Accepting Black Identity, and White Gaze

Examining African Self-Consciousness and Black Racial Identity as Predictors of Black Men’s Psychological Well-Being

This study investigated African self-consciousness and Black racial identity as predictors of psychological distress and self-esteem for Black men. One-hundred thirty Black men from a college and community sample completed the African Self-Consciousness Scale, the Racial Identity Attitude Scale—B, the Symptom Checklist 90—Revised, and the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory. Canonical correlation analysis found significant roots with the first root indicating that Black men whose attitudes reflected Pre-encounter and Immersion racial identity attitudes and who do not resist against anti-African/Black forces reported greater psychological distress and less esteem. Results from the second root suggested that Black men whose attitudes reflect greater Internalization racial identity attitudes, greater resistance to anti-African/Black forces, and less identification with Black people reported greater self-esteem.

Despite some perceived progress made in U.S. race relations over the last four decades, racism continues to be an inescapable and painful reality of daily life for racial minorities in the United States (Essed, 1990; Feagin & Sikes, 1994). Research has also consistently found that racial oppression is a chronic psychosocial stressor that affects the mental and social adjustment of people of color (Akbar, 1996; Estell, 1994; J. L. Jackson, 1990; J. S. Jackson et al., 1995; Johnson, 1990; Landrum-Brown, 1990; Utsey & Pon-terotto, 1996; White & Parham, 1990; Wilson, 1990). For example, in her groundbreaking qualitative study of Black peoples’ daily experiences with racism, Essed (1990) described the chronic nature of stress associated with racism this way: “to live with the threat of racism means planning, almost everyday of one’s life, how to avoid or defend oneself against discrimination” (p. 260).

African American men, in particular, are described as being born into a social environment that is rich but dangerous for them. For example, although they have positive, rich, and varied cultural experiences, Black men continue to experience economic and social hardships and have become increasingly marginal to their families, their communities, the labor market, and social institutions (Anderson, 1990; Hutchinson, 1994; Kunjufu, 1985; Madhubuti, 1990; Taylor-Gibbs, 1988; White & Cones, 1999; Wilson, 1990).

A consequence of this marginalization is pointed out by research that finds the experience of racism to be extremely harmful for African Americans’ physical health. For example, McCord and Freeman (1990) reported that the chronic experience of racism was linked to higher incidences of stressrelated diseases (e.g., cirrhosis, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension) in African American men. Also, Krieger and Sidney (1996) implicated the chronic strain associated with racism in the development of such potentially fatal, stress-related diseases as high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Such phenomena are likely contributors to Black men’s declining life expectancy (Pearson, 1994; Staples, 1992), as well as findings that the average life expectancy for African American men living in many U.S. urban centers is shorter than that of men living in non-developed countries (McCord & Freeman, 1990).

In addition to the effects of racism on physical health, racism is also seen to be connected to African American men’s psychological well-being. For example, White and Cones (1999) posited that “the continuing presence of racism creates powerful emotions and uncertainty in the lives of African American men. Over the long haul, prejudice and discrimination can generate rage, anger, frustration, bitterness, resentment, grief, despair, or any combination of these emotions” (p. 141). Supportive of this observation are statistics that report the suicide rate of Black males ages 15–24 years has surpassed that of White males in the same age group since 1980 (National Research Council, 1989; West, 1993). This statistic is particularly alarming because Black men historically have had lower rates of suicide than any other demographic group (Gary, 1981). Racism is also believed to contribute to the prevalence of several psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (Burke, 1984; Outlaw, 1993), low levels of self-esteem (Simpson & Yinger, 1985; Smith, 1985), life satisfaction (Broman, 1997), and academic success (Gougis, 1986) for African Americans.

Despite the adversity that leaves them vulnerable to stress-related outcomes, Black Americans use many effective coping mechanisms that enable them to negotiate adverse conditions (Nobles, 1974; Utsey, Adams, & Bolden, 2000; Utsey & Ponterotto, 1996). As one source of coping, some scholars advocate transforming Black people from a state of dependence on White culture for their identity to a state of independence and self-reliance based on African sources of identity (Asante, 1980, 1987; Karenga, 1980, 1984, 1988; Pierre, Mahalik, & Woodland, 2002; White & Cones, 1999). This position reflects the belief that endorsing African oriented values such as interdependence instead of White cultural values such as rugged individualism are likely to reduce psychological distress and promote self-esteem in Black people in the United States.

The specific idea of developing African self-consciousness, advanced by Baldwin (1981, 1984; Kambon, 1992), reflects the belief that it is healthy for Black people to develop awareness and knowledge of their cultural identity and cultural heritage and recognize factors that affirm Black life. In addition, Baldwin encouraged Black people to resist European-based values (e.g., individualism) and social forces that threaten Africentric identity by pushing Black people to give up distinctive institutions that espouse Africentric values (Baldwin, 1984; Baldwin & Bell, 1985). For example, resistance to anti-African/Black forces would include maintaining distinctive Black institutions (e.g., Black churches, Black universities, celebrations of Kwanza) and Africentric values (e.g., interdependence) rather than integrating into White dominated institutions or adopt Eurocentric values (e.g., individualism). Baldwin (1981, 1984) believed that when the basic characteristics of African self-consciousness are fully operating, they generate self-affirmative behaviors. More specifically, the aspect of African self-consciousness that resists anti-African/Black forces (i.e., resists negativism toward African values and traditions, resists pushes for Black culture to be assimilated into U.S. culture, and resists connection to White people and reliance on White cultural institutions; see Baldwin, 1984) is seen as particularly protective against alienation and self-destruction for Black people in the United States (Baldwin, 1984).

Although Baldwin’s (1984) ideas are provocative, no research to date has examined whether African self-consciousness actually predicts psychological well-being for Black people; but research has found it to relate to health promoting behaviors in Black college students (Thompson & Chambers, 2000). Because African self-consciousness is thought to generate self-affirming behaviors for Black men in the United States and help resist against anti-African/Black forces that create psychologically unhealthy conditions, we reasoned that African self-consciousness should relate negatively to psychological distress and positively to self-esteem.

Similar to consciousness about one’s cultural heritage, attitudes and beliefs about one’s race are also likely to serve as coping resources for Black men to the extent that they help give the person a positive sense of self and self-affirmation. For example, several scholars have suggested that Black people who have a strong, positive Black identity are likely to have better mental health than those who identify with the dominant White culture in the United States (Butler, 1975; Helms, 1990). More specifically, positive racial identity is understood as “the process of development by which individual members of various socioracial groups overcome the version of internalized racism that typifies their group in order to achieve a self-affirming and realistic racial-group or collective identity” (Helms & Cook, 1999, p. 84).

Viewed from Helms’ (1995) model of Black racial identity, the least affirming racial identity status for Black people in the United States is the Pre-encounter status. This status is characterized by racial identity attitudes that denigrate Black culture and values and idealize White cultural values. Encounter, the second racial identity status, begins when an individual has a personal and challenging experience with White or Black society that leads the person to question his or her “Blackness.” The Immersion status follows the Encounter experience and involves learning the meaning and value of one’s race and unique culture. However, the individual with Immersion status may not internalize an authentic sense of Blackness but endorse a reactionary position toward the dominant White culture, primarily being angry and distrustful of White people because of their participation in racial oppression. As a result, during this period there is psychological distress associated with this status (Parham & Helms, 1985b). In the fourth status, Internalization, the individual’s Black identity is experienced as a self-affirming and valued aspect of him- or herself. The calming-down period that characterizes the Internalization status enables the individual to assume a more “realistic and healthy” experience of his sense of Blackness that is self-affirming.

Research has largely supported these ideas about racial identity and well-being with studies reporting Pre-encounter attitudes related to higher levels of anxiety (Carter, 1991; Parham & Helms, 1985a) and low levels of self-esteem (Munford, 1994; Parham & Helms, 1985a; Pyant & Yanico,1991); Immersion attitudes related to feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, hypersensitivity, low-actualizing tendencies, low self-regard, and high anxiety (Munford, 1994; Parham & Helms, 1985b); and the Internalization attitudes positively associated with self-esteem (Poindexter-Cameron & Robinson, 1997; Speight, Vera, & Derrickson, 1996) and negatively associated with depression (Munford, 1994). As such, research supports the notion that Black men who have a secure sense of self and a more flexible view of the world that neither automatically denigrates or idealizes Whiteness or Blackness but is realistically self-affirming of one’s Blackness may be more psychologically adjusted.

Therefore, the purpose of this study is to (a) empirically examine Baldwin’s (1984) ideas about African self-consciousness promoting psychological well-being, (b) examine cultural and race-related variables uniquely associated with the Black experience in the United States, and (c) do so examining Black men, specifically, as research finds that Black men are at an increased risk from the negative effects of racism (Elligan & Utsey, 1999; Utsey, 1997; Utsey, Payne, Jackson, & Jones, 2002). Specifically, we hypothesize that attitudes reflecting greater levels of African self-consciousness and an Internalization racial identity status will predict less psychological distress and greater self-esteem for Black men, whereas Pre-encounter and Immersion racial identity attitudes will relate to greater psychological distress and less self-esteem.


Participants using a survey methodology, 130 participants completed measures for the study. These men averaged 20.32 years of age (SD 1.96). They identified their racial group primarily as African American (n 72; 55.4%) but also reported being African (n 17; 13.1%), Caribbean American (n 17; 13.1%), Cape Verdean (n 15; 11.5%), Haitian (n 8; 6.2%), and “other” (n 1; 0.8%). Of the 130 men, 40 were from the community and 90 were from universities. The largest number of the participants (n 49; 37.7%) had attended a “majority White” high school, whereas fewer had attended a high school that was “majority Black” (n 34; 26.2%), “integrated/even” (n 28; 21.5%), “all Black” (n 13; 10.0%), and “all White” (n 5; 3.8%).


Three methods were used to obtain Black male volunteers between the ages of 18 and 25 for this study. First, two faculty members at two historically Black universities were asked by Martin Pierre to serve as contacts at their southeastern universities. The instructors identified potential participants at their institutions and administered the surveys to the interested participants.

Second, at a predominantly White northeastern university, we contacted faculty members in the Black Studies program to recruit potential participants in their classrooms and contacted coordinators in the Black Student Forum, NAACP chapter, and AHANA house to identify potential participants. From these persons, Martin Pierre obtained contact information from potential participants who were interested in taking part in the study and then contacted them with details of the study. Interested persons were then informed of the time and place to complete the questionnaires administered by Pierre.

Third, contacts at an inner-city YMCA and an African Methodist Episcopal Church in a Northeast city were approached to help identify potential participants for the study. The YMCA and Black church were both in predominantly Black and lower income neighborhoods. Contacts at these sites provided names and addresses of potential participants to Martin Pierre, who then contacted them with the details of the study. Interested persons were then informed of the time and place to complete the questionnaires administered by him. All of the potential participants who contacted Martin Pierre showed up to complete the questionnaires.

The packets that participants completed included a cover letter that assured the participants’ anonymity, informed them of their rights (e.g., to withdrawal from the study at any point), and explained the general nature of the research. Specifically, the participants were told that they were recruited because they were men who identified themselves as Black or African American and were between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. They were told that they would answer questions about their experiences with personal coping behaviors and distress, how much they endorsed certain masculine norms (not a part of this study), and questions about their attitudes toward self and culture to better understand how Black men cope and manage distress.

Each participant was then asked to complete a set of pencil-and-paper inventories, which consisted of a demographics form, the African Self-Consciousness Scale, the Black Racial Identity Attitude Scale–B, the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory, the Symptom Check List—90 Revised, and two other measures not used in this study. Participants took approximately forty minutes to complete the questionnaires. The participants were debriefed on completion of the surveys. Participants from the southeastern universities were also informed that they might contact Martin Pierre with any questions they had about the study and were given the necessary contact information. Participants who had the questionnaires administered by Pierre were also provided with his contact information if they had questions following the debriefing. No participants from either the university or community settings were compensated for their participation.


The African Self-Consciousness Scale (ASC; Baldwin & Bell, 1985) is a 42-item 8-point Likert scale (1 very strongly disagree, 8 very strongly agree) designed to assess four basic components of African self-consciousness. These are (a) an awareness/recognition of one’s African identity and cultural heritage; (b) general ideological and activity priorities placed on African/Black survival, liberation, and development; (c) self-knowledge and self-affirmation related to Africentric values, customs, and institutions; and (d) resolute resistance and defense against anti-African/Black forces and threats to African/Black survival.

Validity of the scale has been examined in several studies with results indicating that ASC scores relate to Black personality (Baldwin & Bell, 1985), more positive evaluations of African facial features (Chambers, Clark, Dantzler, & Baldwin, 1994), and scores on the African American Behavior Checklist (Stokes, Murray, Peacock, & Kaiser, 1994). Additionally, Stokes et al. (1994) supported a four-factor structure of the ASC labeling the factors (a) Personal Identification With the Group (e.g., “Regardless of their interest, educational background, and social achievements, I would prefer to associate with Black people than non-Black people”); (b) Self-Reinforcement Against Racism (e.g., “It is not within the best interest of Black people to depend on White people for anything, no matter how religious and decent they [the White people] purport to be”); (c) Racial and Cultural Awareness (e.g., “It is good for Black husbands and wives to help each other develop racial consciousness and cultural awareness in themselves and in their children”); and (d) Value for African Culture (e.g., “I have difficulty identifying with the culture of African people”).

Baldwin and Bell (1985) reported the overall ASC scale to have strong test–retest reliability (.90) and satisfactory internal consistency (.70). Stokes et al. (1994) also reported internal consistency coefficient for the ASC as .90. In this study, Personal Identification With the Group was .76, Self-Reinforcement Against Racism was .60, Racial and Cultural Awareness was .24, and Value for African Culture was .10. Because the last two sub-scales had such poor internal consistencies, only Personal Identification With the Group and Self-Reinforcement Against Racism were used in the study.

The Racial Identity Attitude Scale (RIAS–B; Parham & Helms, 1981) is a 50- item scale that measures racial identity attitudes as conceptualized in Cross’s (1971) model of nigrescence. Participants respond by using a 5-point Likert-scale (1 strongly agree, 5 strongly disagree). Scores for each racial identity attitude are obtained by summing responses to the appropriately keyed items. The RIAS–B was designed to capture the essence of these attitudes and was intended to be a personality measure evolving from a Black perspective that could be used to theorize about and assess the personality characteristics of Black samples (Parham & Helms, 1981). There are four sub-scales that correspond to the four stages of Black identity development (Pre-encounter, Encounter, Immersion–Emersion, and Internalization). As evidence of the validity of the scale, subscales have been found to be differentially related to respondents’ therapist preference (Parham & Helms, 1981), affective states (Parham & Helms, 1985a), self-esteem (Parham & Helms, 1985b), and general psychological well-being (Carter, 1991). Ponterotto and Wise (1987) examined the construct validity of the RIAS–B and found strong support for the constructs of Pre=encounter, Immersion–Emersion, and Internalization. Parham and Helms (1981) have reported the following internal consistency reliability coefficients for the four subscales: Pre-encounter .76, Encounter .51, Immersion–Emersion .69 and Internalization .80. Lemon and Waehler (1996) reported 1-month subscale stability estimates ranging from .52 to .66. In this study, the Cronbach alpha reliability coefficients for the three sub-scales were Pre-encounter .81, Immersion .70, and Internalization .64.

The Symptom Checklist—90 Revised (SCL–90–R; Derogatis, 1994) measures psychological distress. Derogatis and his colleagues developed the symptom checklist known as SCL–90–R from the earlier Hopkins Symptom Checklist, which descended from the 1948 Cornell Medical Index. The SCL–90–R consists of 90 symptoms, each described briefly and simply (e.g., “Pains in heart or chest,” “Blaming yourself for things”). Participants are asked to say how much discomfort each symptom has caused them within the last week by rating it on a 5-point scale from 0 not at all to 4 extremely.

Scores are obtained on nine factors as well as several global factors including the Global Severity Index (GSI) that was used for this study and is the average rating given to all 90 items. Literally, hundreds of studies have supported the reliability and validity of the GSI as an indicator of psychological distress (Derogatis, 1994). In this study, the internal consistency for the GSI was .91.

The Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (SEI; Coopersmith, 1967) is a 25-item instrument measuring a person’s self-assessment in personal, family, academic, and social areas. Each item consists of a trait description, to which the person responds like me or unlike me. Total scores are the sum of ratings for each item. Also included is a Lie scale, which identifies socially desirable response sets (Coopersmith, 1967). Spatz and Johnson (1973) administered the SEI to over 600 students in Grades 5, 9, and 12 in a rural school district. From each grade, 100 inventories were selected, and Kuder–Richardson reliability estimates (KR-20s) were calculated. Obtained coefficients were .81 for Grade 5, .86 for Grade 9, and .80 for Grade 12. Kokenes (1974, 1978) conducted a study to examine the construct validity of the SEI. Her investigations included over 7,600 schoolchildren in Grades 4 through 8 and were designed to observe the comparative importance of the home, peers, and school to the global self-esteem of pre-adolescents and adolescents. The study con- firmed the construct validity of the sub-scales proposed by Coopersmith as measuring sources of self-esteem. In this study, the internal consistency for the Coopersmith SEI was .79.


Results from the study supported four of the five hypothesized relationships between the predictors and the well-being variables. Specifically, as hypothesized, self-reinforcement against racism was associated with less psychological distress and greater self-esteem for young adult Black men; Internalization racial identity attitudes were associated with greater self-esteem; and Pre-encounter and Immersion racial identity attitudes were associated with greater psychological distress and less self-esteem for young adult Black men in this study. As such, these findings are consistent with previous research on Black racial identity documenting Pre-encounter and Immersion attitudes to relate to poorer psychological well-being (Carter, 1991; Munford, 1994; Parham & Helms, 1985a, 1985b; Pyant & Yanico, 1991) and Internalization racial identity attitudes to relate to better psychological well-being (Munford, 1994; Parham & Helms, 1985a; Pyant & Yanico, 1991).

However, our findings about African self-consciousness both supported and contradicted the theoretical literature about its potential benefits for Black people. Supportive of Baldwin’s (1981, 1984) thinking about resistance against anti-African/Black forces, participants had higher self-esteem and less psychological distress when they endorsed the Self-Reinforcement Against Racism scale items. This correlational finding may be explained by at least two interpretations. First, it may be that African self-consciousness in the form of resistance to anti-African/Black forces may be the result of higher self-esteem and lower levels of psychological distress. That is, Black men who have higher self-esteem and experience less of the disabling effects that accompany psychological distress may be better able to resist anti-African/Black forces. It might also be that Black men who have participated in resisting anti-African/Black forces and reliance on White people or White institutions feel better about themselves and experience less psychological distress possibly as a result of taking action against something that felt harmful to them. This latter interpretation would fit Baldwin’s (1984) understanding of how resistance to anti-African/Black forces is preventive for alienation and self-destruction for Black people in the United States. However, as neither interpretation precludes the other, it may also be that both effects were operating in explaining this finding.

We believe it would also be important to more fully examine how resistance to anti-African/Black forces operates in relation to psychological health. For example, is taking social action against anti-African/Black forces itself healthy or might it contribute to distress from negative reactions from a racist society? Is awareness of anti-African/Black forces more healthy than taking action or is awareness only a necessary but not sufficient condition related to well-being? Does resistance to anti-African/Black forces increase paranoia, promote psychological resilience, or both? We believe that these are empirical questions that deserve further study in future research.

Contradicting Baldwin’s (1981, 1984) thinking about African self-consciousness, however, we found that Black men in the study who identified with the Black group (i.e., scores on the Personal Identification With the Group sub-scale) reported less self-esteem. As such, the results suggest either that Black men who had lower self-esteem tended to identify more with Black people than White people or that Black men felt worse about themselves when identifying with Black people compared with Black men who identified with White people. Regardless of which interpretation reflects the direction of causality, both interpretations point out that identification with other Black people is connected to important feelings about oneself for Black men.

As such, we view this study as contributing to the literature in that it tested Baldwin’s (1984) ideas about African self-consciousness relating to Black peoples’ psychological health and found support for his ideas about one dimension of African self-consciousness but nonsupport for another dimension. Second, in focusing on variables that are unique to the Black experience in the United States, the results of the study helped validate the notion that it is important to examine culturally relevant variables when understanding racial minorities’ experiences of psychological distress and self-esteem. Finally, given that Black men experience increased risks from the negative effects of racism (Elligan & Utsey, 1999; Utsey, 1997; Utsey et al., 2002), this is one of very few studies that have empirically examined Black men specifically, and the only study we know of that has used culturally relevant predictor variables to examine their psychological well-being.


While keeping these limitations in mind, the results suggest that mental health professionals need to understand how Black men view themselves and others as racial beings in the United States to better understand potential stressors for Black men. That is, the results suggest that clinicians need to assess how Black men view themselves in relationship to both Black and White culture in the United States, how they feel about both groups, and how they have personally responded to experiences with racism. The results of this study suggest a complex picture of group identification associated with psychological well-being for Black men. Specifically, the Pre-encounter results suggest that identification with White culture and denigration of Black culture have significant psychological costs for Black men. However, an uncritical over-identification with Black culture and antagonism toward White culture also have negative psychological costs for Black men, although they are likely very different sources of distress. Although Internalization did not have the negative relationship to psychological distress that we hypothesized, our results indicated that Internalization related positively to self-esteem. This is consistent with Helms’s (1990) description of the benefits of the Internalization status. That is, positive feelings about oneself develop when one has a realistic self-affirming view of one’s Blackness, and one can “re-establish relationships with individual White associates who merit such relationships and analyze Whiteness and White culture for its strengths and weaknesses” (p. 28).

In addition to the findings about the importance of understanding Black men’s feelings about both Black and White cultures, it was also important for Black men’s psychological well-being to work against anti-African/Black forces. We think it likely that such efforts lead to a greater internal locus of control for Black men in a racist society but may also improve their life situation directly, thus producing psychological benefits for them. Such findings lend support for ideas such as those from White and Cones (1999) that the next step for Black men in the United States is to confront racism: “the problem (of racism) must be resolved before Black men as a group can realize their full potential occupationally, educationally, politically, economically, and in family life” (p. 290). Thus, we suggest that clinicians in psycho-educational, school, church, or clinical settings help Black men to identify responses they can make to experiences of racism that may help them to develop realistic, self-affirming views of their Blackness, along with the ability to analyze White culture for its strengths and weaknesses.

Keywords: African self-consciousness, Black racial identity, psychological well-being, self-esteem.

Pierre, R. Martin and Mahalik R. James. “Examining African Self-Consciousness and Black Racial Identity as Predictors of Black Men’s Psychological Well-Being.” 2005. [Full Report (including references).]