William Cross’ Reform School of Black Psychology

Author: Shaye-Ann Hopkins

Editor: Maximiliano Bernal Temores

In this week’s Black History Month blog post, the Center for Advanced Hindsight continues to share the history and contributions of Black psychology. In our first post, we introduced the three schools that make up Black psychology (i.e., traditional, reform, and radical), while last week, we focused on Dr. Kobi K. K. Kambon’s work in the Radical school. We will use this week’s post to highlight the work of William E. Cross, Jr. in the Reform School of Black Psychology.

Reform School proponents strongly critiqued the limits of White psychology while arguing that some of its findings could still apply to the Black mind and experience. They built theories around the Black self-concept using a reconstructionist method, where they corrected the errors around Black attitudes and behavior from the Traditionalist school of thought. Reform school leaders challenged the racism and limitations of White psychology and recognized the existence of a distinct Black psychology. 

A key psychologist that has contributed to the Reform school was William E. Cross, Jr., Ph.D. (1940 – present), one of America’s leading theorists and researchers on Black and racial-ethnic identity development. Cross was born in Evanston, Illinois as one of four children to Bill and Margaret Cross. He completed his psychology degree at the University of Denver in 1963 before attending Roosevelt University for masters-level studies in clinical psychology. He then completed his African-American Studies doctoral degree in 1976 at Princeton University, where he became heavily involved with the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s. 

Cross’ work was further influenced by the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois famously described Black identity development in America in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in the following words:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (pg.2)

In response to Du Bois’s ideas and the work of that period, Cross began his work on Black racial identity and nigrescence, the process of becoming black. Cross’ work in The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience (1971) proposed one of the first models of Black racial identity development in psychology. The Nigresence model analyzed the levels of awareness involved in converting from “Negro” to “Black.” It included a five-stage process for Ethnic Identity Development that consists of the following steps: 

1) Pre-Encounter – Low awareness of race and its implications, 

2) Encounter – Exposure to racial oppression, 

3) Immersion/Emersion – “Just discovered Blackness” and abandonment of old self, 

4) Internalization – Acceptance and respect for blackness and other racial/ethnic groups, and 

5) Internalization–Commitment – Comfort in one’s racial/ethnic identity and working to empower one’s community.

Cross’ nigrescence model described Black identity conversion as transcending social class, while he noted that true liberation is partially a rejection of Eurocentric self-conceptualizations and an acceptance of a Black-centered identity formation. 

Cross revised his nigrescence conversion theory in his seminal work Shades of Black (1991). He noted that this book was his attempt to refocus Black psychology away from the prevailing emphasis on self-hatred and the social pathology model. He brought attention to the nuances of self-identity and purported a theory of identity transformation. The latter part of Shades of Black revised Cross’ original Negro-to-Black Conversion Model. One change included a theorized distinction of the Immersion-Emersion stage into two identities: an intense Black involvement/engagement and an anti-White attitude (or White culture rejection). This book helped shift black psychology towards a more normative and positive focus through logical, rational, and empirically substantiated arguments. 

As a result of Cross’ racial identity development theory, various psychologists have designed several standardized scales to quantify his proposed nigrescence and identity development model. For example, the Racial Identity Attitude Scale (RIAS) developed by Parham and Helms (1981) evaluates the types of attitudes in the different phases of Cross’ nigrescence model. Meanwhile, Cross and his research team at Penn State designed, tested, and validated the Cross Racial Identity Scale (CRIS) in 2002, expanding his nigrescence model. This scale developed due to psychometric limitations and the evolution of Cross’ nigrescence theories. It became an exemplary measure used in Black psychology and beyond, allowing for the measurement and operationalization of an identity concept.

Cross’ contributions have inspired countless research studies on identity development and racial identity over the years, resulting in significant achievements. For instance, the Association of Black Psychologists named Cross a Distinguished Psychologist in 2001 and he received the Social Justice Education Award at the Winter Roundtable, Teachers College in 2009. In the same year, the Annual Conference on Cross-Cultural Issues in Counseling and Education created the William E. Cross, Jr. Lectures Series in his honor. Cross served as a past President-Elect of Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues), and in 2022, he received the APA Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology.  

William Cross’ work within the Reform school has significantly impacted the field of Black and cultural psychology, building an understanding of the cultural experience and its impact on research. As we think about individual and group identity, insights from Cross’ work can prove meaningful in understanding cross-cultural differences and the different stages of identity development across varying ethnicities and groups.

Be sure to check out next week’s final Black History Month post to see which Black psychologist will be in the spotlight.



Cokley, K., & Garba, R. (2018). Speaking truth to power: How Black/African psychology changed the discipline of psychology. Journal of Black Psychology, 44(8), 695-721.

Cross Jr, W. E. (2001). Encountering nigrescence. Handbook of multicultural counseling, 2, 30-44.

Cross, W. E. (1971). The Negro-to-Black conversion experience. Black World, 20(9), 13-27.

Cross, W. (1991). Shades of Black: The Philadelphia.