The Understanding of Race and the Construction of African American Identity

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The Understanding of Race and the Construction of African American Identity

Greenwald (1988) notes that identity development is a process by which an individual establishes a relationship with a reference group. Once this process is complete it has the potential to influence attitudes and behaviors through adoption of group values and goals. Thus, it is important to understand the relationship between external social factors and interactions, and personal understandings that inform the identity.

Social identity theory suggests that group identity development is a cognitive process that uses social categories to define self (Turner, 1982). Categories can be based on nationality, skin color, common history and oppression, and ancestry. Individuals vary in the degree to which they identify with a group. Consequently, variance exists in the commitment to roles and behaviors associated with that identity. In this study we address the influence that racial categorization strategy has on racial identity salience and attitudes.

Identity salience is a term that refers to the influence of a particular identity on behavior as a result of its properties as a cognitive schema (Stryker & Serpe, 1994). Social identities are based on the emotional significance and importance of group memberships for self-definition and their relevance to world view (Stryker, 1980). Salience affects when and how individuals access and use an identity, e.g. in integrated settings, on the job, in child rearing (Stryker & Stratham, 1985). The association between racial identity salience and African American identity attitudes was demonstrated in research conducted by Thompson Sanders (1999).

Racial group identity is only one of several possible social identities. Not all African Americans place the same importance on racial identity (Cross, Strauss, & Fhaghan-Smith, 1999). The historical realities of African American existence and individual efforts to cope and adjust result in numerous possibilities for African American identity (White & Burke, 1987), many of which have not been fully explored.

The history of African Americans in this country has been characterized as one of sustained oppression and discrimination (Robertson, 1988; Hudson, 1994). While slavery was initially justified on the basis of the need for cheap labor, a racist ideology developed to support the subjugation of people of African descent (Robertson, 1988). Individuals of African descent were characterized as subhuman, irresponsible, lazy, and stupid. They were deprived of basic human rights, including the right of self-determination. The reality of violent enforcement of slave status, and primary and secondary gains possible through submission, made internalization of this ideology a viable option for some slaves. Thus, self-labeling was hardly an option and acceptance of derogatory terminology was almost a certainty.

The emancipation of slaves brought only a brief period of relative freedom before people of African descent were again relegated to a system of oppression enforced by deprivation of political and human rights (Hudson, 1994). Rights were denied by law, a system of social norms, and terror tactics that included lynching. African American political and social efforts were thus directed toward political and social equality. There were only brief periods prior to the 1960s that directed community efforts toward African American self-image and pride (Robertson, 1988), thus inhibiting discussions of group definition and identity focused on positive culture and image.

Researchers have recognized that the study of African American identity has been incomplete (Smith, 1989; Hilliard, 1985; Ponterotto, 1989; Cross et al., 1999). We have not fully addressed the complexity, multidimensionality, or factors affecting identification. Most efforts to address the inadequacies in the literature have focused on studying a broader range of phenomena related to racial identity (Sellers, Rowley, Chavous, Shelton & Smith, 1998; Thompson Sanders, 1995, 1999; Cross et al. …


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