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Racial identity and African Americans with disabilities: theoretical and practical considerations.

Racial identity development is the focus of increasing attention in counseling and psychological services (Cross, Parham & Helms, 1991; Helms, 1990; Parham, 1989; Phinney, 1990). Smith (1989) contended that racial identity is a key component of psychosocial adjustment and necessary for the psychological health of all individuals. Racial identity development may be defined as the process through which an individual examines the "psychological" (sense of belongingness and commitment), "cultural" (awareness, knowledge, and acceptance of cultural and social traditions), "physical" (acceptance of physical features of racial group), and "sociopolitical" (attitudes toward social and economic issues of racial group) aspects of being a member of one's racial group along with the value and emotional significance associated with that membership (Sanders-Thompson, 1992; Tajfel, 1981).

According to Tajfel (1981), the construct of racial identity development may be a more salient issue for ethnic minorities because the physical manifestations (e.g., skin color) of race can be assigned negative social values in American society. For example, African Americans are constantly forced to examine their racial status in several aspects of life (e.g., work, school) (Johnson, 1990). Helms (1990) suggested that African Americans' feelings of self-worth may be associated with their assessment of racial status as a minority group member. Thus, racial identity development can be a crucial aspect of personality development for African Americans. As noted by Helms (1990), intrinsic to racial identity is the belief that individuals need an appreciation of group identification in order to maintain a healthy sense of personal identity.

While a large portion of the racial identity development research has focused on nondisabled African Americans, little, if any, attention has been devoted to African Americans with disabilities. The omission of persons with disabilities in the racial identity literature is surprising given the large percentage of African Americans with disabilities. For example, the incidence of disability among African Americans is nearly double (14.8%) the incidence in the White community (8.4%) (Bowe, 1992); however, African Americans comprise only 12% of the American population. Furthermore, the lack of attention in the literature devoted to the racial identity development of African Americans with disabilities seems to imply that racial identity development is the same for both disabled and nondisabled African Americans. The notion that racial identity development is the same for all African Americans, regardless of disability, is difficult to endorse due to the large psychosocial impact that a disability can have on an individual's life (Wright, 1983).

According to Wright (1983), the stigma attached to disability status in American society can be so intense and pervasive that it can overshadow other personal characteristics (e.g., ethnic/cultural attributes) that comprise the individual's self-concept. Walker (1988) noted that although some societies looked upon individuals with disabilities with "awe and reverence," in most societies disability has traditionally been associated with tremendous negativism. In the most recent past, as indicated by Walker, persons with disabilities have been "tolerated but not allowed to participate fully in society" and have been "consistently economic deprivation and dependency" (p. 184). Thus, the powerful effects that disability status can have on an individual's sense of self, of which racial identity development can be an integral part, seems evident (Alston & McCowan, 1994; Alston & Mngadi, 1992).

The purpose of this article is to explore the racial identity development of African Americans with disabilities. Cross' (1971, 1978) model of racial identity development for African Americans, along with Parham's (1989) revisions of the model, will serve as the foundation for the discussion. A brief historical perspective on racial identity theory will be offered. Also, the interplay between disability and racial identity will be examined. Lastly, implications for rehabilitation counseling practice and research will be provided.

Historical Perspectives of Racial Identity Theory

The emergence of literature proposing theories and models of African American racial identity was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Literature on racial identity began appearing in the early 1970's and concentrated almost exclusively in counseling psychology and psychotherapy journals. It was hoped that if practitioners could understand the process by which the Black client "becomes" Black, they would be more sensitive to the racial issues confronting the client in therapy, Numerous researchers explored and continue to explore this concept from several perspectives. Helms (1990) identified two major racial identity theoretical frameworks. The first perspective is often referred to as the (Black) client-as-problem perspective (CAP). CAP focused on Black identity development merely as a consequence of the often volatile zeitgeist of the Civil Rights Movement in which racial oppression of African Americans consumed intellectual thought and social activism. In short, the CAP racial identity perspectives were designed primarily for the purpose of relieving White counselor anxiety by providing them with a method of predicting the therapeutic behavior of Black clients (Helms, 1990). Researchers believed that an African American client's behavior or social/political thought (e.g., whether they referred to themselves as Colored, Negro, or Black) would enable counselors to identify which Black clients would be problematic for therapy (Dizard, 1970; Jackson & Kirschner, 1973; Vontress, 1971).

The second major perspective of Black racial identity development consists of the Nigrescence or Black Racial Identity Models (NRID) and is the perspective most widely used. Nigrescence is defined as the developmental process through which one "becomes Black" (Helms, 1990). Here, Black does not refer to complexion, but the manner in which African Americans evaluate themselves and their reference group (Helms, 1990). NRID models differed from CAP models in that the former models explained racial identity as a normal part of the developmental process as African Americans attempt to become "self-actualized" (Maslow, 1970), rather than a process which occurs in response to racial oppression. Generally, models of Nigrescence propose that African Americans progress from the least healthy stages of White definitions of identification to the most healthy stages of identification which is self defined and transcends racial demarcation. Several authors have proposed NRID models (Cross, (1971); Dizzard (1970); Jackson, (1975); Milliones (1980); and Vontress (1971)).

The Cross Model of Racial Identity Development

Cross (1971, 1978) introduced one of the first process models of racial identity development. As suggested earlier, the aim of process models is the identification of developmental stages through which a person progresses in discarding an old identity and achieving a new identity. Cross developed a four stage process model of racial identity development in Blacks which was believed to occur during late adolescence/early adulthood. It should be noted that Cross used the term Black as opposed to African American. As a result, the term Black will be used when describing the four stages of Cross' model and Parham's (1989) revisions.

According to Cross (1971, 1978), an individual begins in the Pre-encounter stage. It is proposed that the individual in this stage views the world from a White frame of reference and does not accept Blacks as a valuable reference group. The person in this stage holds positive attitudes toward Whites and negative attitudes toward Blacks. Interactions with Blacks are minimal or nonexistent, and the individual aspires to White customs and values.

Individuals enter stage 2, the Encounter stage, when they experience shocking events of a personal or social nature (e.g. racism) that are inconsistent with their White frame of reference. It is during this stage that individuals realize that the White frame of reference is inappropriate, and they fluctuate between clinging to this old identity and facing the challenge of developing a new identity. This stage is characterized by feelings of confusion, hopelessness, anxiety, depression, and eventually anger and euphoria. These psychological consequences associated with the absence of a stable identity motivate the individual to begin an active search for a new Black identity.

When individuals decide to begin the search for a new identity, they enter the Immersion-Emersion stage. This stage is characterized by a period of transition during which the person struggles to discard the pre-encounter reference group orientation while at the same time becoming greatly involved in the development of a Black identity. In order to achieve this goal, the person withdraws from interactions with Whites and immerses oneself in various aspects of the Black culture. During this stage, all facets of the individual's life must pertain to the Black culture.

The Immersion-Emersion stage is also characterized by "either/or thinking," meaning all that is Black is good and all that pertains to White is bad. In essence, the person holds positive attitudes toward Blacks and negative attitudes toward Whites. Tension, emotionality, and defensiveness on the part of the individual are also associated with this stage. Although one's recognition of Blackness at this stage is very high, it has not been internalized.

As individuals begin to achieve a greater understanding about "what it means to be Black," they enter the Internalization stage. This stage is characterized by a sense of inner security and self-confidence in one's Blackness. According to Cross (1971, 1978), the person during this final stage displays a calm demeanor, psychological openness, and a decline in anti-White attitudes. Black remains the primary reference group, but the individual migrates toward a nonracist perspective.

Parham's Revisions of the Cross Model

Parham (1989), in recognizing that some of the basic premises of the Cross model required reexamination, proposed several revisions and extensions. First, Parham suggested that the individual's initial attitudes can coincide with any 1 of the 4 stages of development. After this initial stage, the person can (1) move in a stagewise linear fashion through the stages (as originally proposed), (2) stagnate or not progress, or (3) re-cycle through the stages (including backwards movement through the stages). Thus, one's initial attitudes are not confined to those of the Pre-encounter stage (as originally postulated) and movement through the stages is not restricted to a stagewise progression from Pre-encounter to Internalization.

Second, Parham (1989) proposed that racial identity development is a life-long process that begins in adolescence/early adulthood and is subject to continuous change. Parham suggested that a person may re-cycle through the stages of development in response to certain life cycle tasks encountered in early adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood. Therefore, racial identity development is not confined to late adolescence/early adulthood (as originally postulated). Finally, Parham suggested that movement from one stage to the next can be propelled by both negative experiences with Whites (original formulation) and positive experiences with Blacks. Thus, racial identity development does not begin solely in response to racism.

Disability and Racial Identity Development

Although Parham's (1989) revisions and extensions of Cross' (1971, 1978) model allow for more individual differences with respect to the how, when, and why of the process of racial identity development, they do not necessarily allow for the inclusion of disability into the racial identity development equation. However, it seems very likely that some African Americans with disabilities may not solely view themselves with respect to race. Their disability may be an equally salient aspect of their identity, and they may consequently identify more with individuals who share their disability (Reynolds & Pope, 1991). As a result, these individuals may not progress according to Cross (1971, 1978) and Parham's ideas of racial identity development.

For example, in an article on African American deaf adolescents, Anderson and Grace (1991) shared the following anecdote: "A Black deaf adolescent female was asked which community she identified with most: the Black community or the deaf community. She replied without hesitation, 'I'm black deaf. My community is the Black deaf community." The young lady's statement demonstrates that some African Americans with disabilities are not able to choose and should not have to choose between identifying with members of their racial group and individuals who share their disability. These individuals have achieved an integrated identity that renders such a choice impossible. It can be suggested that race and disability are inseparable parts of their identity. For African Americans with disabilities, racial identity development does not occur in a vacuum. Any exploration of racial identity occurs in the context of the disability. Consequently, any information gathered about their identity as an African American is filtered through the "lens" of their disability.

Another consideration is that racial identity development for African Americans with disabilities may be disability specific, which means that it may not apply as strongly to persons with certain disabilities. For example, African Americans who are blind may have greater difficulty understanding the concept of racial identity. In fact, it may be more difficult for them to comprehend the importance that race has in the United States because so much depends on seeing the color of a person's skin when making judgements about character and behavior. Also, the cognitive and social level of some persons with mental retardation may limit their understanding of racial identity. For example, an African American with mental retardation may not realize the insult of a racial joke intended to demean African American culture and standards. African Americans of average intelligence constantly interpret and evaluate the subtleties, nuances, and motivations of racism as well as the effects of racism on one's identity.

It may also be the case that racial identity development is context specific. For example, the racial identity of some African Americans with disabilities may assume greater relevance when they are with other African Americans. This observation is not to suggest that African Americans "forget" about their disability when in the company of other African Americans, but the common experience of being an ethnic minority may be more prominent in the individual's mind than the disability. For example, if an African American with a disability attends an event (e.g., party) where most persons present are African American, then increased contemplation may be given to "what it means to be African American." The conversations/debates at the party will likely center around Black political/social issues and the music will likely reflect popular Black culture. The person's interactions with other African Americans may serve to motivate examination of racial identity.

However, the opposite may be true when the African American person with a disability is in a social gathering with a predominant group of persons with disabilities from other racial backgrounds (e.g., White Americans). Racial awareness may exist, but disability issues are likely to eclipse ethnic differences and dictate the nature of social interaction. The common experience of disability adjustment will likely function to lower common social barriers based on racial criteria. Therefore, the need to develop a strong racial identity with Black culture is lessened. Consequently, the African American with the disability may not become adept at negotiating situations requiring racial interpretation (e.g., racial slur).

It can be suggested that age-at-onset of disability is significant in the racial identity development of African Americans with disabilities. For example, it is likely that African Americans with congenital disabilities will simultaneously incorporate disability and race into their identity development. Since both statuses (disability and African American) are present at birth, the opportunities to learn survival strategies relevant to being an ethnic minority and having a disability would likely be a natural part of maturity and human development. In contrast, African Americans with adventitious disabilities may experience a sudden shift in identity development. The onset of disability may interrupt or completely halt the psychological and social exploration of their African Americanism. The demand for medical/psychological/social adjustment to disability may overshadow or replace previous pursuits of Black identity development.

Implications for Rehabilitation Counseling Practice

Recognizing that African Americans can have different attitudes of racial identity may help rehabilitation professionals improve their counseling services to African Americans with disabilities. For example, rehabilitation professionals may want to pay particular attention to African American clients who display pre-encounter or immersion attitudes (e.g., Extreme pro-White-anti-Black or pro-Black-anti-White attitudes). Parham and Helms (1985) found that African American individuals with these attitudes exhibit low self-esteem. Moreover, Carter (1991) reported that pre-encounter and immersion attitudes were positively associated with clinical conditions such as self-reported anxiety, memory impairment, alcohol and drug concerns, and paranoia. Carter suggested that persons with a predominant pre-encounter attitude may feel as if they exist on the borders of two worlds, perhaps feeling at some level not "fully" accepted by Whites, while simultaneously dreading contact, association, and interactions with African Americans. In contrast, Carter asserted that immersion attitudes, which entails searching for one's African American identity, may influence an individual to engage in what is often thought to be stereotypical behavior associated with popular images of Black culture (e.g., drug use). These clients are likely to need help (e.g., psychoeducational material and/or support group participation) to increase their level of self-esteem and alleviate psychological distress before embarking on rehabilitation goal attainment.

African American clients at Cross's (1971, 1978) pre-encounter or immersion stages will likely display behaviors which signal these attitudes. For example, they may dress or groom themselves in a manner which suggest over-identification with White culture, or they may speak in a manner which suggest political and social Black militancy as an overcompensation for previous negative feelings toward Black culture. If rehabilitation professionals suspect either of these attitudes, they can attempt to diagnostically identify African American clients at the pre-encounter or immersion stages by administering the Racial Identity Attitude Scale (Parham & Helms, 1981).

Racial identity attitude may also help to explain a client's racial preference for rehabilitation counselors. Several authors have found an association between therapeutic trust and counselor race among African American clients receiving therapy (Atkinson, 1983; Bernstein, Wade, Hofmann, 1987; Parham & Helms, 1981). Again, rehabilitation clients with pre-encounter and immersion attitudes may express cultural distrust reflective of their pro-White-anti-Black or pro-Black-anti-White racial identity stance. To counter client resistance stemming from preference for a counselor of a particular race, the rehabilitation counselor must remain cognizant of the stage theory of racial identity and express an openness to the political/social perspective of the African American client while avoiding criticism of their developmental level of racial identity.

As asserted earlier, the racial identity development of an African American with a disability may be complicated by psychosocial adjustment issues pertaining to the disability. According to Reynolds and Pope (1991), counselors must attempt to facilitate an integration of identity between two group memberships when serving individuals who are members of more than one oppressed group (e.g., ethnic minority and disabled). Thus, if an African American client expresses or displays an emotional struggle with choosing between or identifying with being Black and having a disability, the rehabilitation professional may propose that the client not make an "either/or" decision. The client's perception of the struggle should be explored, and the potential psychological harm of denying either identity emphasized. The rehabilitation professional should highlight the strengths of both communities and the value of dual membership.


Knowledge about attitudes of racial identity is valuable for any rehabilitation professional who wishes to understand African American people, particularly African Americans with disabilities. Greater understanding about the psyche of racial identity development of African Americans will likely lead to less professional-client conflict and enhanced rehabilitation service success. An African American's level of racial identity may be influenced by sociocultural (e.g., family, peers), psychological (e.g., self-concept), personal (e.g., coping style) and physical (e.g., skin color) attributes as well as systematic forces (e.g., racial discrimination). Thus, through an analysis of the various influences that may affect African Americans, it might be possible to assess their type and level of racial identity development (Carter, 1991). Helms (1990) noted that such a psychodiagnostic assessment might aid human service professionals in developing a better understanding of the role racial identity may have in their clients' psychological and emotional adjustment.

Despite the apparent soundness of the assumptions described in this article, little, if any, empirical evidence exist to substantiate its relevance for African American persons with disabilities. Studies are needed which attempt to define more clearly the strength of association between psychosocial adjustment to disability and the higher stages (Encounter and Internalization) of Cross's (1971, 1978) racial identity attitudes among African American clients in rehabilitation. In addition, investigations are recommended which measure African American clients' perception of the relative influence between disability membership and minority membership on self-concept and psychological functioning.


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Author:Feist-Price, Sonja
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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