In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African American Racial Identity and Learning

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Black Cultural Learning Styles
  • Cultural Ecological Theory
  • Stereotype Threat
  • White Racial Identity
  • Directions for Future Research

Education African American Racial Identity and Learning
Frank C. Worrell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0132


Racial identity is one of the most frequently studied cultural identities in the United States, and it is examined most frequently in relation to African Americans. Racial identity is also examined in European American samples to a lesser extent, and there is a growing literature on the racial identity of biracial and multiracial individuals. Racial identity and ethnic identity are similar constructs, and there are some researchers who do not distinguish between the constructs, using the terms and the measurement instruments interchangeably. However, as the instruments are developed in relation to theoretical models that speak to one or the other construct specifically (i.e., ethnic or racial identity), this perspective is not adopted in this article. Thus this article focuses solely on racial identity as a construct and does not include literature on ethnic identity or studies that used instruments developed to measure ethnic identity. The relationship between racial identity and learning, and more specifically academic achievement, is typically studied in the context of the achievement gap among racial and ethnic groups in the United States, and is most closely associated with the achievement gap between African American and European American students. Thus, studies of the relationship of racial identity to learning typically involve black racial identity but not white racial identity. In most of the scholarship in this area, researchers examine the relationship of black racial identity attitudes to academic achievement or other academic constructs (e.g., motivation). Additionally, two of the preeminent theories of underachievement in African Americans and other underachieving groups—that is, cultural ecological theory and stereotype threat—implicate racial identity as a contributing factor. Although there is a strong belief that racial identity is related to learning, there is still considerable debate about the contexts in which this relationship is manifested and the strength and explanatory power of the relationship, and the evidence in favor of a direct relationship between the racial identity and learning is mixed at best.

General Overviews

The association of racial identity attitudes to learning dates back to the mid-1900s, when the Clarks published a series of studies showing that African American children expressed a preference for white rather than black dolls. Although Clark and Clark 1950 published their work in an education journal, these two researchers were less concerned about learning to read, write, and calculate, and more concerned about the psychological miseducation of African American children, which was seen as having implications for achievement. The poorer academic achievement of African Americans relative to European Americans was considered one of the many consequences of discrimination and racism that also led African American children to express a preference for European American dolls. From this viewpoint, low academic achievement was related to psychological distress and low self-esteem, which were the direct results of negative self-views of racial identity by African Americans. The racial identity theories of the 1960s and 1970s also focused on psychological distress first, with education as an afterthought. The most well-known of these models, the Cross 1971 original nigrescence model, articulated a series of developmental stages that African Americans went through from a Pre-encounter racial identity reflecting black self-hatred to an internalized and committed racial identity reflecting black self-acceptance. As with the work by the Clarks, the focus of this model was on psychological functioning rather than education. Recent theorizing about racial identity suggests that the construct is attitudinal rather than developmental. In this vein, Worrell, et al. 2011 defined racial identity as the attitudes that members of a particular racial group have toward (a) themselves in relation to their group membership, (b) other members of the same racial group, and (c) members of other racial and ethnic groups. The possible links of racial identity to learning are articulated in several models—black cultural learning styles, cultural ecological theory, and stereotype threat—as well as the examination of the relationship of academic achievement to scores on scales developed to assess black racial identity attitudes.

  • Clark, Kenneth B., and Mamie P. Clark. 1950. Emotional factors in racial identification and preference in Negro children. Journal of Negro Education 19.3: 341–350.

    DOI: 10.2307/2966491

    In this piece, the authors describe a study in which five- to seven-year-old African American children were asked to color dolls to reflect themselves and a substantial number color themselves in a shade that is lighter than they actually are.

  • Cross, William E., Jr. 1971. Toward a psychology of black liberation: The Negro-to-black conversion experience. Black World 20.9: 13–27.

    This piece describes the five stages of original nigrescence model and is a seminal article in the field of cultural identities.

  • Worrell, Frank C., Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, James Telesford, Crystal Simmons, and Justin F. Martin. 2011. Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS) scores: Stability and relationships with psychological adjustment. Journal of Personality Assessment 93.6: 637–648.

    DOI: 10.1080/00223891.2011.608762

    In this piece, the authors report on the short- and long-term stability of racial identity attitudes measured by the Cross Racial Identity Scale and the relationship of these attitudes to psychological adjustment in a sample of college students.

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