Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Facing the realities of racism

By Laurie Meyers January 25, 2017

When Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States in 2008, some optimistic observers thought that American society had finally reached a post-racial age. As the past two-plus years have highlighted vividly, however, the significance of race and the influence of racism on the American story are far from over.

“Electing a black man and then re-electing a black man for eight years was not going to undo almost 300 years of dysfunction,” says Courtland Lee, a past president of the American Counseling Association who has written extensively about multicultural, racial and social justice issues. “The presidency, unfortunately, plays right into how racism works in the country.”

Indeed, President Obama’s election spurred increased activity among white supremacists. However, white “backlash” was not limited to the far-right fringes of society.

“The [Obama] presidency was earth shattering in many ways. [It] tapped into many people’s deepest darkest fears about this country, the status quo and the fundamental way they thought the country should be,” Lee says. “Their worldview is that people like Obama shouldn’t be in power, which is why [Donald Trump’s campaign slogan] ‘Make American Great Again’ resonated.” Lee and other experts on race relations believe the underlying message of the campaign slogan was “Make America White Again.”

“There was a culmination of white reaction to the changing demographics in this country,” says Lee, a professor in the counselor educator program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s Washington, D.C., campus. He points out that the United States continues to grow more racially diverse and is moving toward a time when whites will be in the minority.

Lee and other experts believe that the fear of this shift is one of the main reasons that anti-immigrant and racist viewpoints have become more publicly prevalent and acceptable, reaching a fever pitch during the 2016 presidential campaign. In the 10 days following the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization that uses legal action, education and advocacy to fight racism and bigotry, received almost 900 reports of bias-related incidents of harassment and intimidation as part of what it termed a “national outbreak of hate.”

“I think we have an environment where people feel comfortable with stereotypes,” says Lee, the author of Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity. “People feel they have a license to act and speak out in very intolerant ways.”

In an atmosphere characterized by intolerance and strained race relations, what is a counselor’s responsibility? How can counselors help their clients and society at large cope with and fight against hatred and ignorance?

Uncovering implicit bias

Counselors should start by looking within, says Lance Smith, an ACA member whose research focus includes racial bias within the counseling profession. Despite the emphasis on diversity that is part of most counselors’ training, societal bias can still influence counselors, he notes.

“I think there’s a bit of hubris in the counseling profession that because we’re so well-trained in matters of personalization and we explore countertransference so rigorously that [racial bias isn’t] something that we have to worry about,” says Smith, an associate professor and school counseling coordinator within the University of Vermont counseling program.

Each year, Smith has all of the students in his classes take the Implicit Association Test on race, and he says that most exhibit an automatic bias in favor of white people. This doesn’t mean that most of his students — and most counselors in general — are not well-intentioned individuals who genuinely want to help others, he emphasizes. “Unfortunately, for most of us” — counselors and noncounselors alike — “white dominance has been downloaded into our software without our permission,” Smith says.

To overcome internal racial bias, counselors need to understand the “false binary” of racism, Smith says. “There’s this powerful notion in society that one is either racist — an ignorant, mean-spirited, Confederate flag-waving, card-carrying member of the KKK — or a good person. And, of course, most counselors know that they are good, moral, kind, beneficent people, so it follows that, by definition, they cannot be racist. Therefore,” he explains, “not only are they likely to fail to interrogate the ways in which they more subtly harm and microaggress their clients and students of color, but they are also likely to ignore, deny and therefore inadvertently support institutional forms of racism such as the school-to-prison pipeline and anti-affirmative action.”

“But racism, and all isms for that matter, are more complex,” Smith continues. “For most of us, it’s not a matter of if I’m racist, but rather how much. How many racist stereotypes do I subconsciously hold? How much do I unknowingly contribute to institutional racism? What are the microaggressions that I am more prone to commit? How much do I ignore white dominance? How much work do I need to do to break free from my segregated social bubble in order to develop authentic and genuine relationships with folks from targeted groups?”

Counselor and psychologist Derald Wing Sue, the author of such books as Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence and Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, agrees that counselors — and society at large — need to talk about race and racism more openly. “The first step in being able to talk freely about race is understanding that no one is immune from … racial bias,” he says. The bias may very well be subconscious, he adds, but counselors and others need to be willing to admit the existence of that bias and be willing to make mistakes, even if that includes accidentally offending someone, to talk openly about racial issues.

Unfortunately, bias and racism in the counseling profession — conscious or unconscious — can have more tangible effects than simply stifling conversations. Smith was co-primary investigator of a study in the November 2016 issue of The Counseling Psychologist, “Is Allison More Likely Than Lakisha to Receive a Callback From Counseling Professionals? A Racism Audit Study,” that examined whether potential clients’ perceived racial backgrounds affected whether they received a callback after leaving a voice message requesting counseling services. For the study, an actor using fictitious and stereotypically African American or stereotypically white names left messages with counselors and psychologists inquiring about therapeutic services. Although the perceived racial background of the caller didn’t appear to significantly affect the callback rate, the study authors found that it did affect whether the counselor’s or psychologist’s callback tended to encourage the potential client to seek services. Potential clients named “Allison” were invited to have a phone conversation with the practitioner (an indication of encouragement to seek services) 63 percent of the time, whereas potential clients named “Lakisha” received a similar invitation only 51 percent of the time.

“The primary reason we did the study is that we’ve seen a disparity in mental health services for decades between African American populations and white populations,” Smith says. “But the dominant narrative in counseling has always been, ‘What’s going on with this help-seeking behavior? What is it about the African American community? Why do they not feel safe with us? Maybe it’s economics. Maybe they lack insurance. Maybe they don’t have access because there aren’t counselors in their neighborhood. Maybe African Americans prefer more direct styles of helping.’”

“There was all this discussion about the help-seeker behavior, but we didn’t turn the lens on ourselves,” he explains. “We [the study authors] were asking what are we potentially doing, as a field that is predominantly white, in terms of help-provider behavior that is contributing to the racial disparity in mental health services? I think turning that lens away from blaming the victim and toward ourselves as a field is a significant step that … we’re just starting to take, which also speaks to another element of systemic racism in the field.”

Educational bias

Bias in the counseling field begins in counselor education programs, asserts Cirecie West-Olatunji. She says that when she was serving as the president of ACA in 2013-2014, she was frequently approached at state counseling association conferences by students and counselor educators of color who felt “shut out.”

“I was meeting a lot of early career professionals, doctoral students, students who were nontraditional in any kind of way, who came to me and many times were in tears because they didn’t have anyone to talk to within their system [academic program],” she says. “They didn’t feel safe talking to their supervisors or doctoral chairs about a lot of microaggressions they had experienced with peers. They were having a really marginalized experience that was affecting their careers.”

West-Olatunji, an expert on traumatic stress, says that students and counselor educators of color can feel excluded from the academic community in numerous ways. For example, not being invited by their peers to collaborate on publications, not being assigned mentors and even not being invited to go out socially with colleagues or fellow students to lunch.

Academic bias also affects dissertation topics, contends West-Olatunji, an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana and director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Research. “[Doctoral students] want to investigate what is relative to their own experience. [If] they’re black, they want to write about the black experience,” she says. “Oftentimes, the faculty [member] is white and doesn’t relate or doesn’t believe the phenomenon” of the day-to-day experience of being a person of color.

Doctoral students of color are often left to decide whether to potentially alienate their doctoral advisers by insisting that their topics and personal experiences are valid, West-Olatunji says. Faced with the skepticism of experienced faculty members, doctoral students may even begin to doubt their own experiences, she adds. But even if doctoral students of color can convince their advisers to accept their dissertation topics, the question becomes whether advisers can help the students to research something effectively if the advisers don’t really believe in it in the first place, West-Olatunji says.

As a result, doctoral students may end up writing in a pejorative manner about their own experiences or even decide to set aside their chosen topics and tell themselves that they just want to learn how to conduct research, West-Olatunji says. And once these students of color have earned their doctorates and gone on to become professors, West-Olatunji says, they still encounter statements such as, “You won’t get tenure if you write about black people that way.” As a result, she says, they are discouraged from writing about topics that are personally relevant to them. This in turn affects the quality and quantity of research available that addresses the experiences of people of color, she explains.

Experiences such as those West-Olatunji describes may also be influencing the racial gap in the counseling profession. This is something that Smith has researched in the past.

“We were looking at the disparity in white-identified therapists in the field and people of color as counselors in the field,” Smith says of a study that he co-authored in 2011. “We looked at disparities amongst white faculty in CACREP [Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs] programs and people of color in CACREP programs. Of course we weren’t surprised to find that there was a significant racial disparity in terms of the population of African Americans in society and the population of people of color who were moving through counseling programs.”

This reality is potentially harmful for people of color who might be more comfortable seeking services from counselors of color, Smith points out. “And yet, we’re not doing our jobs in higher education to recruit, train and graduate counselors of color,” he says.

Fear factors

The backlash that Lee spoke about is engendering a significant level of fear in communities across the country. There is a sense among people of color, Sue adds, that the equality they have fought for and the progress they have made in the past 50 years is at risk of being taken away. As a result, many feel unsafe, depressed, angry and powerless, he says.

Patricia Arredondo, a former president of ACA, agrees. Currently a visiting professor of counseling and counseling psychology at Arizona State University, she says that everywhere she goes, people are talking to her about their fears post-election. “Everyone is very aware that if you are Latino or Latina, you are targeted, regardless of birthplace — people who are undocumented or documented,” she says. “The discussion about [building] the border wall is something that affects all of us.”

There is a hypersensitivity and a sense of high anxiety in the Latino community, particularly among families who fear being separated by deportation, Arredondo continues. “Children are afraid that their parents are going to be deported. Counselors have to recognize that this is a real experience for kids and families, not abstract,” she emphasizes.

This increased sense of fear compounds the pre-existing trauma that many people of color live with. “People feel unsafe in the current political climate, not because of one political view but because there has been an increase in hate crimes,” West-Olatunji says. “This is on top of ongoing trauma. It causes problems thinking — thinking is jumbled, we have a hard time making decisions and problems with concentration and focusing. We are constantly managing emotions instead of attending to business at hand.”

Counselors may look at this witches’ brew of problems — a climate of intolerance, hate incidents, increased fear among targeted populations, and lifelong and intergenerational trauma among people of color — and wonder how they can possibly make a difference. Lee says it starts first and foremost with the client. That involves treating the trauma that marginalized clients experience but also getting out into the community and talking to people about the challenges they face and how counselors can help them cope.

“There is a disconnect between academia and what’s really happening in the real world — a disconnect between what counselors learn and what’s happening,” he says.

For instance, Lee says, academia has done a good job of putting together multicultural competencies that serve as guidelines for what it means to be a “culturally competent” counselor. But the competencies aren’t very useful in the field, he says, and practitioners need more than academic standards of cultural competence. They need to understand the trauma that results from police brutality and living in oppressed neighborhoods or what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and work multiple jobs simply to get by, he says. This returns to counselors getting out of the office and into the community to talk with people — not just “clients” — about real-world issues.

Arredondo, co-author of Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latinas/os agrees. “I tell my students that book knowledge is limited. You have to read the papers. You have to know what the policies are in the state or city you are in that have an effect on the well-being of clients. [This is] knowledge that you may need to support your clients,” she says.

For instance, Arredondo explains, counselors who are working with Latino populations should know stress reduction techniques that they can share with these clients, but they should also be aware of any community resources that these clients might need, such as Latino community organizations or immigration lawyers for undocumented clients.

Being a part of the community

Beyond doing direct work with clients, counselors can also help their larger communities to address issues of race and racial tensions, Lee says. For example, counselors could make themselves available to facilitate dialogue between civilians and the local police force, he says. “There is a lot of miscommunication between citizens and the police force. I think it would be wonderful if ACA had a training initiative for police forces on not only cultural competency, but just helping police to develop communication and helping skills.” (For a related story, see “Bridging the divide between police and the public,” December 2016.)

Smith also envisions a larger societal role for counselors when it comes to addressing issues of race and racism. “School counselors need to be at the school board advocating for anti-racism curriculum in their schools,” he says. “Clinical mental health counselors need to be on state boards of mental health to ensure that their state licensure includes these robust competencies about anti-racism. Counselors who have research skills need to be engaged with the sheriff’s department and the local police department, helping them to gather data on racial disparities in the community.”

As a whole, counselors need to get out of their offices and into their communities to fight the forces of intolerance because those injustices are part of what is driving clients to their doors, Smith says. “Individual one-on-one traditional counseling is not sufficient to interrupt these systemic biases,” he asserts. “In this age of emerging intolerance where it’s now once again socially and publicly accepted to be an overt bigot, we need to raise our game as counselors.”

Sue, a member of ACA, says that individual counselors need not fear going it alone. “Get a support group — other counselors and co-workers who feel similarly,” he says. “The issue is really to begin to empower yourself. Have meetings where you invite various speakers, educate yourself, build a support group and then begin to talk about strategies.”

“Say you work in a school system that has systems or policies that are unfair to people of color,” Sue continues. “Doing it [making a change] by yourself is impossible. Identify people in the school who may share your beliefs and then make a group presentation to the principal or faculty. There really is an out-of-office strategy. It’s viewing the client not so much as the students who come in to you for help, but the client is now the school system or school district. It is the school system that is causing harm. You are being proactive. When you do counseling, it’s primarily reacting and fixing damage, but if you are proactive and take action against the system, you have won a big victory.”

West-Olatunji views the recent U.S. presidential election as a wake-up call to racial issues in America. “Counselors need to be speaking out about truths. We need to talk about a lot of things,” she says. “There is an argument about whether or not counselors should engage [in political debate]. Put that to rest. People are being harmed, and we don’t have to wait until they come into our offices” to help them.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Racial Microaggressions” by Cirleen DeBlaere, Terrence A. Jordan II & David G. Zelaya

Books & DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, fourth edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fourth edition, by Courtland C. Lee
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latinas/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata
  • Experiential Activities for Teaching Multicultural Competence in Counseling, edited by Mark Pope, Joseph S. Pangelinan and Angela D. Coker
  • Latino Worldviews in Counseling (DVD in Spanish with English subtitles), hosted by Patricia Arredondo and Jon Carlson

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

  • “Why does culture matter? Isn’t counseling just counseling regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee

Podcasts (counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts)

  • “Counseling African American Males Post Ferguson” with Tony Spann
  • “Understanding the Ferguson, MO Crisis: A Counselor’s Perspective” with
    Ken Oliver
  • “Multiculturalism and Diversity: What is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does It Matter?” with Courtland C. Lee

ACA divisions

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

  • Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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