Skip to content Skip to navigation

The color of Black: Professor explores racial identity in college students

Barbara McKenna


“There are lots of different ways to be Black and to have a strong Black identity,” says Camille Charles. But, she adds, research and social definitions of Black identity don’t generally consider those multi-faceted dimensions.

Charles discussed her research on identity in Black college students on October 3 in a talk titled, “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud?): Understanding the Racial Identities of Upwardly Mobile Black College Students.” The talk was the first SCOPE Brown Bag Seminar of the 2011-12 year.

Charles, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Center for Africana Studies, says that traditional academic theories on Black identity have changed in the face of shifting demographics and politics. Throughout the 20th century, the one drop rule was the measure of race; any person with one drop of Black blood was socially and legally Black. More recently, Black racial identity was generally based on one’s political views. Black individuals were labeled as either assimilationist (for those who valued integration into the larger American society) or nationalist (for those who renounced efforts to integrate with white peers or institutions). “When, in fact,” Charles says, “one can hold aspects of both at the same time.”

Ironically, she notes, in recent times the one drop rule has been flipped to bring into question the authenticity of mixed-race people identifying as Blacks—a conversation heard often during the 2008 presidential campaign.

But this “unidimensional” definition is out of step with both current demographics and mindsets, she says. According to the 2010 Census, 10 percent of the Black U.S. population was immigrant and there was an increase as well in those identifying as mixed-race Black. “Two fields of study challenge the traditional unidimensional definition of Black identity: studies of multiraciality and of Black ethnic identity,” Charles says. These changes have helped broaden definitions of identity somewhat, but both academic and lay depictions of black identity continue to apply outdated unidimensional definitions of black identity.

To explore of the foundations of identity, Charles examined the responses of more than 1,000 Black college juniors from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen and followed up with interviews with several dozen students at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. Questions aimed to examine a number of things, including:

• the central importance of racial identity to respondents (e.g., if race is an important part of self image),
• the level of assimilationist perspectives students hold (e.g., their view on the statement that more blacks in mainstream society is a sign of progress),
• their value of cultural nationalism (e.g., how important it is to respondents to surround their children with African American culture), and
• their level of political nationalism (e.g., how they feel about interracial marriage and segregated schools).

To avoid simplistic views of nationalism and assimilationism, Charles used elements from an instrument known as the Multidimensional Inventory of Black Identity in her study. This instrument addresses the following aspects of identity:

• Centrality: whether or not race is a core aspect of one’s self-concept
• Ideology: the ascribed meanings of one’s racial identity that suggest the appropriate ways to behave
• Salience: relevance of Black identity to a person at a particular moment in time
• Regard: The affective judgment one has for one’s race
• Why ideology matters as a part of racial identity. (Charles observes that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both have high centrality, salience, and regard but radically different ideologies.)

Among her findings from this study, Charles discovered that the biggest influence on racial identity is not parents’ race, socio-economic class, or ethnicity, but where a person lives. “Identity is informed by where you live and how you’re treated by society,” Charles says. “The more segregation you experience, generally the less assimilationist you are. What matters most is what people have the least control over: their social-structural context. Residential segregation, exposure to violence and social disorder had the strongest impact.”

Among her other findings: race is central to most of the students’ identities; they tend to hold both assimilationist and cultural nationalist aspirations while rejecting political nationalism; racial identity is not strongly associated with socio-economic status; race tends to be a more central part of identity for Black Americans who are not first- or second-generation immigrants; and integration into white society neither demands or results in a sense of racelessness for black students.

Charles says she will use this research to further explore “how we tend to characterize Black people and Black identity [and] to look at how those different dimensions of identity might help us understand their college experiences.”