Racial Identity Development Invites CC Students to Explore Their Own Becomings

William Cross, African American psychologist and racial identity scholar, interacted with the students and the professor for a story embodying how CC’s commitment to antiracism is showing up in the classroom. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III
William Cross, African American psychologist and racial identity scholar, interacted with the students and the professor for a story embodying how CC’s commitment to antiracism is showing up in the classroom. Photo by Lonnie Timmons III

By his own account, William Cross, Jr., a renowned developmental psychologist, plays the psychological concepts of identity like a musician playing jazz — creating and iterating on his original theories like melodies, even over the span of decades. And in a recent visit to Colorado College, Cross invited CC students to add their own variations to the melody.

Cross constructed the Nigrescence theory of Black identity development when he was a doctoral student at Princeton University. The theory, first published in Cross’s “The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience” in 1971, has formed the framework for most racial identity models studied today: frameworks that describe and explain racial identity among individuals who identify as Asian American, Latinx, Native American, White American, and multiracial.

At its heart, Cross says, the theory is one of becoming. Yet as the years have passed, he has felt compelled to revise, and even critique, his own scholarship from 1971.

That was the subject of Cross’s visit with the students of the Racial Identity Development class in Block 4, taught by Peony Fhagen, associate professor of psychology and one of Cross’s longtime collaborators.

Fhagen, who teaches in addition to serving as senior associate dean for equity, inclusion, and faculty development at CC, is a Nigrescence theory scholar herself. She’s even co-authored a 2001 revision of Cross’s original work.

“Dr. Cross is a theorist who kept honing the theory,” Fhagen says.

Just as a jazz musician might find a new iteration of a melody, Cross first revised the theory of Nigrescence in his book “Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity,” one of the central texts for the class. In 2001, he expanded the theory further with a series of journal articles, developed with a team of researchers including Fhagen. And in 2021, with the release of “Black Identity Viewed from a Barber's Chair: Nigrescence and Eudaimonia,” Cross is still carrying the same tune — but finding there are chords in the original melody he wants to amend.

“The primary focus of the Racial Identity Development course is to expose students to the Nigrescence theory as it was originally created,” Fhagen says, “and to give students an opportunity to explore their own racial identity development. But the evolution of the theory also makes for a great teachable moment. Through interrogating his work, Dr. Cross is sending a message of how important it is — how it’s almost an ethical social responsibility, as a social science researcher — to make corrections, and to make them public.”

It’s a way of practicing what he preaches, Cross says. In his mind, academic scholarship hinges on the willingness to reconsider even seminal theories as they follow their own journey of becoming.

For Fhagen, the course offers an opportunity for her to practice what she preaches, too. Fhagen is one member of a three-person leadership team helping to enact CC’s Antiracism Implementation Plan across the college. As she teaches Racial Identity Development, she’s able to weave inclusive practices into the very fabric of the course curriculum.

For example, Fhagen says, through the Liberatory Pedagogy Series offered by the Crown Faculty Center at CC, faculty learn about inclusive and antiracist grading practices. This academic year, three practices have been examined: ungrading, specifications grading, and labor-based contract grading. Now, Fhagen has introduced the practice of ungrading in her Block 4 course.

“Ungrading allows for a lot of flexibility,” Fhagen says. “It’s an equity approach where the course becomes a scaffold. If students want to go in a different direction because they’re using the course for a set of their own goals — and I have them write down their own goals on the first day of class, as well as considering the goals of the course — then I am creating a scaffold, and they can deviate from it if they want.”

In addition to weekly course journals where students grapple with concepts introduced by the curriculum, Fhagen assigns students a racial development autobiography essay, first developed by Alice Brown Collins, Fhagen’s professor while attending Wellesley College. The essay asks students to write an analysis of their own racial identity development using either the Nigrescence theory — originally developed by Cross, and now a co-creation with Fhagen — or one of the many racial identity development frameworks inspired by their work.

“It’s critically important in this course for students to have an opportunity to explore their own racial identity development,” Fhagen said. “It’s meant to be a self-discovery, where the object of the students’ analysis is their own self. They use models not just of Cross’s Nigrescence framework, which is for Black Americans, but all kinds of models and frameworks that came after, created by people who were inspired by Cross’s work. There’s a point of entry for reflection for every student in this class.”

Fhagen’s students agree. For many of them, the course material has offered revelations about their own selves.

 “I think I've found the most impact by being able to put words and phrases to the racial development I've already experienced,” says Aiko Reidy ’25, a student in the class. “Realizing I am a woman of color, even though I am only half Asian, took a lot of time and thought throughout my high school years.”

“I think one of the biggest ideas I will take from this class is that racial identity development is not linear,” Reidy continues. “Finding pride in your racial identity doesn't just happen and then stop. It's a continuous process that has many ups and downs.”

And it’s through this interplay of academic and self-exploration that Fhagen’s students are offered the opportunity to explore their own becomings: the chords and melodies that make up their own identities.

The aim of the Antiracism Implementation Plan at Colorado College is to strive for an environment that does not foster negative experiences or outcomes based on race. With antiracism central to our mission, our faculty, staff, and students will experience greater equity and inclusion, our teaching will become more impactful, and our students will be better prepared to make positive change in the world. Learn more about the Antiracism Implementation Plan online.

Report an issue - Last updated: 01/04/2022