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Racial Identity Formation Patterns Essay Sample

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Racial Identity Formation Patterns Essay Sample

African American teens tend to racially group amongst themselves because race has been a central theme throughout American history; from the Constitution to the Civil War to the denial of African American citizenship and social participation. Tatum (2003) noted in her essay, “Why are all the Black Children Sitting together in the Cafeteria?” an excerpt from our textbook, From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader (2008), that ‘racial grouping begins by the sixth and seventh grades’ (p. 359). Right about the time puberty begins questions of identity for all teens generally surface. For African American teens, these questions also include ‘Who am I ethnically and racially?’ In addition, Tatum (2003) suggests, “African American teens are forced to look at themselves through a racial lens because the rest of the world does” (p. 360 ). For example, racial profiling sends a very clear message.

During adolescence, race becomes more personal and noticeable for the African American student. Finding the answers to questions like, ‘What does it mean to be a young African American?’ ‘How should I act?’ ‘What should I do?’ are all important questions, for Black teens, but the last thing they want to do is ask their parents (pp. 359-364). So, they turn to their peers for the answers. Therefore, African American children resort to self-segregation as a coping mechanism against racism. “They turn to each other for support they are not likely to receive anywhere else. Sometimes their White peers are the perpetrators of racism and if they are not; they are unprepared to respond supportively.” (p. 364). Education in African American studies would be beneficial in helping White teens understand their African American peers. Connecting yourself with people who look like you is only natural; it is a part of growing up and important to your identity development process.

Black and White Children Question Their Racial Identities
Devlin, Dutton, and Singer (1998) quoted Katz (1978) whose concepts are contrary to Tatum’s (2008) theories which indicated, White children don’t have to deal with racial identity issues, Katz (1978) on the other hand stated, “Majority group members (Whites) also experience an impaired self-identity because of race-related issues: Because United States culture is centered around white norms, white people rarely have to come to terms with that part of their identity. White people do not see themselves as white” (p. 42). White people are usually the perpetrators of racism. Nevertheless, prejudice is often camouflaged beneath polite behaviors. These subtle forms of prejudice often appear when Whites demonstrate their sense of entitlement or when they overtly or not so overtly express their destructive beliefs about the African American race in general. Perhaps the United States culture is to blame. Color discrimination is deeply rooted in American history. Being mistreated and discriminated against is a way of life for most African Americans in this country. I would also like to add that not all white people are racist, prejudice or disrespectful toward African Americans.

However, in my experience, those that are not, are too few. Prejudices that one may encounter can make one feel powerless and hopeless. It is both demoralizing and humiliating. It seems to me that White people oftentimes appear to be oblivious to discrimination and have a skewed perception about race relations. Devlin et. al (1998) pronounced White children are having difficulties with their development or racial identities because the United States is centered around them. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to even ponder, white children ever having racial identities issues. Developmental issues I can conceive. Nonetheless, I agree with Devlin et. al (1998) and Tatum’s (2003) stance that ethnic groups and racial minorities aka “African Americans” do have difficulties with their racial development process. American society has historically and continually demeans the character of African Americans, they have denied their existence, and coordinated their destruction with lynching and slavery (Swindler & Strickland, 2008). Moreover, subtle bigotry behaviors are daily occurrences that make one feel horrible and totally disrespected.

It’s no wonder African American teens experience difficulties. If you hear something about yourself long enough you start to believe it and then you begin to live up to it; because that’s what’s expected from you. Tatum (2003) postulated that during puberty “African American girls, especially those living in predominantly white communities, become aware that things have changed. ‘Their white girl friends begin to date, they are not.’ Issues of sexuality emerge and societal messages about who is sexually desirable leave African American girls feeling devalued. The media oftentimes more than not depict Black females as loud mouth, lose and sexually available. The issues at hand for these young African American women, in both the White and the Black communities, are to resist the negative stereotypes in the media and by others who seek to marginalize them. They need positive role models and positive definitions of themselves as young African American women (pp. 362-363). Likewise, Tatum (2003) also suggested “African American boys face a devalued status as a result of media images depicted of them. They are portrayed as thugs or delinquents.

However, African American boys, in predominately White schools, enjoy a certain degree of success if they are athletically inclined. Then, they are embraced by White society and even pursued by both White and Black girls” (pp. 362- 363). Young male African American athletes have emerged triumphantly, from days gone by, when segregated leagues where the norm to becoming disproportionately represented in basketball, football, track and field, boxing, and to a certain degree baseball. This demographic shift of role reversals has come about because of financial incentives, notoriety, and the high praise they are given. African American children’s athletic achievements were made possible by the generations that preceded them. Their ancestors fought and died so they could be able to live their dreams. This is another reason African American studies are essential to African American children. They need to know their legacy. Devlin et.al (1998) concluded, “Development or racial identity is difficult for White children, even as part of the majority culture ‘because United States culture is centered around white norms;’ for ethnic and racial minorities, however, such development becomes even more difficult” (p. 51).

Perhaps it is impossible to live in America’s anti-Black culture and not be exposed to racism and prejudice for both blacks and whites. However, it is important that both black and white children learn the history of African Americans. The history of African Americans can serve as a stepping stone, for all students. This type of pedagogy could help them to better understand themselves and each other. Black teenagers need to understand their history, so they can combat the negative stereotypes they are bombarded with daily. The only way to combat prevailing ideologies and negative stereotypes is to know their ancestral roots. There are many powerful and courageous African and African American men and women throughout the course of African and African American history that young Black teens can aspire to emulate. Devlin et. al (1998) quoted Comer (1989) who observed “racism interferes with the normal development of those children who are subjected to it; It hampers their ability to function at their full potential as children and later as adults.” Wow, that means African American children are doomed to a possible lifetime of dysfunction and feelings of inadequacy. Not reaching one’s full potential is a travesty. African American children just like all other children need to reach their full potential.

They can’t do that if they are denied their own existence in the history books. Tatum (2003) argued “Black parents want their children to achieve an internalized sense of personal security, to be able to acknowledge the reality of racism and to be able to respond effectively to it… educators…need to provide…identity-affirming experiences …” (p. 368). Black children of all ages, the sooner the better, need to learn about their historical significance. This will provide them with positive role models, give them a sense of pride, validate who they are and bolster their self-esteem. I believe I was short changed not having African and African American history during elementary school; waiting until college to learn this valuable information was a disadvantage. Nonetheless, I believe my life would have been more enriched if I had this information earlier. I would have been more self-confident in my youth and accomplished more and perhaps even gone further soon. Accentually, I believe I would have been a different person, with a different life.

Role models were sparse when I was growing up, but I still managed a few. Cheyney University, a historic black college (HBCU) has taught me more about myself then all my twelve years of education in the public school system. African-American studies have been both a source of “pride and pain.” Nonetheless, attending an HBCU has given me a fundamental belief in myself I never had before and it has given me the sense that I too belong. Black children need to believe in themselves throughout all their stages of development. So, they may grow into self-confident adults filled with a strong sense of ethnic pride. For these reasons African and African American studies need to be included in the school systems curriculum. Black children need an early start on developing their sense of wellbeing and belonging in this world. Stages of Identity Development

Tatum (2003) referred to psychologist, William Cross’s book, Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity a well-tested and revised theory on racial identity and an outline for understanding racial identity development. Cross, who specializes in Black psychology, developed a five stage model of identity development for Blacks. His model is founded in the theory known as “Nigrescence” a French word for being Black. The five stages are as follows: (1) pre-encounter, the down play of one’s own race and assimilation, (2) encounter, a blatant racist event or series of events that causes one to rethink their attitudes about race (considered a turning point because of firsthand racially motivated rejection), (3) immersion/emersion, is when one becomes immersed in Blackness and liberated from Whiteness; (4) internalization, a psychological change, learning to balance Blackness with other demands and (5) internalization-commitment, a commitment to action and living with their newly developed image. The first two stages are relevant to adolescence so they will be my focus in this critique.

In the first stage of pre-encounter, African American children lean toward absorption of the western aesthetic and devalue their own culture. In the second stage of encounter, usually caused by a blatant racist event or series of events, like being called a nigger for the first time, forces African American teens to acknowledge the impact of racism and what it means to be Black in America. This discovery, ‘leads Black children to turn to each other for protection and solace to shield themselves from further episodes of offence’ (p. 361). My research data indicated there are historical and ongoing problems with Black and White race relations. It also uncovered problems with racial identity development issues amongst both Black and White teens. Devlin, Dutton, and Singer (1998) concluded, “Development or racial identity is difficult for White children, even as part of the majority culture. ‘because United States culture is centered around white norms;’ for ethnic and racial minorities, however, such development becomes even more difficult” (p. 51).

However, neither offered any solutions. A more extended research on their behalf is required. I believe African and African American history in the schools public system could serve as a stepping stone for white students. It would help them to gain a better understanding of Black culture. Tatum (2003) noted that during puberty questions of identity for all teens occurs. However, for Black teens, she suggests there these questions also include ‘Who am I ethnically and racially?’ According to Tatum, race becomes personal and more noticeable for Black adolescents. They want answers to questions like, ‘What does it mean to be a young African American?’ ‘How should I act?’ ‘What should I do?’ (p.364); they ask themselves these questions because of the anti-Black attitudes and subliminal messages they receive from American society. Tatum (2003) believes anti-Black attitudes and subliminal messages are responsible for causing Black teenagers to dislike their own culture, themselves and their community. She contends that if parents are “race-conscious” and encourage their children with positive cultural massages and images; the impact of Anti-Black subliminal messages will be reduced.

She also indicated the importance and need for positive Black role models and encouragement for success and resolution to racial identity issues amongst African American children; because ‘the models of success, the teachers, administrators, and curricular heroes, are almost always white’ (p. 367). Making assumptions about others prevents us from respecting others differences and learning from them. Both Black and White children need to spend time learning about each other and learning to respect each other’s differences. This needs to occur at the earliest stage as possible before biases have had a chance to set in. Children are open, and they are not judgmental when they are young. Grownups tend to be bias and they impose their prejudices onto children. There is an urgent need for African and African American history courses in the public school systems curriculum; from kindergarten throughout grade school. So, both Black and White children can learn about each other. We must start with the children our hope for tomorrow’s positive changes in race relations and the world. The world is a big place filled with all types of different people. We have to fight to learn and understand each other’s differences.


Devlin, A. S., Dutton, S. E., Singer, J. A., &. (1998). Racial identity in children in integrated predominately white, and black schools. Journal of Social Psychology, 138(1), 41-53. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.navigator-cheyney.passhe.edu Swindler, G. B., & Strickland, J. (2008). Making african american culture and history central to early childhood teaching and learning. Journal of negro Education, 77(2), 131-142. doi: 508059708

Tatum, B. D. (2003). Why are all the black children sitting together in the cafeteria? In S. Greene & A. Lidinsky (Eds.), From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader (2nd ed., pp. 358-371). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s Boston.

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