I would fail a classed called “How to be Black”

One of the classes in my master’s program recent devoted a session on the development of black identity. In the class, the conversation centered around Cross’s model of Nigrescence (1971).  The Model of Nigrescence is a stage model in which an individual must go through stages in order to “become back”. 


Having this model introduced in class was a surprise to me because in my mind I have been black all my life.  This model does not fully explicate the relationship that I have had with my black identity. If I represent 50% of the black people in the room. If did not see my experience in the model then it is alread wrong half the time. 

In a world filled with people who want to “act black and not be black”, if becoming black on takes 5 steps I everyone would be like ….


It would appear that I was not the only person who found issue with the model as after that class and a little research, I was able to find another model that was a bit more complicated. The best I could find is the Cross and Fhagan-Smith Black Identity Life Span Model (2001).  This model is an extension of Cross’s previous model, which was only focused on the adult identity conversion to Black American identity, and expanded it a lifespan model with multiple tracks that can be used depending on a number of variables in the subject’s environment.


The life span model repositions the initial five-state from taking place only adulthood by spreading throughout the one’s entire life. Cross gives specific credit to the work of Beverly Tatum as well as Jean Phinney in expanding his original concept (2001). Cross states that Tatum work takes the pre-counter stage and adjust it to include childhood and preadolescence, then places the encounter stage as taking place during the middle school years while framing high school as the time for experiencing Erikson’s model of Identity Exploration.  Phinney’s addition was to add that identity development runs parallel to overall ego development among children of color. 

Why this is important

While substantially better than the first, this one still comes up short in addressing the culmination of the experiences of black people. It made me contemplate if you can every accurately describe the black experience to someone who does experience it? A stage model, no matter elaborate, can account for the complexities and intricacies of racial identity. Every black person experiences effects of oppressive power structures differently. The way that blackness interests with gender, class, and colorism it way too elaborate to contain on a single page. They also do not take into the fluidity of the construct of race and who that changes depending on time and space.

This is why the presence of a counternarrative is important. By examining counterstory and intersectionality in these type of discussion is can better prepare the next group of educators.

To offer more context, this was presented in a student development class that I am taking as a part of a program that studies higher education.  Most people in my program will go on to work at institutions of higher learning in some capacity either as faculty or as student affairs professionals. This in the only time in the course that is dedicated to the examining the experience of black students. I find it upsetting that they can take a single class session of their college career on black development identity and be accreditated as authorities on the subject enough to be able to enter the workforce. Meanwhile, I’m expected to sit in class with 27 years of lived experience as a black person while all the non-black people nod in agreement with the lesson.


As educators and future educators, we all must evaluate the way that we present material in class. I am not saying that as non-black people cannot teach about black topics. What am saying is that they must first address the fact the experience they are presented in only a single voice and it may not speak or everyone in the community. I know that was presented in class that day did not speak for me.


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