Home School Management Reconciling Race Relations as an Afro-Caribbean Educator – TEACH Magazine

Reconciling Race Relations as an Afro-Caribbean Educator – TEACH Magazine


Originally published April 2024

By Deziree Baker

As a Caribbean immigrant educator, I have had to adapt to the United States in several ways—racially, socially, and academically. In this article, I will share my experiences with “becoming Black” in the States and subsequently how my racial identity development has impacted my practices as an educator.

Racial identity development is defined as a dynamic process that occurs over time and is affected by personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural environments. Several racial identity models exist across different groups—one is William E. Cross Jr.’s Nigrescence model, which outlines the statuses of development for people with a Black racial identity. According to Cross, Nigrescence (the process of becoming Black) is characterized by 5 stages:

  • Pre-encounter
  • Encounter
  • Immersion-Emersion
  • Internalization
  • Internalization-Commitment1

Using the lens of Cross’s theoretical framework, I have been able to unpack my own racial identity development. Based on the model, I’ve seen how my teaching practices from a teacher-candidate to a full-time teacher have either a) conformed to whitewashed history or b) been inorganically framed to shed light on Black figures/history, without including other marginalized groups.

I’ve gone from one extreme to another, and am just now getting to the place where I have reconciled my racial development. This has not only helped me personally, but it has also allowed me to align my teaching practices to be more inclusive and a true reflection of diversity. 

Becoming Black

I was born in St. Lucia, a racially homogeneous island located in the eastern part of the Caribbean. Race was not the divisive factor, rather it was a person’s socioeconomic status that dictated the course of their life. In St. Lucia, I never had to identify myself as a Black girl. If there was anything that I used to self-identify, it was my nationality—not my race.

This changed once I moved to the United States. As I prepared for school in a new country, my parents explained what life could be like for me as a Black girl. I was immediately repulsed at the idea that my identity was simply attributed to a color in a Crayola box; however, my parents reiterated that Blackness had a completely different meaning in the U.S. That moment began my journey towards racial identity development.

While Cross’s Nigrescence model is a useful tool for conceptualizing my racial development, there are statuses that I initially could not subscribe to because of my Caribbean heritage. An example of this is the first status: Pre-encounter. It is described as a time in a person’s life where they do not acknowledge the social implications of their race and how it has affected them so far. Often at this stage a person’s worldview has been dominated by white Western ideologies, which often leads to Black self-hatred and subsequent attempts at white assimilation.

As I began the fourth grade, I was captivated by my white classmates and wanted them to be friends with me; however, this could not be attributed to a lack of self-confidence or a need for white acceptance. Rather, because the consistent exposure to whiteness was so new to me, I was eager to interact with people who looked different than I did. I did not consider my Blackness to be a hindrance in forging those relationships, and in fact began to overestimate my ability to adjust racially in the United States.

My first experience with racism came in the summer before 7th grade. Until this point, I was convinced that maybe Blackness wasn’t so bad. I had started to think that I wouldn’t be viewed as Black because I was not American. I used this to my advantage and assumed the cushion of ethnic identity would continue to protect me from the differential treatment my parents warned me about.

It wasn’t until I attended a summer camp that I realized how illogical this thinking was. One day at camp I asked a white boy to be my date for the celebratory banquet. When I made the request, he gave me a look of confusion, replying, “I can’t go to the banquet with you. You’re Black.” He said it very matter-of-factly, which made the experience even more jarring.

This experience falls under the Encounter status of Cross’s Nigrescence model. During this stage, the person becomes aware that Blackness is considered bad through a negative racial encounter. Here, they are dislodged from their previous worldview and begin a journey to fully becoming Black. I, however, processed this experience differently. Instead of moving towards Blackness, I started seeking out several ways to assimilate to whiteness in order to win the approval of my white counterparts.

I suddenly found myself in the Pre-encounter stage that I had previously skipped. It is important to note that the statuses of racial identity development don’t follow a linear progression; rather, a person can experience them in a random order, and may even revisit various stages at later points in their life. And so, from 7th grade through my first two years of college, I yearned for a proximity to whiteness. To no avail.

During the latter portion of my college years, I subscribed to the duality of the Immersion/Emersion stage. The Immersion status is characterized by a new awareness of Blackness, glorification of African Heritage, pro-Black ideologies, and a staunch dislike for whiteness that is rooted in ego. As a newly declared history major with a concentration in Africana Studies, I realized that I was becoming more confident in my Blackness; however, due to my exposure to literature and the real history of Black people in America, my perspective of white people became very negative.

In college, I sought out opportunities to showcase Blackness—not just for the purpose of exhibiting pride, but also to negate the significance of whiteness. I found myself becoming very combative in my stances on race relations, as well as developing a negative perception of the white people who impacted my racial identity development in middle and high school. I remained in the Immersion portion of the model for a while before transitioning to Emersion.

The Emersion stage represents a movement away from the reactionary, ego-induced worldview of one’s Blackness, and a transition into cognitive openness. At this point, a person is able to maintain their newfound Blackness, while still engaging in conversations that help them become more critical in their analysis of race and their own racial identity development.

Upon transitioning into Emersion, I realized that I was able to maintain pride in my Blackness while also having constructive and non-combative conversations around race and racism with white people and other racial groups.

Starting out as an Educator

As I began my teaching career, I assumed that I’d reconciled with all stages of racial identity development and that I’d naturally crossed the finish line into Internalization. At this stage, one is secure in their identity and is open to diverse relationships.2 This sounds like the ultimate conclusion; however, as mentioned before, racial identity development is not linear.

I’d moved from one status to another throughout my secondary and post-secondary years, and the beginning of my career was no exception. I found that as I entered the classroom, my pedagogical practices and curricular developments were tailored specifically to my Black students. Once again, I’d slipped back into the Immersion/Emersion stage.

Over my first three years of teaching, I made concerted efforts to insert elements of Blackness into every aspect of my teaching, yet I didn’t make the same efforts for other racial groups. While I still managed to be an effective educator, in retrospect, I wonder how much more impactful I could have been for all students, had I been aware of what stage of Cross’s model I was in back then. It took some time to realize that my pedagogical practices reflected feelings of overcompensation from my own socialization as an adolescent that I had not dealt with.

Admittedly, I remained in this duality of the Immersion/Emersion status for the duration of my time in a traditional classroom. Now, as I have moved to a non-traditional role, I find that my continuing identity work is lending itself to a slow, deliberate, and authentic transition into Internalization.

In this stage, I no longer feel the need to elevate Blackness for the sake of overcompensation. Instead, I can appreciate the racial identities of others and incorporate diverse aspects of cultures and ethnicities into classroom discourse and activities. This creates a truly culturally responsive classroom where all students feel seen and accepted, which then yields positive outcomes for everyone—both personal and academic.

Who You Are Is How You’ll Teach

In some jobs, it’s okay for the worker to separate who they are from what they do. That’s not the case with teaching. In this profession, who we are is how we teach. I’ve learned that each stage of racial identity development can create implications for my teaching practices, which ultimately impacts my students.

Teaching is holistic work—it requires that we unpack our identities, because what we do ultimately shapes the identities of our students. When we take the time to do so, not only are we molding academic outcomes for students by creating inclusive spaces, but we are also writing ourselves into the positive parts of our students’ own identity development stories.

Deziree Baker is an educator and doctoral student currently living in Charlotte, NC.

1 Cross, W. E., Jr. (1978). “The Thomas and Cross Models of Psychological Nigrescence: A Review.” Journal of Black Psychology, 5(1), 13–31.
2 Cross, W. E., Jr. (1991). Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity. Temple University Press.

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