin to wrestle with the presence of white brothers and sisters in Christ as triggering as well. It is not unusual for early psychologists to use their own lives and experiences as foundations for the development of their theories (Freud, Adler, Jung) and Cross was no different. He states that his “trigger” or encounter event was the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

The 3rd process is two fold – Immersion/Emersion stage.

Immersion is when a person surrounds themselves with visual representations of black cultural expressions in an attempt to completely reject any hint of white culture assimilation. A person will begin an activism approach to black culture by attending African cultural events, changing one’s clothes, hair and diet to reflect African culture. A person in this stage will seek out ways to explore various aspects of their African ancestral history and prefer to surround themselves with peers of their own “racial” background. They begin to attempt to “prove” they are black while disparaging anyone white. Cross assumes that anyone going through this stage will appear to hate white people in general and make statements to reflect that hatred, along with “psychological defensiveness”. As one moves through this stage, one will eventually become more cognitively aware and allow a broader worldview to take shape in their processing.

Emersion is a movement out of Immersion and results in cognitive reevaluation. Individuals will become rational in their thinking, emotionally calmer in their approach in how they present outwardly and a reexamination occurs. Experiences and identity will be re-evaluated with a more balanced lens and white hate will be abandoned.

Cross would later recount “My conversion to Blackness was in full swing. My rage and anger made it impossible to be functional in the all-white world of the insurance company and after one too many eruptions, I was terminated. By now, I was obsessed with finding ways to rejoin and payback my community. On a personal level, I was rolling out of Encounter (stage) and dropping head first, body twisting, arms flailing, both fists clinched, Afro growing an inch a day, into Immersion-Emersion (stage)”.

The 4th process is Internalization.

This occurs when a person becomes secure in who they are. Hyper black attitudes become less defensive and they are willing to establish meaningful relationships with whites. They seem to be “re-joining” wider society and will exhibit a contentedness in their identity. If a person struggled with “being black enough” in earlier stages, this is resolved in the internalization stage. There is an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral acceptance of being black and a person’s blackness becomes the background of a person’s identity. Other identity markers are accepted as more important than “race”.

The final and 5th stage of Cross’s Black Identity model is the Internalization/Commitment stage.

This is where black self acceptance becomes deeply ingrained, leading one to activism, social change and civil rights issues. Cross theorizes this is very different from the activism that occurred in stage 2, which was driven by unhealthy psychological motivations. According to Cross, activism in stage 5 is considered psychologically healthy. In this stage, a person is finding ways to understand their own blackness into a “plan of action” out of a commitment to help other blacks “find their way”.

More Historical Context

Cross was deeply entrenched in the 1960’s Black Consciousness, Black nationalism and Black Power Movements. As he was growing as a researcher and establishing himself as a professional academic, black professionals began questioning their presence in the workforce. In 1968 The Association of Black Psychologists was formed, and their siren call was “we are Black people first and psychologists second”.

Cross regularly attended the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a community activist gathering of black awareness seekers. It was here that he learned that cultural consciousness was just as valuable as racial consciousness. He shared office space with a second-rate wanna-be Black Panther organization, allowing him to have consistent access to ideology that embraced the idea that “black identity conversion transcended social class”. Cross claims that it was the director of this organization that taught him about the conversion process to Blackness.

Cross writes that he was impressed with a “rag tag team of men, untrained in warfare, who were able to ‘protect’ the black community and it was moving to see these young men in their finest hour, positioned at different points in and around the building, guns loaded and drawn, stationed at windows…waiting in silence to die”.

Cross theorized that in order to alleviate Blackness identity backsliding, which he described as going back to “former ways and survival mode”, Blackness identity must be “complemented by material change”. Later Cross discovered that his former Black conversion teacher may have been an informant and was eventually shot to death, possibly by those in his own community.

Cross’s goal was to channel the rage in the black community through constructive actions and he had a desire to “engage people where they were at and move them to a higher level of black consciousness” by overlapping different segments, activities, and organizations of the black community.

He wanted to “press forward the evolution of black consciousness, resulting in a crescendo of unity, and finally power”.

Cross led weekend meetings with “ordinary people who stepped forward to confess their previous cultural backwardness, miseducation, and self-hatred in order to proclaim healing and rejuvenating new found Blackness”. He described these meetings as devoted time to help others reconnect with “our black bodies, our hair, our lips, and total physical image”, as well as addressing “our souls, our music, and our communities”. This explains why many women will regularly reference their hair or physical attributes as a means of value to their identity as a black person or will emphasize the “soul” of music and camaraderie of their community.

Cross’s model of black identity was an attempt to merge black culture with the unbiblical label of being black as a “race”. Tragically, it was successful.

Today, it is well established that previously held “scientific” racial categories to differentiate people into a hierarchy of superiority is a myth that needs to be thrown into the pit of hell. However, due to the merging of black culture with the racial category of the “black race”, race is no longer seen as an erroneous scientific classification, but rather a dearly loved and embraced idea of “social construct”.

Interestingly, social justice advocates, both Christian and non-Christian, are quick to assert that Blackness is a racial social construct that was a necessary reaction to Whiteness. That may be true. However, many black Americans today refuse to deconstruct their identity away from the black racial category because it would mean that they would have to see themselves as something more than the color of their skin.

Cross believed that “race was as much an existential as a physical reality and that being identifiably black was both a racial predicament and cultural opportunity, a predicament in that others view our black features as a mark of inferiority, and we are forced to learn to negotiate this imposed race identity”. This early foundation of black identity development was the leading force in Cross’s theory, and has been the motivating factor for many black Americans in the 1960’s to the present. The goal was to seek their primary identity, and ultimately their value, in their “Blackness”.

Cross eventually called his theory a race and cultural identity model to help others learn how to negotiate the imposed notion of race, and embrace blackness as a culture. Race and culture became one, more specifically, the “black race” become one with “black culture”.

Uwan and many other professing Christian anti-racism activists seem to be taking their cues from Cross and allowing his influence on Black identity transformation to form own – basically adding to their identity in Christ.

Uwan states, “how we end up coming into consciousness is when something like Trayvon Martin happens”, which she describes as a “lynching”. Article after article have said the same thing about George Floyd and Breonna Tayloy, along with any other figure with more melanin killed by law enforcement.

In the interview mentioned earlier, she said that this kind of event “snaps us out of pre-encounter stage”. After an event, black people will then embrace a unifying “us vs. them” narrative. Many are psychologically convinced that black people are being killed simply for being black. However, this is not necessarily applied when the perpetrator is not white. Uwan’s direct reference of Cross’s theory, in so far that she used Cross’s theoretical language to describe what has shaped her own black identity is telling. She is not alone.

As Christians become familiar with and analyze Cross’s Black Identity model, we must be careful how we interweave our Christian identity and a gospel application with identity models developed by secular theorists and psychologists.

With a Biblical understanding of general revelation, we understand that God gives a degree of disclosure to non-Christians, for His glory and the overall good of humanity. We can grow in knowledge through the gifts and abilities that others naturally bring to society, culture, academia and the cognitive processes for the purpose of bringing order to chaos. Value them…yes. Learn from them, of course.

However, we must be cautious that we do not merge these theories with Scripture or Biblical principles to create a new way of looking at ourselves, void of considering how the Gospel is to be applied to those being saved and sanctified, which creates a believer’s new identity. We can use the vernacular of our various vocations, but we must be careful to allow Scripture to inform the vernacular, not the other way around, most importantly, when we are attempting to understand who we are in Christ.

Understanding Gospel identity formation is very different from grasping concrete objective mathematics or considering how grammar is applied when writing an essay. However, Gospel identity formation is also not as subjective as learning about political science or economics. The paradox of how a person is saved and sanctified (new identity in Christ) is both definitive and progressive, and to attempt to apply secular vocational vernacular to the work of God and the Spirit’s work in salvation and sanctification, we must proceed with caution.

Romans 1:18-21 and Romans 2:14,15, reminds us that God gives a basic understanding of Himself and has written His moral law on everyone’s hearts, saved or not. Scripture calls this our conscience, without attaching skin color to it. If our conscious is that basic understanding and knowledge of morality, right and wrong, it functions outside of cultural preferences and has no connection to skin color.

William Cross hijacks the truth of God imprinting the moral law on our hearts with a theory of cultural consciousness that promotes valuing our skin color and ethnic group affiliation and preferences, aka, culture. If psychological health is defined by Cross’s black consciousness, as one moves through his stages of Black Identity development, how is this different from those wanting to attain a higher level of white consciousness or Latino consciousness, or Asian consciousness?

We must tether ourselves to the Gospel of Christ in order to find our identity by way of justification, reconciliation to a Holy God, understanding our positional sanctified standing with God and the process of progressive sanctification.

There is nothing flippant about God’s model of identity conversion, yet many today seem to accept the idea that culture should intersect with our faith vs letting our faith in Christ be the totality of our identity in Christ, informing culture. However, having a general knowledge of secular identity models is important, if for no other reason than to know how to identify them and why we should refute them.

We can reject secular reasoning that asserts our skin color or culture should be our primary identity marker. Skin color is not tied to culture and race does not exist. Prayerfully, this article has proven that Cross and other secular theorists have succeeded in merging race, skin color and culture, creating that firmly held “social construct” that continues to reinforce the necessity of keeping the word “race” in our language, which ultimately informs how we view each other.

If we are in Christ, our identity is not the totality of our skin color or ethnic culture. If we are in Christ, regardless of our skin color, our siren call should be:

I am Christian first. My ethnic culture, as beautiful as it is, comes second and my skin color, white, black, brown or anything in between, truly is irrelevant.

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