Current EventsEthnicity/Culture

Black Identity Theories: Secular or Sacred?

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In a recent interview at a Christian women’s conference, Ekemini Uwan was interviewed by Elizabeth Woodson, the Associate Minister at the Village Church in Dallas Texas. Uwan is a 1st generation American woman born in San Francisco to Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States in the early 1970’s. She has spent the last few years speaking and writing about why she is an anti-racist advocate. She grew up attending a Lutheran church but claims she did not “get saved” until her senior year at a California university. She worked at various jobs until she landed a position as a pharmaceutical sales rep but lost her job in 2011, which she describes was “pretty traumatic“. This led her to pursue seminary, where she graduated with an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) in 2016. She now calls herself an anti-racist public theologian.

In the interview, Uwan’s Black Americanism, or “Blackness” seemed to be her main focus with Woodson, as she earnestly pleaded for white people, specifically white women attending the conference to “divest from whiteness”. She rationalized that “its an idol that will kill white people”. With so much pejorative attention given to the topic of “whiteness” on various mediums like social media, main stream media, Christian blogs and conference platforms, there is little to no attention given to the topic of Blackness from an objective non-defensive standpoint.

As a Latina Christian looking in, there were so many problematic comments in Uwan’s interview. For brevity sake, this article will focus on Blackness, specifically the social construct of Blackness and where it came from. The irony of calling white women to  divest from their whiteness, while citing Zora Neal Hurston and Malcom X as early influences to her “Blackness”, one could call that contradictory, at best. This post will seek to inform others on the rationale behind Uwan’s comments.

“My parents always raised me with a consciousness and an understanding that I am deeply connected to Black Americans” along with “an understanding that the forces aligned against us as Black people”.

The forces that she believes are currently or were historically against black people are whiteness in general, white supremacy, and colonialism. Even though she admits she is not a slave descendant herself, she calls Black Americans who do have slave ancestry “cousins”.

The conversation became intense after Woodson asked Uwan a question about cultural racial identity and 2 Corinthian 5. As I listened to Uwan’s answer, my clinical counseling background helped me recognize that she was pulling social psychology vernacular into her response. To be honest, I am now able to understand why she uses the language she does. In her attempt to reconcile Scripture with cultural psychology, she is creating controversy when she uses secular racial identity research and theories with the Bible narrative.

Cultural 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.  Uwan applied William E. Cross’s 1971 Nigrescence Black Racial Identity theory to Woodson’s question. This 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“.

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. Today, this 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. He may have attempted to model his Black Identity theory on Eric Erickson’s Stages of Psycho-social Development or Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development.

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 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 in 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.

Uwan references this stage in her interview. 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”.

Uwan seems to understand Cross’s model well. In the interview with Woodson, 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

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. This stage supposes that the event or series of events challenges a person’s desire to “be white”. Guilt and anger is replaced by lack of black consciousness and an emotion driven search for Black identity emerges.

The Trayvon Martin shooting seemed to be Uwan’s event while attending WTS, which falls in line with the encounter stage. She described her time at WTS as a  “tough environment” and stated that her classmates did not react the way she wanted them to, which was the catalyst for her anti-racism activism.

It is not unusual for early psychologists to use their own lives and experiences as foundations for the development of their theories 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 could explain why Uwan regularly referenced her hair and her physical attributes as a means of value to her identity as a black woman throughout the course of the interview with Woodson.

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 seems to be taking her cues from Cross and allowing his influence on Black identity transformation to form her own. She states, “how we end up coming into consciousness is when something like Trayvon Martin happens”, which she describes as a “lynching”. She goes on to say that this kind of event “snaps us out of pre-encounter stage” and black people must now embrace one unifying narrative, Trayvon Martin was killed simply for being black. Uwan interjected Cross’s theory as fact, in so far that she used Cross’s theoretical language to describe what has shaped her own black identity. Interestingly, she only briefly mentions the first two stages in her interview but failed to explain the rest of the identity model. If this is the identity model lens she is using to describe her own black identity formation, it would be interesting to know which stage Uwan feels she is currently operating under.

As Christians become familiar with and analyze Cross’s Black Identity model, we must be careful how we interweave our Christian identity and gospel application with those 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.

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 our 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 our identity 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 Uwan seemed to have more to say in her interview with Woodson about how race and culture should intersect with our faith vs letting our faith in Christ be the totality of our identity in Christ. 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, 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.

We are not the totality of our skin color or ethnic culture.

Our skin color does not define us, nor does it inform our identity.

We are Christians first.

References:

Constantine, M. G., Richardson, T. Q., Benjamin, E. M., & Wilson, J. W. (1998). An Overview of Black Racial Identity Theories: Limitations and Considerations for Future Theoretical Conceptualizations. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 7(2), 95-99.

Jr., W. E. (1994). Nigrescence Theory: Historical and Explanatory Notes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 44(2), 119-123. doi:10.1006/jvbe.1994.1008

Ponterotto, J. G., Casas, J. M., Suzuki, L. A., & Alexander, C. M. (2001). Handbook of Multicultural Counseling (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Ritchey, Keyiona (2014) “Black Identity Development,”The Vermont Connection: Vol. 35, Article 12.Available at:http://scholarworks.uvm.edu/tvc/vol35/iss1/1

Vandiver, Beverly J.; William E. Cross Jr; Frank C. Worrell & Peony E. Fhagen-Smith (2002). “Validating the Cross Racial Identity Scale”. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 49 (1)

 

 

 

Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

Author Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

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