Becoming Black: A psychologist explores the development of identity

William Cross, professor emeritus of higher education and counseling psychology at DU’s Morgridge College of Education, has long been interested in questions of Black identity. It was the subject of a much-hailed and influential book published three decades ago and now takes center stage in a follow-up volume due out in June 2021.

In a recent Liberation Now podcast, Cross discussed his foundational work tracing what’s known as “the Negro-to-Black conversion experience.” To this day, Cross’ studies are credited with radically changing the way in which psychologists study social identities.

The recipient of the 2020 Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Applications of Psychology from the American Psychological Association, Cross agreed to field, via email, some questions from the University of Denver Magazine about his interest in questions of Black identity.

Your new book follows up on your groundbreaking volume “Shades of Black” (Temple University Press, 1991), admired for advancing a theory and model of nigrescence. What is nigrescence, and why has this topic captured your attention and imagination?

In the aftermath of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, a drive to expand one’s Black consciousness was captured by four Black psychologists, with identity-change models consisting of four to five stages, phases or steps of identity change. Nigrescence is the word used when referencing Black identity epiphanies.  Recently, the Black Lives Matter social movement triggered a resurgence in Black awareness, captured by the word “woke” and stirring increased interest in nigrescence.

How does “Black Identity Viewed from a Barber’s Chair” (Temple University Press, 2021) add to our understanding of nigrescence? 

Two of the chapters from the new book focus on nigrescence. One chapter acts as a corrective to show that in addition to my own model, three other scholars constructed similar models.  The chapter presents material showing how four observers—living in four different areas of the United States—produced models that are amazingly similar in their descriptions of nigrescence. 

[It’s interesting that] the doctoral studies for each scholar involved a heavy dose of existential psychology, and that in a general sense, nigrescence is an extension of existential thinking.  The second chapter on nigrescence confronts issues not addressed in the production of the original model back in 1971.

These issues include:

  • gender bias (as the four models were written by men)
  • social class (as the models were written between 1968–71 during the explosive growth of the Black middle-class, at the exact same time deindustrialization was devastating Black communities and undercutting progress linked to nigrescence)
  • the absence of consensus within the Black community on how to define Black identity
  • the role of individual difference in the discourse on Blackness
  • critiques of the Afrocentric approach to Black identity

Why did you choose the barber’s chair as your vantage point? 

The title speaks to my childhood experiences at the barbershop, where psychologically “normal” Black men passed in and out of the shop, as my hair was being cut. The book tries to capture Blacks as normal human beings caught within Faustian dilemmas that make them appear deviant.

Given the national conversation about identity, your book seems particularly timely. Are there any misperceptions or tropes you hope to challenge?

I trace the origin of the deficit perspective on Black life to the scholarship of a particular scholar—E. Franklin Frazier. The deficit perspective frames Black life in terms of insufficiencies, damage and absences. I show that generalizations about Black psychological deficits were driven more by myth than evidence. For example, Frazier recorded what was thought to be a rise in Black juvenile delinquency and linked this to flaws in the Black family. In his analysis he “overlooked” the fact that school overcrowding was being addressed by school shifts, meaning thousands of Black teenagers were attending school half day and [were spending] the other half on the street, generally without supervision, thus practically inviting truancy. Such is an early version of the school-to-prison pipeline that is unrelated to family structure.

In addition, the original four nigrescence models incorporated a great deal of romanticism and near magical thinking about the way developing greater racial awareness can change one’s life. Likewise, the absence of awareness was pathologized. “View from a Barber’s Chair” attempts to filter both extremes in interrogating low or high states of awareness.

Nigrescence played no small role in creating a divide between mainstream and Black psychology, resulting in the Association of Black Psychology, on the one hand, and APA Division 45—a multicultural venture—on the other. “View from a Barber’s Chair” tends to close the gap while maintaining the integrity and authenticity of the psychology of the Black experience.

Finally, the “Barber’s Chair” puts the spotlight on a dimension of Black thinking, feeling and behavior generally undertheorized in the discourse on Blackness and that is individual difference or ID. Idealogues find ID problematic in the context of trying to promote the spread of greater racial awareness. In “Barber’s Chair,” I make the case that individual difference is an epiphenomenon that neither contests nor complements a vision of greater racial awareness.  ID “happens,” and it is a marker of the group’s humanity, as differences in contexts, experiences, insights, affect, etc. all combine to produce “variability”—at the level of each person—in how life is perceived, interpreted and enacted.

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