African American identity models and theories have shaped a politically charged national dialogue about what it means to be Black in the United States. Our understanding of race, ethnicity and identity has evolved significantly since the early writings of Booker T. Washington in the 19th century. Since that time, researchers have made several distinctions between race and ethnicity, mainstream and underground social psychologies of prejudice, and types of racial identity models.
The prolific body of research about African American identity provides nuanced philosophical considerations embedded in a larger national discourse that has maintained for over a century. Though this attention has produced a variety of theories and models, each trying to capture the essence of the African American experience, a researcher can feel lost and overwhelmed when emerging into this field for the first time. The purpose of this paper is to propose a method to clarify one's understanding of African American identity models. First, a discussion on epistemology, ontology and theory allows the reader to define her or his own positionality and research question in regard to racial identity. Next, a description of the philosophical underpinnings of two racial identity models, Cross' Nigrescence theory and Sellers' Multidimensional Model of Racial identity (MMRI), gives the reader a starting point in aligning her or his own philosophy with that of a model that best helps accomplish the research goals. Sellers' Multidimensional Model of Racial Identity and Cross' Nigrescence theory offer perspectives in both underground and mainstream schools of thought, which will be discussed in detail, as well as both multidimensional and stage models of African-American identity. These models are just two of many with which a researcher may best align her or his own positionality. However, the diversity found in these two examples in terms of philosophy and school of thought will guide the reader towards a better organized direction in which to continue her or his work in the often confounding realm of African-American identity development.
The first point of clarity in this discussion is the pervasive conflation of some relevant terms. Though the terms race and ethnicity, Black and African-American can have different connotations based on the socio-cultural and political contexts in which they are used, many studies use them interchangeably (Johnston-Guerrero, 2016). According to Cornell & Hartman, race refers to the physical characteristics that distinguish a group of people in larger social systems while ethnicity refers more to cultural practices and beliefs that unite a group of people, of which race can play a significant role or not (2007). Though culture is mentioned here in the review of the history of racial identity development, this paper discusses race as a social construct that identifies African-Americans.
Several perspectives inform this continuing narrative about race. One example dichotomizes social psychology research of prejudice as belonging to either the category of mainstream or underground schools of thought (Gaines & Reed, 1994). This distinction first emerged with the publications of G.W. Allport in the 1950's. This social psychologist wrote about socially constructed racial groups, just as W.E.B. DuBois had done fifty years earlier. However, Allport was unfamiliar with the work of DuBois and failed to credit DuBois in any of his published work. This exclusionary trend marks what Gaines and Reed call mainstream social psychology of prejudice. Though not the only distinction, research that cites Allport as the first contributor to this field falls into this mainstream school while those works citing DuBois instead comprise the underground school of thought. In fact, Gaines and Reed note that the 3rd edition of the Handbook of Social Psychology published in 1985 removed an original chapter on Black identity that cited DuBois, solidifying this distinction.
Another feature distinct to mainstream social psychologies is a deficit approach when investigating African-American group membership, focusing only on negative outcomes. In contrast, underground research acknowledges these negative aspects while highlighting the strengths associated with African-American group membership--such as strong community support systems and an oral tradition of passing on history. Further, mainstream research does not include any Afrocentric principles such as "a sociocultural emphasis on collectivism rather than individualism, cooperation rather than competition" (Gaines & Reed, 1994, p. 13). Mainstream research also wholly ignores the role of culture when investigating racial phenomena in society. It moves away from researching prejudice as a unique, cultural and racial phenomenon and focuses, instead, on attribution errors in human cognition. This move lumps issues of race in the United States together with other global issues of prejudice such as the holocaust and the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, ignoring the associated political and cultural contexts. In contrast, what Gaines and Reed (1994) refer to as the underground social psychology of prejudice begins with DuBois' publication, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Subsequent research in this school acknowledges that the psychological trauma experienced by African-Americans not only exists but also influences their identities. However, this research focuses on the strength of the people to overcome these obstacles and achieve in the face of adversity. This body of work has been adopted in the larger, multidisciplinary field of Black Psychology. One example cited by Gaines and Reed (1994) was conducted by Langer, Bashner and Chanowitz (1985). Though this study refers to prejudice as it pertains to individuals with disabilities, the paper gives race as an example through which the principles of what they call mindfulness can be applied. Langer et al argue that instead of avoiding characteristics that distinguish a particular group (i.e., race or physical disability), we should practice mindfulness. Through mindfulness, individuals and society focus on distinguishing characteristics instead of overlooking them, thereby challenging automated and discriminatory thought processes. In this manner, they train their minds to acknowledge race and better understand it as a meaningful aspect of a group's identity. This view of race as a multifaceted, complex social phenomenon that has value is an example of what distinguishes underground from mainstream psychology.
Beyond mainstream and underground categories lies a deeper philosophy informing the way a research question conceptualizes a construct like racial identity. Epistemology, ontology and theoretical perspective make up a significant portion of this philosophy. As a whole, these layers offer a structured approach to understanding what an inquiry assumes about the basis of reality, where and how this reality is formed and how it shapes the approach to the subject of interest (Crotty, 1998). Epistemology is a conglomerate of the basic assumptions about what constitutes knowledge--how knowledge is created, constructed, and exchanged. Alongside epistemology lies ontology, the science of being that focuses on a subject and her or his interpretation of how epistemological assumptions manifest. Finally, theory describes the philosophical lens through which one examines a phenomenon (Crotty, 1998). Figure 1 represents the relationship between epistemology, ontology, theoretical perspective and philosophy. The following section unpacks these layers of philosophy to serve as the foreground on which to conceptualize the positionalities of both Cross' Nigrescence theory and Sellers' MMRI.
Epistemology is concerned mainly with knowledge--its limits, range, and potential. It also concerns itself with ensuring that the limits of knowledge suffice in addressing...