Hearing jokes about watermelon and grape Kool-Aid. Hearing someone talk about their “half-colored” nephew’s “nappy” hair. Being called “boy.” This is what I experienced over the year that I led an addictions process group in rural Appalachia.
After working in the area for almost four years, I had grown accustomed to hearing these types of comments, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a response made in group after one member shared that she was dating outside of her race for the first time.
This particular group member said that she was no longer interested in “full-blooded white men.”
“Yeah, you like him now, but wait until he blacks your eye,” another group member commented.
We were gathered outside on a warm, sunny spring day, but a storm cloud of mixed emotions swept over me as I sat there in disbelief. As the leader of the group and the only person of color among a group of eight, I was at a total loss for words. I had no idea how to address what had been said, and I was too overwhelmed to convey exactly what I thought or felt in that moment.
I knew I felt invisible. I knew I felt voiceless. But without any guidance, I struggled to determine what my response should be or whether it would even be appropriate to share what I was feeling. Ultimately, I chose to remain silent and let the moment pass as if nothing had happened, but the weight of what had transpired lingered with me long after our group meeting had ended.
By the time I arrived home that evening, my initial shock and disbelief had transformed into anger and disappointment. I had been really fond of the group member who made the offensive comment, so it stung to hear him perpetuate such a harmful stereotype about people of color. It didn’t help that he had made this comment after I had worked so hard to be understanding and sensitive to the needs of the group, especially considering that many members perceived that their backgrounds made them targets for judgment and mistreatment by law enforcement, family, friends and even other counselors.
I had also worked very hard not to perpetuate stereotypes about people who are in recovery from addiction, and I had avoided repeating the derogatory language that is often used to describe the people of Appalachia. What made matters worse is that just months prior, there was general consensus among the group that no one liked being called a “junkie” or an “addict,” especially by someone who has never used drugs. Clearly, these members knew what it was like to feel marginalized, so how could they allow someone in the group to make such a racially insensitive comment and not challenge him?
I went to bed that night still upset about what had happened and woke up the next day feeling even angrier. In fact, I thought about that incident for several days. I consulted with my supervisor and processed what it was like for me to have led the group that day. I shared the details of the incident with my colleagues in a separate supervision group. I spent hours brainstorming different ways to confront the group about what had happened. I thought to myself, “Maybe I should compile a list of derogatory terms, share them with the group and ask members what they think about culturally insensitive language. Maybe I should stop being so careful with my words and ask members how they feel when they’re on the receiving end of microaggressions!”
These ideas came from a wounded place in me. I had worked hard to protect my group members, and it hurt having to accept that they had not been as protective of me. Thankfully, ongoing self-examination helped me set aside my own baggage and reminded me that it would be harmful and unethical to prioritize my own needs over those of the group.
Instead, I did some more processing and eventually decided it was less important for me to get retribution and more important for me to leave the members with greater insight than they had before joining the group. I wanted to do something that would be meaningful and impactful for everyone in the group, including myself.
The next week, I sat everyone down and implemented a new group rule: Please be mindful of the diversity represented within the group. Without my having to confront him directly, the group member who had made the offensive comment the week before knew immediately why I had made this request and, to his credit, apologized for what he had said. Although I did not take the opportunity to share with the group exactly how his words had impacted me, the act of advocating for myself and others in the group was healing enough.
In fact, addressing diversity issues that day served as a critical moment for the group and opened the door for continued discussions about race, culture, sexual orientation and other aspects of multiculturalism. Just a few weeks later, for example, a group member made a comment about fried chicken, to which I lightheartedly responded, “Is this another racist joke?” To my relief, the group laughed, and we went on to have a productive conversation about ethnicity, regional diversity and similarities between Appalachian culture and African American culture.
In hindsight, I don’t know if I used the best approach to address diversity issues in my group, but I can look back and appreciate how that first challenging experience (there were others afterward) helped to shape my counseling philosophy and improve my group counseling skills. It taught me when and how to address diversity issues in groups, and it served as a reminder that multicultural issues are always relevant, even in an addictions process group in rural Appalachia.
My recommended resources
If you have been in a situation similar to mine, or would simply like more guidance on addressing diversity issues in addiction counseling groups, check out the following books:
- Group Exercises for Addiction Counseling by Geri Miller (2012)
Miller describes two activities that can be used to address diversity issues in addiction counseling groups. My favorite of the two, “Sharing Culture,” is a dynamic group activity that facilitates engagement, information sharing and processing. I won’t provide any spoilers if you haven’t read the book, but just know that this activity involves yarn and sounds like a lot of fun.
- Group Work Experts Share Their Favorite Activities for the Prevention and Treatment of Substance Use Disorders, published by the Association for Specialists in Group Work (2015), and edited by Christine Bhat, Yegan Pillay and Priscilla Selvaraj
This book is full of engaging activities for anyone interested in group work, but one activity in particular may be useful for practitioners who want to address diversity issues in group. Submitted by Beverly Goodwin and Lorraine Guth, this activity requires group participants to identify what they know about their own ethnic, racial or cultural group, and then consider how different aspects of their identity impact their recovery.
My own spin on this activity would involve an initial discussion about drug culture — its norms, unspoken rules, daily practices and common beliefs of which people may be unaware. I see this as a helpful way to set the stage for a broader discussion about culture and diversity. I also think it would be a useful way to help group members process the fact that they are indeed giving up certain aspects of a valued cultural system when they decide to start their recovery. This context can help enrich subsequent discussions about culture, assimilation and acculturation as members discuss the process of letting go of drug culture and embracing aspects of other cultural systems that may be less harmful.
A version of this article was originally published in the December e-letter of the Association for Specialists in Group Work, a division of the American Counseling Association, and is used here with permission.
Gerard Grigsby is a fourth-year doctoral student in the counselor education and supervision program at Ohio University. He is licensed as a professional counselor in Ohio and has worked in college counseling and community mental health settings. Currently, he works at a substance use treatment clinic, where he has the privilege of serving and learning from individuals in recovery. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.