African and European Roots of Multiculturalism in the Consumer Behavior of American Blacks

ABSTRACT - This review traces the development of African and European value systems as evidenced in the consumer behavior of American blacks. Using the concept of multiculturalism, an explanation is given as to why there is confusion in the literature over cultural integration versus cultural distinctiveness.


Jerome D. Williams (1985) ,"African and European Roots of Multiculturalism in the Consumer Behavior of American Blacks", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 51-55.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 51-55


Jerome D. Williams, University of Colorado

[Jerome D. Williams is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Marketing, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309 and Assistant Professor of Marketing, Metropolitan State College, Denver, CO 80204.]


This review traces the development of African and European value systems as evidenced in the consumer behavior of American blacks. Using the concept of multiculturalism, an explanation is given as to why there is confusion in the literature over cultural integration versus cultural distinctiveness.


Blacks in rhe United States constitute over 12% of the population and spend over $150 billion annually (Spadoni 1984). There is no denying the importance of this market segment, both to researchers and practitioners. More consumer studies have been conducted with blacks as subjects than with any other minority ethnic group (Bauer and Cunningham 1970, Sexton 1972). Despite this plethora of academic research (Bafry, Harvey, and McGill 1976), many marketing practitioners view programs aimed at blacks as proceeding at little better "than a snail's pace" (Yovovich 1982) and characterize much of the research as being too scarce, outdated, unreliable, or non-existent (Andreasen 1978).

Part of the problem is that while most marketers and consumer behavior researchers are in general agreement that the consumer behavior of blacks differs from that of whites, there is no consensus as to the cause of the difference. The controversy seems to center around the issue of whether such differences are the result of cultural factors or relative socioeconomic status (Moschis and Moore 1981). Some contend that when socioeconomic variables are held constant, very few differences are observed. Others maintain that even when comparisons of blacks and whites of equal socioeconomic status are made, there are still observed consumer behavior differences which can be attributed to culture.

In addition, there is confusion as to the motivation of blacks, even when there is agreement that the differences are attributed to culture. For example, some researchers suggest that blacks will attempt to emulate whites, particularly as they move up the socioeconomic ladder. Other researchers suggest that blacks who move up the socioeconomic scale become less concerned-about being accepted or striving to be like whites. This is because the higher position of blacks allows them to do whatever they choose, and for many, this means identifying strongly with the black subculture. Robertson, Zielinski, and Ward (1984) describe this as the dichotomy in subcultural motivations between the preference for cultural integration versus cultural distinctiveness. It becomes a question of how much blacks desire assimilation and integration compared to how much they desire a separate identity and maintenance of a distinct cultural heritage.

This paper will examine this conflict using the concept of multiculturalism based on African and European roots. Multiculturalism can be helpful in explaining how African and European perspectives have merged and how both affect black consumers. This offers a resolution of the cultural integration versus distinctiveness question. Past research has been based on the assumption that as one becomes more acculturated that one loses cultural identity. However, this paper is based on the premise that American blacks can maintain strong ethnic identity based on African roots and simultaneously exhibit behavior based on the European values of the dominant culture.


A number of studies have commented on the cultural integration versus distinctiveness issue in the behavior of blacks compared to whites. During the 1960's and early 1970's, the dominant view was that blacks had a desire for cultural integration. It was assumed blacks wanted to be like whites and that they consumed in a manner which reflected a desire for assimilation into the total culture.

Bullock (1961) stated that blacks "attempt to surround themselves with symbols of whiteness." Bauer and Cunningham (1970) stressed that blacks are "fighting to attain full membership in American society," and they use consumption of a socially visible nature as a means of showing that they have arrived. In dividing blacks into "strivers" and "nonstrivers," Bauer and Cunningham found that "strivers" were more likely to accept values characteristic of whites and to emulate white consumer behavior.

Bennett and Kassarjian (1972) suggested that when socioeconomic status was held constant there was little difference between black and white consumer behavior. They indicated that blacks use white norms as a guide to expenditures to provide status in the dominant culture.

During the late 1970's and into the 1980's, there was more emphasis placed on cultural distinctiveness compared to earlier research. Blauner (1972) suggests that during the 1960's, blacks became increasingly concerned with their culture and aggressively substituted their own ethnic alternatives for dominant standards of beauty, behavior, and value, many of which were rejected as "white." Gibson (1978) feels there is little likelihood in the near future of the black community being assimilated into the white community. He states that as blacks move up the socioeconomic ladder, they no longer are concerned about emulating whites but become more aware of expressing "black consciousness."

Gibson's reference to income's being an important variable in the cultural integration versus distinctiveness has been cited by others. Karon (1958) felt that among lower income blacks there was little pressure to conform to middle class standards, but for upper income blacks, it was important to match the accepted white ideal, and much of the behavior of upper income blacks was directed towards that end. Bauer and Cunningham's (1970) "strivers" were middle class blacks while the "non-strivers" were the lower class blacks. Feldman and Star (1968) found shopping patterns of blacks and whites with incomes over $5000 to be very similar while substantial differences existed between blacks and whites with incomes less than $5000.

Ness and Smith (1984) conducted research that supported earlier findings of Darden (1977) and Frazier (1957) that middle class blacks tend to embrace middle class attributes and values to an even greater extent than do whites. Yovovich (1982) reported on research that found that the differences between better educated, more affluent blacks and lower income, less educated blacks is greater than between middle class blacks and whites. In harmony with this, Kochman (1981) suggests that the black cultural perspective will be more prevalent among blacks at a lower socioeconomic level than among middle or upper income blacks, which follows the reasoning of Herskovits (1941).

Another factor is age. Bauer, Cunningham, and Wortzel (1965) indicated that younger blacks might adopt white middle class values less so than older blacks. Isaacs (1963) commented on the "black awareness" movement and activism among younger blacks relative to the fatalism of older blacks. Blauner (1972) feels the emphasis on black identity was largely a project of the younger generation, and it pervaded the black ethnic group as a whole and affected the entire society.


Due to the discrepancy in the literature regarding whether blacks desire to behave like whites or differently from whites, this paper proposes that the concept of multiculturalism might provide a way to explain these conflicting results. Rather than attempting to show that blacks desire to exhibit behavior following values of strong ethnic identity or desire to behave in a manner that emulates whites, the multicultural concept says that blacks can display both behaviors. Because blacks in America have descended from African ancestry, it is reasonable to assume that elements of the African cultural heritage and its values have continued to have an impact on the present behavior of American blacks. However, it is also reasonable to assume that after being submerged in the dominant white culture with its European-based culture and values that blacks also exhibit behavior reflecting those elements. Blacks become like an ambidextrous athlete, or a switch hitter in baseball, capable of employing the behavioral style for which the situation calls.

Ramirez and Castaneda (1974) define multiculturalism as the ability to exhibit behavior based on extensive socialization and life experiences in two or more cultures. The multicultural person is capable of actively participating in these cultures and interacting with members of these sociocultural groups. The behavior of the multicultural person is flexible in that the person can be adaptable in employing the appropriate style for a variety of different environments demanded by the different cultures.

The reason this may seem foreign to many consumer behavior researchers who have examined black behavior is that acculturation has traditionally been viewed as a linear concept. Acculturation is treated as the polar opposite of ethnicity. In many studies ethnic individuals are categorized as ethnically bound or acculturated with nothing in-between as cited by O'Guinn and Faber (1985).

There has been progress in rectifying this fallacious conceptualization. Hair (1973, 1975) devised a measure of consumer acculturation and later refined it for black consumers. Chang (1972) included a third "bicultural" category. Kim (1979) viewed ethnicity and acculturation as anchor points along a continuum so that an individual may be perceived as being more or less acculturated at any given point in time. O'Guinn, Faber, and Meyer (1984) proposed an alternative conceptualization of acculturation by utilizing role theory in which individuals may be at different levels of acculturation for the different roles they assume. For example, an individual may behave in accord with his or her ethnic norms when at home with other family members but may adopt the cultural norms and behavior of the host society at work or school.

For the most part, though, research has been based on ethnicity and acculturation as part of a linear concept. For example, Valencia (1985) uses an index of "Hispanicness" which goes from high "Hispanicness" to low "Hispanicness" to whites. However, research by Ellis et al. (1985) on "Chineseness" points out that an ethnic group can hold values more closely linked with the dominant cultural values and members of the dominant cultural groups can rank high on the value-based measures of an ethnic group.

Research on the ways blacks have come to assert pride in ethnic identity has also been characterized as linear. Cross (1978) uses the term 11psychological nigrescence," or the process of becoming black. Cross (1973) identifies four stages of black-identity development: PreEncounter, Encounter, immersion, and Internalization. This process involves developing a sense of self and personal worth that explicitly takes its reference points from a perspective of Afro-American history and consciousness, rather than primarily from the frame of reference toward oneself and blacks dictated by white society (Jenkins 1982). Thomas and Thomas (1971) developed independently a model similar to the Cross model. The Thomas and Thomas model reviewed the stages of blacks moving from "negromachy" to seeking racial identity. Milliones (1980) posited four stages of Preconscious, Confrontation, Internalization, and Integration, which represent the different values and belief systems of blacks, similar to the process models of Cross and Thomas and Thomas.

The difficulty with the above conceptualizations is that they do not allow room for multiculturalism. They assume that an individual can display only the behavior of one culture. Yet Ramirez and Castaneda (1974) cogently show that there can be a cultural democracy. An individual can strongly identify with his or her ethnic group and still exhibit the ideals and values of a dominant culture.

For example, McFee (1968) identified multicultural orientations to life among some members of the Blackfeet Indian tribe living in a bicultural reservation community, providing both Anglo and Indian cultural models. Because these individuals developed and expanded a behavioral repertoire representing both cultures, McFee labeled these bicultural people the "150% person."

Valentine's research (1971) with black American youth in urban centers also identified subjects with multicultural orientations to life. Valentine observed that there was a great deal of flexibility in these multicultural subjects, noting that "each Afro-American ethnic segment draws upon a distinctive repertoire of standardized Afro-American behavior, and simultaneously, patterns derived from mainstream cultural systems of Euro-American derivation."

Not only is there evidence that blacks display multicultural behavior, but Mendoza (1984) suggests that being multicultural may be in the best interest of an ethnic group. He states that being monocultural in a multicultural environment can actually be more dysfunctional than being multicultural in a monocultural situation, and cites studies to back up this point. Zea (1974) even went so far as to suggest that multiculturalism is the vehicle by which oppressed peoples could escape the dependency that has been imposed upon them, with multicultural individuals acting as change agents between members of the cultures with which they interact.


Most social science researchers agree that when blacks were brought to America as slaves they also brought with them a cultural background regarded as highly sophisticated. There is, however, controversy as to whether there are African survivals in the present day behavior of American blacks (Wilcox 1971).

Some scholars have held the view that the African heritage was all but obliterated by the institution of slavery. Frazier (1939) all but discounted the relevance of Africa in his analyses of black family life, arguing that because blacks and whites have been compatriots for over three hundred years their present culture and behavior are identical.

Other scholars hold that there are significant vestiges of the African heritage in American black culture, although it is admitted that there has been distortion in some instances, but by no means has the African heritage been totally wiped out. DuBois (1908) observed concerning the African antecedents of the patterns developed in America that in cases where the present conditions were connected with the African past, this was not because blacks could trace an unbroken social history from Africa, but because there was a distinct connection between Africa and American blacks, though broken and perverted, that should not be neglected by the serious scholar. DuBois noted, though, that the connection may have represented only traces due to the effectiveness of the slave system in practically devastating the transfusion of the African heritage.

African-based values and mainstream American middle class values based on European roots form the basis for the concept of multiculturalism displayed by American blacks. Conventionally, these two sets of beliefs are referred to as "traditional" versus "modern" beliefs and values. Castaneda (1977) indicates these two sets of values determines how one perceives the universe, the environment, and humanity's relations to them.

The African and European perspectives can be discussed across several dimensions, including the mind-body dualism, the superiority or lack of superiority of the rational process, oral-auditory versus the visual-written tradition, time management, concept of the future, individualism versus collective survival, control of the universe, and immortality.

The European frame of reference has historically placed emphasis on rugged individualism, competition, and achievement motivation within a future oriented context (McClelland 1961). Boykin (1983) describes the European based American cultural values as centering around effort optimism, material well-being, possessive individualism, egalitarian-based conformity, the democratization of equality, and a person-to-object orientation.

The African perspective tends to focus on a rhythmic-music-movement orientation, an emphasis on affect, communalism, expressive individualism, a social time perspective, orality, and a person-to-person orientation (Boykin 1983).

Boykin (1983) argues that it would be inappropriate to conclude that traditional African views and values have been transferred wholesale into the life experiences of American blacks, completely intact, unmitigated, and untransformed. He also states that it is unlikely that no meaningful cultural correspondences exist. He identifies nine realms or dimensions that manifest themselves in American black behavior that grew out of the belief system and orientation of traditional African society. They are the following:

1. Spirituality: approaching life as though its primary essence were vitalistic rather than mechanistic.

2. Harmony: seeing oneself as inextricably linked to one's surroundings.

3. Movement: the interwoven mosaic of movement, music, dance, rhythm, etc.

4. Verve: disdain for the routinized, the dull, and the bland.

5. Affect: integration of feelings with thoughts and actions.

6. Communalism: awareness of the interdependence of people.

7. Expressive Individualism: putting one's personal brand on an activity.

8. Orality: special sensitivity to oral expression to carry meaning.

9. Social Time Perspective: construing time primarily in terms of the significance of events and not to be bound to the clock.

A number of empirical studies provide support for this dichotomy of African and European roots in the behavior of different cultures. Graham (1981) shows how ethnic background can affect perception of time, while Belk (1984) recognizes the differences in group-based versus individual-based orientations between cultural groups and the impact on consumer behavior.

Reflecting the view of the African tradition, blacks should put more emphasis on peer acceptance, be more people oriented rather than individual oriented, put a heavy emphasis on affective responses in conjunction with cognitive responses, and display participatory behavior.

Cosmas and Sheth (1980) found that blacks were more responsive to opinion leaders ranking high on the dimension of peer influence and charisma. Silverstein and Krate (1975) reported on several studies showing blacks being more feeling oriented, more auditory and tactile rather than visual and written oriented, and better at acting out and interpreting the emotions of various actors.

Hedegard and Brown (1969) found that black students characterize their ideal teacher in terms of interpersonal prowess as opposed to technical proficiency. In the area of group versus individual orientation, Slavin (1983) in numerous studies has shown that black students learn significantly better in cooperative, group situations compared to white students, who learned better in individual, competitive situations. He hypothesizes that this may be due to the greater importance of peer groups among blacks. Sims (1979) examined black children and their sharing behavior and found a significant emphasis on the importance of the reference group for these children.

Rychlak (1977) developed an operational measure of affective assessment called "reinforcement value" (RV). He found that black subjects were more influenced by RV considerations in their learning behavior. He suggests that the RVlearning style for blacks may reflect the strong tendencies within the culture to emphasize the basic human affective assessment propensities.


Ramirez (1984) points out that the acculturation models which have influenced most of the research of social scientists with respect to members of ethnic groups could properly be called "conflict-replacement" models. They are based on the assumptions that 1.) the value-belief systems and life-styles of the ethnic group will be replaced with those of the mainstream culture, and 2.) as the individual becomes more assimilated into the mainstream culture, he or she experiences less conflict and more success. Under this conceptualization, the multicultural individual is viewed as being assimilated.

A multicultural approach to acculturation is better conceptualized as a "flexibilitysynthesis" model. According to Ramirez (1977), this represents a synthesis experience, or the bringing together o-f different cultural modules to arrive at a new combination of elements that make the individual a functioning multicultural.

The model for blacks in America is represented by a two-dimensional matrix. The vertical axis represents orientation toward European-based, "modern" values, while the horizontal axis represents orientation towards African-based, "traditional" values. This results in four quadrants which are labeled as follows:

1. Multiculturals (High Traditional and High Modern Values) - Blacks who have reached cultural democracy and can display both African-based and European-based values in their behavior.

2. Assimilables (Low Traditional and High Modern Values) - Blacks who display European-based values and who have been acculturated in the traditional sense.

3. Transitionals (Low Traditional and Low Modern Values) - Blacks who have given up African-based values but have not adopted European-based values.

4. Identifiers (High Traditional and Low Modern Values) - Blacks who display primarily African-based values in their behavior.

Some researchers have argued that "traditional" values among ethnic groups are a declining part of American society. However, this view is characteristic of the "conflict-replacement" view of acculturation. Based on the above "flexibility-synthesis" model, it is hypothesized that Multiculturals, representing both "traditional" and "modern" values, are a growing segment within ethnic groups. Further research, including the development of scales to measure subjects along the two dimensions, is needed to support this hypothesis.


Accepting the "flexibility-synthesis" model of multiculturalism in understanding the consumer behavior of American blacks can help to explain much of the confusion that has surrounded the question of cultural integration versus distinctiveness. The answer is that blacks can be cultural integrated and distinct, and it does not have to be an "either/or" issue. Although there are a number of implications and opportunities for further marketing research using the concept, only two areas will be briefly discussed.

The first is the growing emphasis in America on values and lifestyle perspectives of consumer behavior. Values and Life Styles (VALS), a typology of the American consumer created by Mitchell (1978), is being adopted by many marketers. As a result of this emphasis on self-images, aspirations, and product use, a number of terms have crept into the marketing parlance. For example, Young Urban Professionals (YUPPIES), Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals (YUMPPIES), Spoiled Kids of the Eighties (SKOTIES or YUPPY children), Fun Loving Youths En Route to Success (FLYERS) are just a few. Now the terms BUPPIES and BUMPPIES have cropped up. These are Black Urban Professionals and Black Upwardly Mobile Professionals. They are the direct result of middle class acceptance (Smith 1985). At one time middle class was viewed as suspicious, representing a loss of identity, "the bourgeois" (Frazier 1957). Previously the "black bourgeois" was viewed as trying to act like whites. Now the BUPPIES are showing whites how to act (Smith 1985).- They rep-resent blacks who maintain a strong cultural identity, often forming ethnic groups within their corporations and creating dialogues with management over minority concerns, but still enjoying the "good life," based on European-based values, They are the Multiculturals as described in the above model.

Another area involves the use of Black English in advertising to reach blacks. Sobers (1979) says it is a myth that blacks respond more to "slanguage" in advertising than to conventional English. Yet Smitherman and McGinnis (1977) argue that black speech is adequate for linguistic, social, and intellectual functions, and black scholars should advocate its legitimacy and usage in the home, on the job, in school, in the media, and in all institutional contexts. Labov (1985) conducted research that indicates the language gap between whites and blacks is actually widening, particularly among urban black youths. Many black leaders maintain that the perpetuation of the black dialect to foster racial distinctiveness is illogical, nonsensical, and harmful to building a better future for blacks as cited by Brasch (1981). Putting this issue in a multicultural context might open new avenues to understanding how linguistic expressions peculiar to the black culture could be adopted while at the same time fostering the use of conventional English. This could be useful to advertisers developing campaigns aimed at blacks.


The marketer is faced with the task of selecting appropriate marketing strategies to reach blacks, a sizeable ethnic segment with significant purchasing power. Previous research has not been clear on whether blacks desire to be assimilated into the mainstream culture or desire to be treated as culturally distinct. Much of this discrepancy has been due to the linear models of acculturation employed. Multiculturalism with its emphasis on cultural democracy is used as the basis to develop a four cell matrix based on "traditional" African and "modern" European cultural values. This approach opens the way to explore new approaches and develop new theories about effective marketing programs to reach blacks.


Andreasen, Alan R. (1978), "The Ghetto Marketing Life Cycle: A Case of Underachievement," Journal of Marketing Research, 25 (February), 20-28.

Barry, Thomas E., Michael G. Harvey and Michael E. McGill, eds. (1976), Marketing and the Black Consumer: An Annotated Bibliography., Chicago: American Marketing Association.

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Bauer, Raymond A., Scott M. Cunningham, and L. H. Wortzel (1965), "The Marketing Dilemma of Negroes," Journal of Marketing, July, 1-6.

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Bennett, P. D. and Harold H. Kassarjian (1972), Consumer Behavior, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

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Chang, W. H. (1972), "Communication and Acculturation: A Case Study of Korean Ethnic Group in Los Angeles," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa.

Cross, W. E., Jr. (1978), "The Thomas and Cross Models of Psychological Nigrescence: A Review," Journal of Black Psychology, 5, 13-31.

Additional References Available Upon Request from Author.



Jerome D. Williams, University of Colorado


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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