Tag Archives: race

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.

Race talk and facilitating difficult racial dialogues

Derald Wing Sue December 22, 2015

Over a five-year period, my colleagues and I have conducted a series of studies to explore the psychology of racial dialogues or “race talk” in the training of counselors and other mental health professionals. As we become an increasingly diverse society, it is impossible for counselors not to encounter clients who differ from them in terms of race, ethnicity and cultural background. The Branding-Images_Rosesinability to honestly dialogue about race and racial issues can serve as a major hindrance to effective multicultural counseling. Although our research has been conducted in an educational and training context, I believe our findings are equally applicable to all racial dialogues, whether they occur in education, employment, health care, public forums, the media or among neighbors.

In our studies, we specifically focused on:

  • The characteristics of race talk
  • Ground rules or guidelines that explicitly and implicitly dictate how and when race is discussed
  • Whether people of color and Whites perceive the rules differently from one another
  • The impact of race talk on participants
  • How educators could create conditions conducive to successful outcomes

Each of these areas has formed topics in my most recent book, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race (2015).  

What is race talk?

Race talk is a dialogue or conversation that involves topics of race, racism, “whiteness” and White privilege. Race talk is generally filled with intense and powerful emotions, creates a threatening environment for participants, reveals major differences in worldviews or perspectives and often results in disastrous consequences such as a hardening of biased racial views. Unless instigated in some manner, the majority of people in interracial settings would prefer to avoid such topical discussions or to minimize and dilute their importance and meaning.

Our findings suggest that difficult dialogues on race:

  • Are potentially threatening conversations or interactions between members of different racial and ethnic groups
  • Reveal major differences in worldviews that are challenged publicly
  • Are found to be offensive to participants
  • Arouse intense emotions such as dread and anxiety (for Whites) and anger and frustration (for people of color) that disrupt communication and behaviors
  • Are often instigated by racial microaggressions
  • Involve an unequal status relationship of power and privilege among participants

In 1997, President Bill Clinton’s national dialogue on race concluded that open and honest conversations about race lead to positive race relations. If racial dialogues are an important means to combat racism and discrimination, how can we make people more comfortable and willing to explore racial topics? And if racial topics arise in counseling sessions, how can counselors and clients engage in an honest therapeutic dialogue rather than avoiding it? Answering these questions is especially urgent as difficult dialogues on race become unavoidable and as well-intentioned people of all races find themselves unprepared to deal with the explosive emotions that result in polarization and hard feelings.

Poorly handled, race talk can result in misunderstandings, increased antagonism among trainees and students, and blockages in learning. Skillfully handled, however, race talk can improve communication and learning, enhance racial harmony, increase racial literacy and expand critical consciousness of one’s racial/cultural identity. In this article, I share some of our findings regarding a few of the ineffective and effective strategies in facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Space does not allow discussing the other many strategies I have identified in my book.

Ineffective and successful strategies

Race talk is often not about the substance of an argument but rather a cover for what is actually happening. To facilitate difficult dialogue about race in a productive manner, instructors and trainers need to understand not only the content of the communication but also the process resulting from the interpersonal dynamics. Exploring ineffective and effective race talk strategies will lead to more positive outcomes in workshop and classroom settings.

Five ineffective strategies

1) Do nothing

2) Sidetrack the conversation

3) Appease the participants

4) Terminate the discussion

5) Become defensive

Our studies indicate that instructors and trainers who have not developed a good sense of who they are as racial and cultural beings tend to use ineffective race talk strategies. These behaviors generally lead to negative outcomes in race talk but are of value in demonstrating what not to do and revealing possible solutions.

Do nothing

Many people will commonly opt for silence in the midst of heated race talk. In classrooms or a supervisory situation, for example, they allow students or supervisees to take over the conversation, exhibiting behavioral and emotional passivity in their own actions. Studies suggest that although facilitators are experiencing powerful emotions and anxieties when dialogue on race occurs, they attempt to conceal these feelings for fear of appearing inept. Feeling paralyzed, lacking racial consciousness and experiencing confusion about how to intervene leads instructors and facilitators to a deep sense of personal failure. More problematic is that their actions or inaction suggest to students and trainees that race talk should be avoided.

Sidetrack the conversation 

Consider the following scenario of an unsuccessful racial dialogue.

The context: An educator-training workshop

The topic: Past discrimination and oppression against people of color

White female trainee (stating her thoughts angrily): Why aren’t we also addressing issues like sexism? We women are an oppressed minority group as well! I always feel training like this makes women invisible and that our needs are ignored. Women are paid less than men, we are treated as sex objects … I mean, everything is about race and racism, but what about us? What about our situation?

Instructor: Yes, I … I … I … can understand that, but I can’t cover every single group that has been oppressed, and this training is about the oppression of people of color and the harm they experience from oppression.

Trainee (raising voice): Women are harmed too. Why does it have to be like that anyway? Why use an arbitrary decision in deciding which group to address? I just don’t believe you can relate to my situation as a woman!

Instructor (becoming defensive and attempting to appease the trainee): Well, it’s … it’s … not really arbitrary. There are many reasons why I concentrate on racial oppression … but, let me see … OK, maybe we can … let’s talk about the plight of women as an oppressed group. It’s not my intent to ignore discrimination against women. In fact, many of our studies on discrimination have dealt with gender microaggressions like sexual objectification.

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The preceding difficult dialogue displays a prime example of a trainee, in this case a White female, attempting (most likely unwittingly) to sidetrack the conversation from the topic of race to gender. In classroom settings, race talk is often uncomfortable for trainees and instructors alike. Avoidance takes many forms, and an instructor may unintentionally collude with the participant in avoiding race talk for many reasons, the ultimate result being diversion from discussing the real issues.

Appease the participants

Some trainers and instructors avoid deep discussions of race to maintain what they perceive as group or classroom harmony. They are sensitive to how the school, college or organization perceives the workshop or class and attempt to elicit positive feelings and opinions from participants at the expense of productive discussion.

Appeasement may take many forms:

  • Allowing the conversation to be sidetracked
  • Not confronting the points being made by the participant
  • Stressing commonalities and avoiding differences
  • Discussing superficial issues without exploring deeper personal meanings

Maintaining harmony can negate deeper explorations of biases, stereotypes and deep-seated emotions.

Terminate the discussion

When instructors are concerned that a racial dialogue threatens to get out of control and are unable to determine how best to handle the situation, one of the most common actions is to terminate the dialogue. It may not be intentional, and it may involve the following strategies:

  • Placing conditions on how the dialogue should be discussed, thereby quashing the natural dynamics involved
  • Tabling the discussion and not carrying through on the promise to return to the issue in the future
  • Asking the parties involved to discuss the matter with him or her outside of the workshop or class
  • Stressing that the parties involved should calm down, respect one another and discuss the topic in a rational manner (negating the expression of feelings)

Become defensive

Race talk between instructors and trainees operates on the principle of reciprocity. Whether instructors are White or people of color, defensiveness or having one’s buttons pushed is a common phenomenon. To deflect perceived criticism or uncomfortable feelings, trainees may directly or indirectly attack the content of the communication or the credibility of the communicator. When confronted with a defensive challenge by trainees, instructors of race talk may also

become defensive, especially when they find their message being invalidated or their credibility assailed.

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These ineffective reactions provide us with clues about the facilitative conditions that need to exist and the types of interventions most likely to help trainees move from racial obliviousness to racial consciousness of themselves and one another.

Five successful strategies

1) Understand your racial/cultural identity

2) Acknowledge and be open to admitting your racial biases

3) Validate and facilitate discussion of feelings

4) Control the process, not the content, of race talk

5) Validate, encourage and express admiration and appreciation to participants who speak when it feels unsafe to do so

Dialogues on race commonly exhibit clashes between the racial realities of one group (people of color) and another (generally Whites). The conflicts between racial groups and their hidden meanings tend to emerge in the context of race talk. Having critical racial consciousness formed from a nonracist/anti-racist orientation is key to developing and using successful race talk strategies.

Instructors and trainers can conduct positive race talks with the aid of effective facilitation strategies. However, these suggestions and strategies are based on the assumption that instructors are enlightened individuals who have done the necessary personal work to develop nonracist and anti-racist identities.

Understand your racial/cultural identity

Effective facilitators must understand themselves as racial/cultural beings by making the invisible visible. A lack of insight and awareness will only perpetuate ignorance in the trainees they hope to help. Facilitators cannot be effective instructors unless they are aware of their own worldview, including their values, biases, prejudices and assumptions about human behavior.

For example, what does being White, Black/African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Latino/Hispanic American or Native American mean to them? How does their racial identity affect the way they view others and the way others view them? Understanding oneself as a racial/cultural being goes hand in hand with how well-grounded and secure one will be in a racial dialogue.

Acknowledge and be open to admitting your racial biases

On a cognitive level, facilitators must be able and willing to acknowledge and accept the fact that they are products of the cultural conditioning in this society, having inherited the biases, fears and stereotypes of the society. When facilitating a difficult dialogue on race, most instructors are wary about communicating their own prejudices and will respond in a cautious fashion that may be less than honest.

Publicly and honestly acknowledging personal biases and weaknesses to self and others may have several positive consequences:

  • Experiencing freedom from the constant vigilance exercised in denying their own racism or other biases
  • Modeling truthfulness, openness and honesty to trainees about race and racism
  • Demonstrating courage in making themselves vulnerable by taking a risk to share with trainees their own biases, limitations and attempts to deal with their own racism
  • Encouraging others in the group to approach the dialogue with honesty, seeing that their own instructors are equally flawed

Validate and facilitate discussion of feelings

Validating and facilitating the discussion of feelings is a primary goal in race talk. The facilitator must create conditions that make the expression and presence of feelings a valid and legitimate focus of experience and discussion.

Studies in classroom settings indicate, almost universally:

  • The importance of allowing space for the strong expression of feelings
  • That allowing participants to talk about their anxieties or anger helped them understand themselves and others better
  • That it was important to create conditions that allowed for openness and receptivity to strong emotions

Trainees in these studies greatly appreciated instructors who were unafraid to recognize and name the racial tension and the feelings emanating from the discussion because it helped them demystify its source and meaning. It can be helpful for the instructor to ask, for example, “How are you feeling right now talking to or being confronted by this Black person?”

Control the process and not the content of race talk

When a heated dialogue on race occurs, the conversation between diverse participants is typically on the content level, but the true dialogue is taking place on a less visible level (White talk versus back talk). Common statements (content level) when White talk occurs include:

“My family didn’t own slaves! I had nothing to do with the incarceration of Japanese Americans.”

“Excuse me, sir, but prejudice and oppression were and are part of every society in the world, not just the U.S.”

“I resent you calling me White. You are equally guilty of stereotyping. We are all human beings.”

The substance of these assertions has validity, but to deal with them strictly on the content level will only result in having race talk sidetracked, diluted, diminished or ignored. Understanding the subtext that generates these statements is critical for both the instructors and trainees to deconstruct.

Consider the earlier vignette. The instructor attempted to control the content of the discussion rather than the process of the dialogue. An important education exercise is to practice analyzing these statements from both the content and process levels.

Validate, encourage and express admiration and appreciation to participants who speak when it feels unsafe to do so

Participants can feel threatened when engaging in race talk. Accordingly, instructors should express appreciation to those who take a risk and demonstrate courage, openness and the willingness to participate in this difficult dialogue. Examples of what an instructor might say:

“Mary, I know this has been a very emotional experience for you, but I value your courage in sharing with the group your personal thoughts and feelings. I hope I can be equally brave when topics of sexism or homophobia are brought up in class.”

“As a group, we have just experienced a difficult dialogue. I admire you all for not ‘running away’ but facing it squarely. I hope you all will continue to feel free to bring up these topics. Real courage is being honest and risking offending others when the situation is not safe. Today, that is what I saw happen with several of you, and for that, the group should be grateful.”

Let’s return to the earlier vignette. As you recall, we opened with a dialogue that was less than successful. Let’s close with an example of a successful racial discussion.

Female trainee (stating her thoughts angrily): Why aren’t we also addressing issues like sexism? We women are an oppressed minority group as well! I always feel training like this makes women invisible and that our needs are ignored. Women are paid less than men, we are treated as sex objects … I mean, everything is about race and racism, but what about us? What about our situation?

Instructor: I’m glad you brought that up. You make excellent points. Yes, women are definitely an oppressed group, and we can talk about that as well. (Instructor acknowledges legitimacy of comment and lowers potential argument on the issue.) Before we do that, however, I’m picking up on lots of strong feelings behind your statement and wonder where they are coming from. (Instructor controls the process by refocusing exploration on the trainee.)

Trainee: What do you mean?

Instructor: You seem angry at something I’ve said or done.

Trainee: No, I’m not … I’m just upset that women get shortchanged.

Instructor: I can understand that, but the intensity with which you expressed yourself made me feel that my points on racism were being dismissed and that issues of racism were unimportant to you. (Instructor indirectly distinguishes between intention and impact.) Being a woman, you clearly understand prejudice and discrimination. Can you use the experience of having been oppressed to better understand the experience of people of color? (Instructor aids trainee in using common experiences of marginalization to bridge, rather than dismiss, another group’s oppression.)

Trainee: I guess so … I … I guess racism is important.

Instructor: You don’t seem very sure to me. You still seem upset. (Instructor makes a process observation.) What is happening now? Can you get into those feelings and share with us what’s going on?

Trainee: Nothing is going on. It’s just that, you know, it’s a hot topic. I guess, talking about racism, it seems like you are blaming me. And I don’t like to feel wrong or at fault or responsible.

Instructor: Tell me about feeling blamed. In what ways do you feel blamed?

Trainee: Well, maybe there are feelings of guilt, although I’m not to blame for slavery or things of the past. (Trainee begins to address real issues related to her defensive reactions.)

Instructor: Good, let’s all (referring to entire workshop group) talk about that. Now we are getting somewhere. (Instructor turns to entire group of trainees, who have been transfixed by the interaction.) I wonder if some of you can tell me what you see happening here. Do any of you feel the same way? What sense do you make of the dialogue we just had here? (Instructor involves the entire group.)

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As educators and counseling professionals involved in racial conversations, whether spontaneous or planned, we will continue to be confronted in our teaching, training and counseling with challenges about how to turn tricky discussions into teachable moments rather than failed exercises. Will we opt for a journey of silence, avoiding honest racial dialogues? Or will we choose to effectuate real change — starting in our classrooms, workshops, supervisory sessions and counseling sessions — by following the path of racial reality and honesty, which may be full of discomfort but guarantees to offer benefits to all groups in our society?

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Derald Wing Sue is professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is author of Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race (2015), Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation (2010) and Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice (2013).

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Revisiting Ferguson

By Holly Wagner, Christina Thaier and Brian Hutchison November 17, 2015

[Editor’s note: Roughly one year ago, CT Online wrote an article about the initiatives the counseling department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) was engaging in as protests and turmoil rocked the city of Ferguson after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.

This fall, we’ve asked some of those counselors to reflect on what they have experienced and learned since serving as witnesses to history and trying to help others find their voices as “storytellers.”

Brian Hutchison is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and associate professor at UMSL; Holly Wagner is an LPC and assistant professors at UMSL; and Christina Thaier is a provisional licensed professional counselor (PLPC) working on a doctorate in counselor education and supervision at UMSL. They are all American Counseling Association members.]

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As a St. Louisan, I [Christina] have started to mark time — or perhaps how I recognize myself or my city — as before, during and after Ferguson. Post-Ferguson, one of the things I’ve come to understand is the power of the storyteller. I’d heard many times in history classrooms (which were not my favorite) that history is determined by the one who is telling the story. I believed it then, I’m sure, but I’ve come to understand it differently post-Ferguson, in a know-it-in-your-bones sort of way.

And so, as the three of us do our best to honor this opportunity to serve as storytellers about our experience of Ferguson, we do so recognizing the weight of such a privilege, knowing there are voices more worthy than ours to do so, and hoping to honor the young man (Michael Brown), our fellow St. Louisans and the city the story truly belongs to.

From Holly Wagner: A time to respond, a place to be heard and a space where crisis and growth convened

Timing can mean a lot in life. When someone is asked why a certain decision was made or a sequence of events occurred, the response is often about timing. For example, we often hear folks say, “It’s time for a change” or “It’s about time” or “It just wasn’t the right time.”

As I reflect on the events that led up to the crisis in Ferguson in August 2014, as well as the community responses following Michael Brown’s death, the concept of timing and time seem significant. For the people of Ferguson and the surrounding North City of Saint Louis, it was “past time for a change.” The time had come for their voices to be heard. In our own small, unique way, the faculty and students at UMSL showed up to listen.

August 2014 was my first semester as a faculty member in the UMSL Department of Counseling and Family Therapy. I had literally just arrived on the UMSL scene when it was time to respond. It was time to act, to do something helpful, and there was no time to be hesitant about it. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the energy and intention that surrounded me as my new colleagues and students leapt into action, driven by a desire to be helpful, yet unobtrusive. We talked about how to show up in ways that would truly benefit the people who were hurting. The idea of the sand tray naturally emerged as a potential medium for expressions to come forth during the crisis.

Through previous experiences with sand tray work with both children and adults, I felt innately that it could be the conduit needed for peoples’ voices to be heard. We were intentional in framing our work as an expressive technique to facilitate storytelling rather than sand tray therapy. We approached the events simply with sand and figurines, as well as open ears and hearts. What transpired made it evident that this simple approach was truly all that was needed at that time.

I have often heard that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” also contains aspects of the word “opportunity.” At the time of the Ferguson crisis, it seemed difficult to hold those two words or truths together. It was hard to imagine something good coming from the pain and struggle that was so palpable at the time. As counselors, however, we understand that healing is a process that takes time and space during which meaning can be made. Over time, if we are given the space to create insight and meaning, we can adapt and grow in response to the trauma or crisis we experienced. Thus, this was our intention as we showed up to the various events surrounding the Ferguson crisis. We witnessed the immediate effects of freely expressed emotions, meaning making and insight, and relief and validation related to a story being told.

While it is more difficult to ascertain any long-term effects that our engagement may have had on our community members, it has truly been amazing to hear the accounts of the impact this participation has had on our own students’ growth, awareness and counselor development. For many students involved, working with a sand tray or responding to a community crisis had been solely discussed theoretically up until that time. Responding to our community’s needs allowed students an opportunity to experientially engage in ways that they found meaningful to their development as persons and [as] counselors, while igniting a passion for social justice work. It was a time we will never forget.

 

From Christina Thaier: Showing up

On a sleepy, snowy afternoon when I was 18 years old, I was complaining to a friend’s mom about how I didn’t want to get dressed up for a family member’s wedding that evening. She looked at me gravely, in that “I’m about to say something really important” sort of way, and offered some unrequested advice. As if it were an absolute truth, she declared, “You honor the people you care about by showing up” — she was talking about weddings, funerals, birthday parties, dinner parties and probably even church — “and you should take the time to look nice. It tells them that their celebration matters to you.”

In other words, go put on a dress and a smile, and act like you know better than to think you are the center of the universe.

Though I’m stubborn, and it took me longer than it should have to understand the wisdom of her words, they eventually became part of who I am and what I do. In August of 2014, when our city was in a state of crisis, when we had no idea what was going to happen next, what was the right thing to do or how to go about it, her words offered a familiar solace — you show up, where you are invited, if someone matters to you.

As school was opening, many of us were asking the same questions: As counselors-in-training, what is our role? What do we do? How can we be helpful? Dr. Brian Hutchison and Dr. Holly Wagner offered us an answer. They asked our chapter of Chi Sigma Iota, of which I was currently serving as president, to consider showing up with them.

They taught us how to build a mobile outreach unit made up of sand trays, story stones, paint and symbolic figurines. They told us there was no manual, no evidence-based protocol, no textbook or peer-reviewed article with the answers we needed. They were willing to let us see that they didn’t really know what healing tents at a protest might look like — but they went anyway.

I remember being afraid as I drove to the first protest with a car full of sand and figurines. Were we crazy? Was it safe? Did I have anything to offer? Would I say the wrong thing? Did I know what I was getting myself in to?

Viktor Frankl said that despair is suffering without meaning. We had hoped to offer others, in our own small way, an opportunity to discover something meaningful for themselves during this crisis. The truth is, we might have been the ones most moved by the experience.

It turned out that the few hours I spent with my colleagues, holding a space for strangers to tell their stories, was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. We laughed and cried and mourned and hoped and, most of all, we witnessed human beings seeing and hearing each other as we truly were during Ferguson. To say it was beautiful is not enough.

 

From Brian Hutchison: Who am I?

I remember the last time I was called a racist. It was approximately 11 years ago. I believe at the time that this fact was no longer true, but it shook me deeply because I knew that at one time, early in my life and into my late teens, it was. At that time, I had never known a person of color, nor had I read the works of Baldwin or Biko or Douglas or Coates or any of the myriad authors who have shaped my worldview over the past 25 years.

Having been asked to reflect on my personal experience while working with residents and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, following Michael Brown Jr’s death, my thoughts go back to that moment when I was last called a racist. I had already decided that much of my work would focus on issues of social class, urban poverty and black people, yet that wound — inflicted by the social experience of my youth and not the person who called me a racist — throbs with raw pain still today. And I am a person who is able to set that acute pain aside, who can deflect by focusing on the power of choice and mastery I feel in my life. In essence, I am a person who is male and white and straight and educated living in the United States in the early 21st century.

Who am I to be asked to be helpful to the mostly black community of Ferguson? Who am I to be asked to be helpful to the mostly black community of protestors? Who am I to be asked to help the mostly young, black community of organizers? More than anything else, being asked to reflect on my personal experience of being asked to help in Ferguson makes me think, “Who am I?”

My answer does not feel elegant enough to put to the page, yet I am compelled. I am a person who did not ask to be male, white, straight, able-bodied, and to have an opportunity to be this educated. The choices I have been given were not mine to decide when the seeds of their possibility were first planted. These choices are my privilege, but the choices for most whom I have met in the schools, community centers, tents and streets of the St. Louis community do not look like mine. They are not made with an ingrained sense of mastery and power. They are choices made despite the circumstances of their lived experience.

What I did choose was to say yes. I did choose to ask if I could be helpful versus demanding to help (from my privileged worldview in my privileged way). I did choose to show up as often as I could when asked but never to ask if I could show up. I did choose to do what was asked instead of what I wanted to do. These choices were simple, yet did not come to me easily because of my 44 years of accrued habits lived within my bubble of privilege.

The gifts I received were the knowledge that I can step outside of myself and be led by others, do have the capacity to work through my own history of guilt to be helpful and that there is something to be gained by counselors — all types of people who are counselors — if we simply say yes, be humble and show up when asked.

 

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(Clockwise, left to right) UMSL students Jeremy Kane, Korey Lowery, Emily Muertz, Christina Thaier, UMSL assistant professor Holly Wagner and Gabrielle Fowler create story stones during a protest in downtown St. Louis in October 2014. The group used story stones, sand trays and other therapeutic tools with protesters.

UMSL_2

 

As you can probably tell, the three of us can be taken back to during Ferguson quite easily. We look back at that time of crisis in our city and shudder at images we can’t unsee — violence and grief and so many raw emotions on every television, computer screen and headline. We see breaking news and front pages that paint a portrait of St. Louis as divided and conquered. All of that was part of the story, yes. But somewhere in the wreckage and loss, the black and white, the debate and the protest, mourners came together and explored what it meant to be a St. Louisan during, and then after, Ferguson.

In the last year, in post-Ferguson St. Louis, what have we learned? We know that history-making happens in the present. We know that art and connection have the potential to be transcendent. We know that words like “race” and “privilege” are easier to say with practice but not nearly as important as words like “value,” “worth” and “dignity.” We know that holding a space for someone else is a gift for both parties. We know that people will surprise us — for the good and the bad. We know that our city needs more change and that we love her despite her imperfections. We know that we want to continue being part of that change. We know we don’t really know what that looks like, and we can’t find the answers in our textbooks or journals or empirical truths. But we think it might start by showing up. And listening.

 

The UMSL sand tray team (left to right), Brian Hutchison, Katy Leigh, Brianne Overton, Jennifer Culver, Susan Kashubeck-West and Holly Wagner, pictured at a wellness night event organized soon after the 2014 protests began. Leigh, Overton and Culver are UMSL doctoral students; Hutchison, Kashubeck-West and Wagner are UMSL faculty. The wellness night was sponsored by the Organization for Black Struggle and the Hands Up Coalition to provide those who had been sleeping out at night for days a place to rest, eat, get a massage and do some sand tray storytelling, says Hutchison.

The UMSL sand tray team (left to right), Brian Hutchison, Katy Leigh, Brianne Overton, Jennifer Culver, Susan Kashubeck-West and Holly Wagner, pictured at a wellness night event organized soon after the 2014 protests began. Leigh, Overton and Culver are UMSL doctoral students; Hutchison, Kashubeck-West and Wagner are UMSL faculty. The wellness night was sponsored by the Organization for Black Struggle and the Hands Up Coalition to provide those who had been sleeping out at night for days a place to rest, eat, get a massage and do some sand tray storytelling, says Hutchison.

 

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See Counseling Today’s article from one year ago, “Storytelling and hope in Ferguson” at wp.me/p2BxKN-3L6

 

 

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Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday

Charleston, counseling and our clients

By Janeé R. Avent October 8, 2015

On June 17, 2015 several members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat in a basement to share in Bible study. They welcomed a visitor to their Bible study that night — a visitor who would later murder nine of the people in that room.

Often, when I am faced with difficult life situations, my dad will ask, “What is the life lesson in this?” In the days immediately following the race-related mass shooting, I grappled with this question.

The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

There was a heaviness I could not explain. I felt sad. I felt afraid. I felt violated. I felt vulnerable. It felt as if I were grieving the loss of a family member, both in the form of the victims and the larger church community. Then I felt guilty, because I could only imagine what the families of the victims were experiencing.

After processing with several family members and friends, I realized that I wasn’t alone in experiencing these emotions. So I began thinking, “How might many of our clients — especially those with ties to the black church — be feeling? What do counselors need to know? What can we do to respond to this tragedy?”

What occurred in the days following this horrific tragedy was an opportunity to have a conversation about racial relations in the United States, a conversation that we often avoid because of the discomfort we can feel. Furthermore, a conversation ensued about the black church, its history and its role in many African American communities.

This is an important conversation for counselors to have as well. It is important for counselors to be aware of how many of our clients may be affected by this tragedy. We must educate ourselves about what many of our clients may be experiencing. Then we must prepare ourselves to respond.

As counselors, we are charged, through the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies, endorsed by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and the American Counseling Association, with evaluating our awareness, knowledge and skills. In the wake of the Charleston tragedy, we are challenged to evaluate our own attitudes, beliefs, knowledge and skills as they pertain to the black church.

Often, our attitudes and beliefs are formed from images we have seen. During this time, we must ask ourselves, “What images of the black church have I seen, and how do they shape my perception?”

For some people, images of the black church may be connected to pictures of the Martin Luther King Jr. preaching in many pulpits. For others, images of the black church may be related to Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the conversation that occurred during the 2008 presidential election. For others, perceptions of the black church may derive from the televised “homegoing” service of legendary singer Whitney Houston. And now, for others, that image will be associated with Charleston.

We must ask ourselves how these images inform our attitudes and beliefs about the black church, and how these attitudes and beliefs might impact our interactions with our clients, especially those who may need to process trauma related to the tragedy in Charleston these many months later.

The black church is an institution, a place of worship and so much more. A number of books can help counselors learn more about the black church. However, as we know, our clients can be our best teachers.

Historically, the church has been an epicenter for spiritual, economic, educational, social, and political development in many African American communities. Therefore, many of our clients may be experiencing a unique form of grief related to the loss of a sacred space.

The black church was formed out of a desire to be able to worship without experiencing oppression and racial hostility. In fact, during slavery, no more than five slaves were allowed to gather together without supervision. So, slaves would gather in secret in places such as swamps and wooded areas. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was one of the inaugural predominately black congregations and denominations. But recent events may have many clients wondering where they can safely seek solace.

We must also be willing to integrate spirituality into our counseling sessions. The Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling, developed by the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, are a helpful guide for counselors.

However, in general, African Americans are less likely than other racial/ethnic populations to seek help for mental health concerns. Many African Americans prefer to seek help for a variety of concerns from their pastors rather than from counselors. Historically, pastors have been pillars in African American communities. They are often community leaders, activists and spiritual leaders. Thus, it is incumbent on counselors to collaborate with African American pastors in their local communities. Counselors might meet with pastors and offer to speak in their Sunday morning services, co-sponsor a mental health day or provide referral resources.

A huge part of our identity as counselors and ACA members is advocacy. I have often heard from counselors and students that advocacy can feel overwhelming. However, there are opportunities for advocacy on micro and macro levels.

For instance, advocacy can happen within our counseling sessions. An important part of advocacy is honoring all the pieces of a client’s identity. One significant piece of some clients’ identities may be the black church. But at this moment, that identity may feel very vulnerable and fragile.

Many of our clients may wonder if their counseling session is the space to process these emotions. Moreover, many of our clients may feel unsure that their counselors will understand. We have an opportunity to provide our clients with a safe space to bring these worlds together. We owe it to our clients.

And we owe it to South Carolina Sen. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Jr., Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lance and the Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. May their legacies always inspire us to do our best work.

 

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Janeé R. Avent is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Contact her at janee.avent@utsa.edu.

 

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The misrepresentation of black girls with brown skin

By Mashone Parker May 19, 2015

I grew up in a low-income housing project on the South Side of Chicago. I faced many challenges as a young girl in this homogenous and sometimes destructive community. Of the many things I experienced while growing up poor, I’d like to raise some awareness of how black girls continue to suffer within culture because of a low acceptance of their dark skin tone. This article focuses on “dark-skinned” African American girls.

Black girls have had a difficult time in our society for quite some time. Dating back to the days of Parker1slavery, black women were stripped away from their families and taken away from their homes. This is history that may never be undone, and the lingering damage is compelling.

During these times, slave owners created the “paper bag” theory, which separated the black race further. Blacks who were lighter than the brown paper bag were able to work in the house and received “better” treatment than the other slaves. House slaves were seen as “better than.” I believe this initial separation of our race led to the detrimental impact that skin tone has on black girls with dark skin even today. Some black girls still describe their dark skin as being “less attractive” and even “ugly” in comparison with African American girls who have fairer, lighter skin.

The brown paper bag phenomenon created a hierarchy within the African American race. It led to many blacks being treated unjustly and unfairly not only by whites but also by people of their own race. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865. But 150 years post-slavery, young black women continue to carry the weight of feeling unloved and not beautiful simply because of the variance in their brown skin.

 

‘You’re cute to be dark’

I remember the first time I heard someone say this to me. I was 15. A light-skinned young man told me and one of my close friends who also has brown skin that we were “lucky” because we were “cute to be dark.”

My mouth dropped open when I heard those words. I guess I had never really thought about the fact that I was a dark-skinned girl. Was it because I did not have the darkest skin? My skin is a solid brown, and there are many tones darker than my own. Perhaps I was just color blind. Or, most likely, maybe it was because I had never looked at my dark skin as being something that was “less than” or not attractive.

When I was a little girl, I always felt pretty. My parents and other people always told me how beautiful I was — and they left out the whole “to be dark” thing. But I believe that I became more socially aware of my dark skin after this experience.

I began to wonder if other people saw me that way — “lucky” to be cute despite having dark skin. I wondered if my dark-skinned friends felt that they weren’t cute, or felt lucky if they were. I became very aware of my dark skin, but I never doubted that it was beautiful.

Maybe I was privileged. I lived in a home where there was a range of skin complexions, from light to very dark. My mom has a light complexion, while my dad has a solid dark mahogany complexion. People often referred to him as “black” or “dark.” My sister and I scored somewhere in the middle of the two, so I suppose my mother was the oddball in our house.

 

‘Aha’ moment

After that day with my friends, something else happened to me. I started to pay attention to other people’s thought processes and actions in relation to skin complexion. I started to notice that people to whom I was really close had those same feelings. I felt cheated that, all of this time, I had been left in the dark on this thing that apparently I was a part of and did not realize.

My dark-skinned friends make references such as “she’s only pretty because she’s light-skinned” or even favor their children with lighter skin. Other dark-skinned friends say that they will only date light-skinned men. Finally, my friends, who are both light-skinned and dark-skinned, say, “She’s cute to be dark.”

Because of the preferential treatment that African Americans with light skin received from both blacks and whites, it conveyed the message that the more blacks conformed to white attributes, the better their lives would be. How can we expect our children to go out in the world and be confident of their worth when we secretly or, in some cases, not so secretly hold such a negative view of black beauty? From straightening our hair and bleaching our skin to wearing hair weaves and colored contact lenses, many of us are guilty of rejecting our natural black selves in an attempt to conform to mainstream society. My fear is that this has a very harmful impact on the mental health of young black girls.

 

Misrepresentation: Stereotypes

The media plays a critical role in representing society’s view of beauty. As a young girl, I do not remember many famous black women who were on television AND represented in a respectful way. And to go one step further, a black woman on television with dark skin was rare (if she even existed).

I loved playing with my dolls, but I did notice one thing: My dolls did not look like me. My Barbie was white, as were most of my baby dolls. At the time, I did not understand that this could have an effect on me someday. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s 1947 study found that black children preferred white dolls over black dolls. This study conveyed the message that blacks had a poor acceptance of the black dolls.

When I watch movies, television and music videos, I see black women represented in an undesirable way. I see dark girls represented in an even worse way. I notice that the dark-toned girl is the prostitute, the mistress, the whore, the hypersexual friend, and she’s single. The light-skinned girl is the wife, the main girlfriend, the most wanted and desirable by men. This sends very mixed messages to young black girls.

Black girls struggle within their own communities, their own schools and even their own homes. I once sat with my younger brother and his friends, all of who were between the ages of 10-14. I asked these boys their views on beauty and skin complexion. The darkest boys in the crowd stated that a pretty girl has light skin and long hair. The boys with lighter skin said that her complexion didn’t matter. Does that experience represent how boys and girls in our society as a whole view dark skin?

What I believe is interesting is that the experiences that occur within black culture are a complete replica of white privilege. Some light-skinned African Americans are very aware of their privilege but feel guilty about it because it was not something that they chose. Others use their privilege to their advantage. I have met very bold individuals who will say that, yes, they are more attractive because their skin is light.

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First Lady Michelle Obama

I realize now that, as an adult with dark brown skin, mainstream society still questions my beauty. I realize there are many girls who suffer and feel unattractive, especially in comparison with someone who has lighter skin. I realize the variation of skin tone for these young girls does not matter — lighter is better. I realize that some young girl watches television every day waiting to see a beautiful and famous girl with dark skin like herself. I realize that it is women such as Michelle Obama, Tika Sumpter, Gabrielle Union and Kelly Rowland, to name a few, who give dark girls hope of being viewed as beautiful. I realize that although I did not struggle with my dark skin, many girls do. I realize that this is something that needs to be addressed, especially in our own black communities.

 

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Mashone Parker is an assistant professor at Purdue University-Calumet. She teaches in the counseling and development program within the College of Education. Contact her at mashone.parker@purduecal.edu.