Counseling Today, Features

The elephant in the room

Angela Kennedy October 1, 2007

The controversy surrounding the Jena Six. Celebrities and media personalities such as Don Imus and Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman using racially offensive language. Multiple accounts of hate crimes taking place and racist symbols being displayed on school campuses. These and other racially charged incidents, some of which have received national media attention, might lead some to wonder whether race relations are actually improving as we enter 2008 or whether the United States has instead taken a step back to 1958.

Counseling Today asked some of the leading minds in the multicultural and social justice counseling movements for their thoughts on what is behind the seeming spike in high-profile hate crimes and racist incidents throughout the nation, as well as for their opinions on what the future holds.

Cirecie West-Olatunji
Cirecie West-Olatunji is an assistant professor of counselor education at the University of Florida and president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. Her research is grounded in multicultural counseling theory that focuses on the role of cultural identity in the psychological, emotional and educational development of marginalized students. Members of AMCD and Counselors for Social Justice, both divisions of the American Counseling Association, have teamed up to form a task force to respond to current acts of terror, bias and discrimination, West-Olatunji says. In addition, AMCD has updated its website with exercises and case studies addressing prejudice and discrimination, a bibliography on ending discrimination and talking points to facilitate discussion with others. “We are a resource, and people can feel free to contact us individually or collectively,” she says. “We are more than happy to help people try and deal with (racial tension) on their campuses.”

When West-Olatunji was informed that a noose had been found hanging from the office door of Madonna Constantine, an ACA member and African American professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, the AMCD president flashed back 30 years ago to when she was a student at Teachers College. Her professor at the time, Anna Duran, received death threats every semester for being a Mexican American woman who spoke out against racism and discrimination in the workplace, West-Olatunji says,.

“These acts have been going on for some time,” West-Olatunji says. “The difference is that in our political climate, it’s more newsworthy today and we find (these types of actions) to be unacceptable behavior as a society.” She notes, however, that as an African American women in academia, she continuously faces acts of microaggression — subtle, covert or unintended forms of racism — whether it’s being passed over for writing or research opportunities or students openly challenging her expertise. “That’s reflective of the literature on microaggression,” she says. “It’s not anything unique about me. It’s what most people of color experience.”

Courtland Lee
Courtland Lee is a professor of counselor education in the Department of Counseling and Personnel Services at the University of Maryland. He is a past president of both ACA and AMCD. Recently, students found a three-foot rope ending in a noose hanging near the cultural center at the University of Maryland — a presumed attempt to copycat the act that fueled the Jena Six incident in Louisiana. The discovery of the noose shocked the campus community, Lee says, but also provided an invitation to open up dialogue about questions of race and diversity.

“I think as much as possible, counselors, whether they are in schools or university settings, should use their skills as facilitators to bring people together and really talk about issues of diversity,” he says. “Race is the big dead elephant in the room. We are still so reluctant as a nation to talk about it. It’s really important for counselors to lead that process of getting people to see that dead elephant and deal with it. We need to help people deal with what I call cultural baggage — the prejudicial assumptions and preconceived notions about people. We have to counsel to combat prejudices.”

Hugh Crethar
Political involvement and advocacy represent the backbone of the Counselors for Social Justice division. According to the CSJ website (www.counselorsforsocialjustice.com), social justice counseling represents a multifaceted approach to counseling in which practitioners strive to simultaneously promote human development and the common good through addressing challenges related to both individual and distributive justice. The principle of distributive justice concerns diverse groups within society receiving their fair share of goods, resources and opportunities. Social justice counseling includes empowering the individual and actively confronting injustice and inequality in society. Social justice counselors promote four critical principles that guide their work: equity, access, participation and harmony.

“I talk to my students about how, when it comes to privilege in society, we are either in the category of an agent or a target,” says CSJ President Hugh Crethar. “What I support is that the more agent statuses you have, you shouldn’t feel guilty; you should feel a greater sense of responsibility to use those statuses to change the world and make things better. So if I — being a white male, upper middle class, educated — have access to open doors, I shouldn’t just open them for myself, I should find ways to hold them open to those who aren’t being given access or equal treatment in society. It’s more than equality; it’s having equitable access to opportunities.”

Eric Green
“I think that racial bigotry is prevalent and has been prevalent in our society. There has been a surge in the amount of publicity because recent ignorance by public figures and celebrities has put the media’s attention back on the issue of race in our country,” says Eric Green, the president-elect of CSJ and an assistant professor of counselor education at Johns Hopkins University. “We should engage in advocacy counseling and teach our clients and also mental health practitioners to engage in exploring their own cultural backgrounds. You have to explore your own background before you begin to understand the cultures of others.”

Adhering to multicultural competencies set out by CSJ is the starting point for counselors to move toward becoming more ethical and culturally sensitive, he says. “We need to start advocating and speaking out on behalf of those who have no voice, those who are marginalized and those who are oppressed. I don’t think it’s enough for us to teach cross-culturalism at our university counselor education program. We should be advocating a step beyond that by promoting social activism. We need to get students involved in politics and policies that relate to the sociopolitical climate in today’s society.”

Green adds that CSJ has been very active on its Listserv decrying the recent acts of racism and encouraging its members to contact their legislators to let them know that bigotry and hatred will not be tolerated. “I have a lot of hope for our profession and our society,” he says. “We are moving in the right direction. I believe that in the next 10 years, we are going to be a lot closer to a society that is racially unified.”

Edil Torres Rivera
Most ethnic minorities experience microaggression every day, says Edil Torres Rivera, associate professor of counselor education at the University of Florida. “This has been happening for a long time. People think that because we are talking about multiculturalism and cultural competency that racism and discrimination are dead. But these horrible incidents prove the social reality that racism and oppression are still alive and well. We cannot rest on our laurels. We must continue to work against that.” Rivera, a past president of CSJ, says at his university, counselors have hosted a series of brown bag luncheons to discuss such topics as gender equality and racism.

On a personal note, he recalls a time early in his career when he faced discrimination because of the color of his skin. Newly assigned to his first place of employment as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, Rivera received a threatening message on his answering machine. “It said for me to get the hell out of here and go back to the country I came from,” he says. Instead, he kept the message and listened to it several times as a reminder to stick to his beliefs and become a counselor educator dedicated to multiculturalism and social justice issues. “It just solidified my convictions. I knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing.”

Phyllis Mogielski-Watson
Phyllis Mogielski-Watson is the associate director of training at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling. She believes the recent media spotlight on racial aggression isn’t due to a sudden onslaught of racially motivated crimes, but rather because more people are unifying to speak out against such acts. “I think racially aggressive situations have occurred across this country’s history and continue to occur, unfortunately,” she says. “It is my belief that the increased media attention is driven by people who have been marginalized and are tired of such actions. Rather than sit quietly and take the aggression, people are supporting each other to speak out about the actions and intolerance of differences. Advocating for hate to stop is occurring more globally and, because of this advocacy, the media is catching on.”

She notes that ALGBTIC is a division that promotes unity and understanding through education and advocacy. Division members advocate for marginalized populations or people who may not feel they have a voice. “We do this by offering an open sense of community, sharing resources through our webpage at algbtic.org, educating through our workshops and joining forces with ACA divisions to advocate for unity and equality,” she says

It’s the ethical and professional responsibility of all counselors to advocate for multicultural respect, she adds. “By the nature of what we do, we should teach tolerance, but more importantly, acceptance and understanding of individualism. Tolerance is not enough; true understanding and acceptance have to be the goal. Only through true understanding will we be able to see change.”

Mogielski-Watson says she has personally experienced the hurt brought on by acts of intolerance. “I have been the victim of hate based on the racial makeup of my partner and I. What I would say is hate hurts and I believe no one has the right to tell me who to love.”

Derald Wing Sue
ACA member Derald Wing Sue coauthored Addressing Racism: Facilitating Cultural Competence in Mental Health and Educational Settings with Madonna Constantine. He says growing up as a Chinese American youth in a predominately white area of Portland, Ore., was a real challenge for him. Early in his career, he was inspired by his African American and Latino colleagues who were advocating for their communities. They motivated him to do the same for Asian Americans. Today, Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is considered a pioneer in the multicultural movement.

“What’s happening is a massive change in diversification in the United States,” he points out. “Studies have shown that by 2030-2050, people of color will be the majority. When you talk about racism, you are pushing society to think about the issue of equality, and that hasn’t been dealt with adequately.” Many people feel threatened by the changing demographics, he says, and there has been a backlash against the multicultural and diversity movement. “This outbreak of overt acts is the upshot of deep issues within our society,” Sue says. “Much of racism has gone underground. The old-fashioned racism has moved to aversive racism. It’s now about the slight indignities perpetrated by well-intended white individuals. They are unaware of their racist actions.”

While hate crimes are illegal and draw the scorn of most people, Sue points out that racial microaggressions do not incite the same type of opposition. “The most harm is caused not by the overt acts, but by the well-intentioned. We will never overcome this unless the invisible is made visible. None of us are immune to the racial bias of our ancestors. None of my white brothers and sisters born into society want to be a racist or bigot — it’s their socialization and culturalization.”

Madonna Constantine
Madonna Constantine, an African American professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, specializes in the study of race and racial identity. She is a revered author and multicultural activist, but on Oct. 9, she also became the target of a hate crime. Someone who has yet to be identified hung a noose from her office door.

“This despicable act signals that we are at the brink of change and a significant evolution in society and the world,” she says. “I believe when there is a regression in behavior to acts that were basically preformed many years ago — lynching and nooses in particular — that signifies in some degree that there is a group within our society that is more comfortable with things the way they were then. What they perceive is that African Americans are gaining too much power — not that African Americans feel that way.” She says that these symbols are used as tools to intimidate and scare minorities.

Constantine believes society is on the cusp of a new era in which more and more people will respond and embrace the reality of a multicultural society. “There are multiple perspectives and multiple ways of valuing people’s cultures,” she says. “One paradigm or one vision isn’t the only vision. We are giving honor and a voice to (multiculturalism), and there are some people who don’t like that. And that’s too bad, because it’s going to happen anyway.”

In the wake of what happened to her, Constantine says she has received several letters, e-mails and calls from people all across the nation telling her of similar experiences at their schools or workplaces. “Now we have collectively, as a society, said that this is unacceptable and we will not tolerate it. We stand firm in saying this isn’t OK, and we will do whatever it takes to continue our efforts to promote issues of multicultural diversity.”

Angela Kennedy is a senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at akennedy@counseling.org. Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org