Services for Black Youth • Racial Identity Development

In Segment Two, Casey discussed Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and some of the ways that students’ home cultures might clash with the culture of the school. In this segment, we’ll discuss the psychology of Black youth—specifically, their racial identity development—and how knowledge of this psychology can help you serve these children and teens more effectively.

Although identity is now a commonly used term, it is actually a relatively new concept, arising from the work of psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1950s and 1960s. An individual’s identity can be both social and personal. It is important to note that identity is not static, but develops and changes over the course of a person’s life, with adolescence being an especially critical and transformative period.

An individual’s identity is multifaceted, and different parts of that identity might develop in different ways and at different times. For example, psychologists have described models of gender identity development, religious identity development, and social identity development. What we’re concerned with here is racial identity development, specifically the racial identity development of Black youth.

Several researchers have described models of Black identity development, including William Cross, Beverly Tatum, Janet Helms, and Jean Phinney. These models differ in some specifics, but share a similar overall arc.

In early childhood, Black youth typically have either neutral or negative attitudes toward Blackness. This is typically referred to as the “Pre-Encounter” stage. Some Black children might not consciously think about race, while others might acknowledge their race without understanding its implications. In some cases, Black children may hold anti-Black views as a result of absorbing negative, racist messages from the dominant culture and the media. Often, these children also hold positive racial stereotypes of White people and White culture. Formal education plays a large role in Black identity development at this stage. By privileging Western and White history, emphasizing Eurocentric notions of beauty and art, and downplaying the significance of Black and African contributions to history and world culture, schooling can both create and reinforce negative attitudes about Blackness.

At some point, typically in adolescence, Black youth begin to grapple with what it means to be Black in a racist society. This marks a transition into what is typically called the Encounter stage and is often initiated by a personal encounter with racism. For many youth, this stage involves feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety as they discover that they have been minimizing or denying the significance of race in their daily lives.

Often, Black youth move from the encounter stage into a stage in which they idealize their own racial group and denigrate that which they perceive to be White. This is called the Immersion. In this stage, Beverly Tatum notes that many Black students prefer the company of their Black peers, who are experiencing similar shifts in their worldviews and who can offer emotional support and coping strategies. In some cases, Black students in this stage may adopt an oppositional stance toward schools or libraries that they perceive to be unwelcoming or unresponsive to Black culture—which underscores the importance of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in these spaces, as discussed in the previous segment. In other cases, Black students in this stage may push themselves especially hard to succeed, viewing their own academic success as a form of resistance against the idea that school achievement is reserved for White students.

For many Black youth, the Immersion stage is eventually followed by stages in which individuals are able to maintain a positive commitment to their own racial group, assess and respond objectively to members of the dominant group, and empathize and collaborate with members of other marginalized or oppressed groups. These stages are typically not reached until adulthood.

In your library, most of the Black children and teens you work with will likely be in the pre-encounter, encounter, or immersion stages of racial identity development. What does this mean for you and your library services?

First, we must be intentional in providing resources and programs that support positive racial identity development in Black youth—the earlier, the better. Exposure to diverse children’s literature, beginning with board books in infancy, has been shown to bolster the self-esteem and cultural identity of children of color. We must also be intentional in sharing the rich history and education tradition of the African American community. Providing materials with positive cultural images and messages about Blackness can not only help to counter stereotypes, but can also build identities of achievement among Black youth.

In schools, librarians can take the lead in examining the school curriculum and the wider school culture to ensure that it does not reinforce the view that academic excellence is reserved exclusively for White students. Help teachers infuse contributions of the African American community into the curriculum in meaningful ways, and ensure that the curriculum provides youth with the opportunity to view issues, topics, and events from multiple perspectives.

In both public and school libraries, we must provide resources and space for youth to examine the harsh reality of modern racism, and to discuss the power of the Black community’s opposition.

Finally, we must ensure that the library is free of discrimination and stereotypes. One way to start this process is by completing an assessment of your library’s current services, materials, space, and staff. In the resources section of this workshop series, we have provided you with a tool called the Culturally Responsive Library Walk that can guide you through this process.

We hope this segment has given you a small peek behind the curtain into the psychology of the youth you serve. In the next segment, we’ll discuss how you can use your cultural knowledge to cultivate voice and agency among the Black youth you serve.



Cross, William E., Jr. Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity. Temple University Press, 1991.

Cross, William E., Jr. “The Psychology of Nigrescence: Revising the Cross Model,” in Handbook of Multicultural Counseling edited by Joseph G. Ponterotto, J. Manuel Casas, Lisa A. Suzuki, and Charlene M. Alexander, 93-122. Sage, 1995.

Erikson, Erik H. Identity: Youth and Crisis. W. W. Norton, 1968.

Helms, Janet E. “An Overview of Black Racial Identity Theory.” In Black and White Racial Identity: Theory, Research and Practice, 9-32. Praegar, 1993.

Phinney, Jean S. “A Three Stage Model of Ethnic Identity Development in Adolescence.” In Ethnic Identity: Formation and Transmission among Hispanics and Other Minorities, edited by Martha E. Bernal, & George P. Knight,  61-79. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tatum, Beverly D. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations about Race. Basic Books, 1997.

MLA Citation Hughes-Hassell, Sandra, and Casey H. Rawson. "Services for Black Youth: Racial Identity Development." School Library Connection, May 2017,

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Entry ID: 2077516

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