Racial Identity and Psychological Symptoms among African Americans Attending a Historically Black University

By Gilbert, Stefanie C.; So, Dominicus et al. | Journal of College Counseling, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Racial Identity and Psychological Symptoms among African Americans Attending a Historically Black University


Gilbert, Stefanie C., So, Dominicus, Russell, Tina Maria, Wessel, Thomas R., Journal of College Counseling


Previous research found racial identity predictive of psychological distress among African American students at predominantly White colleges. This study examined these relationships among 154 African American undergraduates attending a historically Black university. Racial identity was independent of psychological distress, suggesting that African American students' racial identity predicts psychological distress only in settings in which they are the minority.

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Racial identity can be viewed as a person's perception of sharing a common racial heritage with a particular racial group (Helms & Parham, 1990). According to Helms (1990, 1995), racial identity is characterized by certain ways of responding to cultural or racial stimuli in the environment or within one's psyche. At times, such responses are within conscious awareness; at other times, however, reactions to racial stimuli may be processed unconsciously.

At the core of Helms's (1990, 1995) theory is Cross's (1971, 1991) Nigrescence model, which consists of various stages of Black racial identity that individuals experience in a process of affirming their Blackness. These stages determine the way in which African American individuals respond to racial stimuli. Helms and Parham (1990) applied Cross's (1971, 1991) model to the development of a measure for assessing racial identity, the Black Racial Identity Attitude Scale (RIAS-B), which was subsequently revised to operationalize these stages as more continuous ego statuses rather than as discrete stages (Helms, 1995) to emphasize their fluid nature. Although individuals at each of these statuses primarily respond according to one status, they may at times exhibit elements of thinking characterized by other statuses (Helms & Parham, 1990). Each status enables individuals to understand and respond to racial information in increasingly complex ways and eventually to establish a positive, self-affirming racial identity (Helms, 1999).

The RIAS-B includes four statuses that correspond to Cross's (1971, 1991) model. In the first status of this model, Conformity (formerly known as Pre-Encounter), individuals devalue Black people and culture, deny their own Black identity, and idealize White people and White culture. After intense negative experiences with White people or very positive experiences with other Black people that challenge their former racial perspective, Black individuals may progress to the Dissonance (formerly known as Encounter) status of racial identity. Individuals at this status experience ambivalence, confusion, and anger about their socioracial identity and commitment. The Immersion/Emersion status develops as Black individuals immerse themselves in Black culture. Individuals engaged at this level tend to idealize everything that is considered to be part of Black culture and to denigrate everything considered part of White culture. At the final status of racial identity development, Internalization, individuals are positively committed to their socioracial group and demonstrate a capacity to respond objectively to members of their own racial group as well as to members of the dominant racial group.

An accumulating body of research on this topic has related racial identity to various aspects of mental health, including psychological well-being (Carter, 1991), levels of distress (Parham & Helms, 1985a), and coping ability (Neville, Heppner, & Wang, 1997). In general, pre-encounter (Conformity status), encounter (Dissonance status), and immersion (Immersion/Emersion status) attitudes have been associated with greater levels of distress (Carter, 1991; Parham & Helms, 1985a, 1985b), lower self-esteem (Munford, 1994; Parham & Helms, 1985a; Wilson & Constantine, 1999), and lower general well-being (Carter, 1991; Pyant & Yanico, 1991).

Recently, researchers examining racial identity have begun using more complex study designs. …

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