In 1963, James Baldwin wrote that to be Black and relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all the time. The historical record of people of African descent is filled with triumphs and trials. The great empires and kingdoms of Africa, including Egypt, Mali and the Moors, experienced vast triumphs. Records of tremendous successes, such as those led by Mansa Musa, Hannibal, Queen Nana Yaa Asantewa, Shaka Zulu and Amenhotep IV, demonstrate the great history of people of African descent prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade had a unique impact on Africa and on individuals of African descent. Historians report that Brazil was one of the last governments to make slavery illegal in the Americas, in 1888. However, long after slavery formally ended in the United States — in 1865 with ratification of the 13th Amendment — the psychosocial oppression of people of African descent continued. For the next 100 years, Black codes and Jim Crow laws were influential in creating a second-class citizenship for people of African descent. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed, appearing to offer the full promise of freedom, but the civil right for freedom remained existent in theory only. A separate existence dominated by institutional racism — highlighted by such laws and policies as redlining, the federal crime bill of 1994 and the school-to-prison pipeline — was the actualized manifestation of post-slavery experience for many individuals of African descent.
In 1991, the movie Boyz N the Hood included an opening scene of four young males of African descent walking through the neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles. This could have been any urban area in America during the height of the crack epidemic and the infamous “war on drugs.” One of the four young men shows his peers the remains of a dead body among the weeds of an empty lot. Similar scenes have transpired regularly across the United States and throughout the African diaspora. It stands as one example of the trauma being experienced in many urban areas and inner cities today.
The crises of institutionalized racism, race-based oppression and racial trauma are significant aspects of the intersectionality of individuals of African descent. Counselors need to understand the meaning and impact of this intersectionality on the students and clients they counsel. Understanding the core constructs of historical and complex crisis and trauma for individuals of African descent who present in counseling is an essential phase for developing counselor efficacy.
The information presented in this article can be understood and discussed using the definitions that follow. Scholars such as Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda have contributed to critical race theory. According to the theory, racism has three levels: institutional, individual and internalized. Racism is to be understood as discrimination, marginalization or oppression inequitably inflicted upon individuals identified as belonging to a socially constructed racial category. Racism requires the combination of prejudice, power, access and privilege. For an individual to be racist, he or she must have access to an element of power and privilege to oppress the group being prejudicially discriminated against.
In the 2007 article “Racial microaggressions in everyday life,” Derald Wing Sue and colleagues defined racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities that are used, unintentionally or intentionally, to communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the targeted person or group based on their socially constructed racial category.
In 2003, William Smith coined the phrase racial battle fatigue. The term captures the psychological attrition that people of color experience in their daily encounters as they try to deflect racial insults, stereotypes and discrimination. Racial battle fatigue is the cumulative debilitating effect of being on guard against attacks about or because of one’s socially constructed racial category. It is also a theoretical framework for examining social-emotional-psychological stress responses such as frustration, anger, exhaustion, physical avoidance, psychological withdrawal, acceptance of racial stereotypes, and verbal, nonverbal or physical fighting back related to the experience of racism and racial microaggressions in acute episodes or chronic intervals.
Culture is a collective constellation of behavioral norms, values, spirituality, traditions, history, language and unique variables such as food, music, dance and clothing that guide and influence a people’s cognitive and affective complexity. This in turn determines their behavioral response to life circumstances. Culture frequently is identified by ethnic populations. However, the concept of culture is not restricted by ethnic groupings. Microcultural norms influence the unique intersectionality experiences of microcommunities and individuals within identified cultural groups.
Intersectionality is a term coined by Crenshaw in 1989. It is used to recognize systemic influences on individual identity, positionality, access and experience narratives. The primary influence on Crenshaw’s discussion of intersectionality was the exclusion of differential narratives of women of African descent during the feminist movement in the United States. Intersectionality is used in identification of nonmajority sociopolitical experiences that were suppressed by individuals operating from racist and heterosexist sociopolitical majority narratives. Intersectionality is understood to encompass microcultural influences such as religious diversity, nation of origin diversity, gender expression diversity, sexual orientation diversity, ethnic diversity and generational diversity.
White supremacy is the belief and practice that individuals who racially identify as White are superior to all other races, especially to people of African descent or Black people. Within this belief system, people of Whiteness and White culture are considered rightful dominators in dictating normalcy and social policies. Neely Fuller said, “If you do not understand White supremacy, what it is and how it works, everything else you think you understand will confuse you.” The supremacy of Whiteness, like racial categorization, is a sociocultural myth. Nevertheless, these constructs influence trauma.
Trauma is defined as an emotional response to distressing or life-threatening events. Traumatic events overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, leaving the person fearful of injury, mutilation or death. Trauma has affective, cognitive and behavioral influences on human development and functioning. Some trauma is communal in that a collective of individuals sharing some community or temporal space connection is affected by a single traumatic event (e.g., the trans-Atlantic slave trade). Individual trauma affects one individual at one point in time. Complex trauma is identified by compound experiences (i.e., more than one traumatic event is experienced before the healing of a previous trauma or serves to restimulate a traumatic response to a distressing event that was previously managed). Trauma can manifest through vicarious experiences, transgenerational events or the experience of persistent adverse events that may not have been traumatic in isolation. There are different types of trauma and levels of traumatic responses. Trauma is individualized on the basis of perceptions of events and the person’s ability to cope in the present moment of the crisis.
A multicultural assessment of problematic behavior for people of African descent should not be limited to a description of mental and emotional deficits or to observations of atypical externalized behaviors. An accurate multicultural assessment must include responses to psychosocial and environmental conditions in which the observed behavior might be a normative and rational response. Behavioral pathology of people of African descent can be a consequence of ecological systems rather than intrapsychological deficits.
Racism is a psychological disease; racism is pathology cultivated through transgenerational neglect, and it has negative influences on perpetrators of racism, victims of racism and racism survivors. Unfortunately, as individuals in society have refused treatment for so long, people of African descent have continued to experience overt and covert culture-deteriorating suffering and trauma as the result of being targets of racism. Racism is both extremely common and extremely complex. Racism is entrenched in societal history, institutions and policies, with the exerted supremacy of Whiteness perpetrated and perpetuated as a societal norm.
Racism is pathology of power marked by ignorance. In 2013, racism scholar and healing racism advocate Lee Mun Wah described the privilege of numbness as an outcome of racism that is experienced by individuals of Whiteness. The privilege of numbness is a paradoxical term used to articulate the adverse impact of racism that influences the ability of individuals of Whiteness to perpetuate racism. Privilege in this equation of racism is one’s positionality of normativity. This privilege is the gift of psychological and emotional numbness resulting in not having to think about:
- The construct of race or racism
- How racism is oppressive
- How complicit and explicit racists are advantaged in direct relationship to the oppressive trauma of individuals of African descent
This article focuses on direct counseling for individuals of African descent. However, it should be noted that healing the trauma of racism needs to include healing the numbness of racists. In general, this includes individuals of Whiteness within institutions of Whiteness reallocating their forcibly gained and complicity perpetuated power that has been used for oppressing individuals through policies and institutional norms.
Individuals of African descent commonly experience racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are communications of assumptions, including assumptions of intellectual inferiority, assumptions of criminality, assumed superiority of White values and culture, and assumed universality of the Black experience. People of African descent experience unrelenting forms of direct, vicarious and institutional oppression, marginalization, discrimination and microaggressions. Many of these incidents manifest as hypersurveillance, stigmatization, provocative irritations and recurrent indignities, and people of African descent experience these microaggressions daily. Microaggressive events can accumulate and compound into experiences of racial battle fatigue and race-based trauma, some of which is experienced by a collective group of individuals during the same time period.
One example of community trauma is the economic devastation in communities of people of African descent resulting from periods of deindustrialization in many urban areas. The convergence of deindustrialization and racial desegregation created losses in vital social and economic capital among communities of African descent. Increases in unemployment and underemployment quickly snowballed into lost wealth and concentrated poverty within communities of African descent.
Although deindustrialization was not targeted racism, the intersection of racism was a compounding factor in the unfortunate and traumatic impact on communities of African descent. Within this atmosphere of community poverty and a reduction in already sparse resources, a dynamic and traumatic upsurge of violence, drugs and institutionalized mass incarceration was also experienced in many of these communities.
Another example of community trauma is manifested through interpersonal violence and economic deprivation within communities of African descent. Men of African descent are the primary targets of this trauma. Nonetheless, women and children of African descent are also exposed to violence in the streets, violence in the schools and violence in the homes. The violence experienced within communities of African descent is a multifaceted intersection of trauma. Structural and institutional racism and oppression have created pandemic conditions of poverty and violence in these communities. By oppressive design, these communities have been deprived access to develop viable, legal and consistent wealth-producing economic avenues. Racist, oppressive and marginalized social structures have translated into drug, sex and weapons trafficking becoming the most consistently accessible sources of economic survival for communities of African descent.
Men of African descent
Men of African descent are disproportionately represented among both perpetrators and victims of violent crimes. According to the National Center for Health Statistics in 2017, men of African descent were nine times more likely than White men to be victims of homicide. Historically, men of African descent were (and continue to be) feared as a threat to the status quo of White supremacy. This social fear remains cloaked in racial stereotypes today. Stereotypically, men of African descent are prejudicially viewed as intimidating, scary and dangerous.
Educational disparities have created a cultural experience known as the school-to-prison pipeline within communities of African descent. The school-to-prison pipeline refers to policies and practices that push children at risk for school failure and civic disengagement due to poverty and marginalization out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Current policies such as “zero tolerance” in disciplinary actions have resulted in more suspensions, expulsions and even arrests by law enforcement officers who are typically assigned to schools in areas that are predominantly populated by people of African descent. Students of African descent are six times more likely than White students to be affected by such policies.
Women of African descent
Multigenerational and transgenerational trauma — in the form of coercive segregation of female/male units during slavery, lynchings, sexual violence, murder and intimate partner violence in different forms — have historically been a part of life for women of African descent.
It was previously documented that women on average made 71 cents to every dollar that men made; in comparison, women of color made 65 cents. Reports in 2018 included a marginal increase, with women in America making an average of 80 cents for every dollar that men made. However, that average included a decrease for women of African descent, who received only 63 cents per dollar that men made.
Violence perpetrated by men who are usually their community partners is one of the leading causes of death among women of African descent. A complicated lack of protection from men who were their life mates was a strategy that slave owners and post-slavery oppressors used to dismantle communities of African descent. This also prolonged trauma responses within these communities.
Another part of the marginalization and trauma for women of African descent involves their social image. Within literature and media, Black women are often stereotyped as one of four archetypes: Jezebel, Mammy, Matriarch and Sapphire. Jezebel is characterized as a woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon. Although these women do not necessarily engage in sexual relations, they utilize the lure of sexual possibility and overt sexual innuendo to navigate access and fulfillment of their life desires. Mammy is the woman primarily observed in roles of upkeeping other households; historically, she was the maintainer of a White family’s home and children. The Matriarch is the head of household of the Black family. Also called Medea or big momma, these woman provide protection, wisdom, connection, gospel and community history to the family.
Traditional family structures within communities of African descent include extended family units that are seamlessly interwoven into the family concept. The Matriarch was often the oldest living woman in the family unit, whereas Sapphires were usually women who had an aggressive attitude toward men. These woman were full-hearted and physically strong. They often worked to match men in traditionally male roles, which is often portrayed as an emasculation of their male counterparts. Sapphires are also portrayed as lacking maternal drive and striving for individual equality to the point of pushing men away. The strength and community utility of these archetypes are frequently ignored, whereas exoticism and exploitation of these stereotypes are perpetuated as a means of ongoing marginalization of women of African descent.
Counseling approaches and interventions
As individuals of African descent experience various adversities, crises and traumas related to racism and cultural discrimination on individual, community and generational levels, counselors can offer supports for healing trauma. Counselors must be aware of this history and the current sociopolitical institutions that traumatize and retraumatize individuals of African descent before healing work can begin.
Postmodern, humanistic and cognitive approaches have proved to be efficacious for counseling people of African descent. Other approaches are also being used with this population, however. For example, an African-centered psychological approach has been created as an alternative paradigm. This approach is grounded in traditional African spiritual philosophy but can easily be adapted for the specific religion/spirituality of the person of African descent. Because counseling is a sacred and spiritual relationship between the counselor and the client, it is important that the foundation of the therapeutic relationship be built on authenticity, trust and respect. Important interventions for counseling individuals of African descent include a focus on identity congruence, invitation for repair and the use of spiritual or religious connections salient to the individual or community.
Identity congruence: Culturally competent counselors need to be knowledgeable and sensitive to ethnic and racial issues. Ethnic identity is an aspect of a person’s social identity and self-concept derived from knowledge of their membership in a social group and the value and emotional significance they attach to that membership. Racial identity is one’s psychological response to one’s race. Racial identity reflects the extent to which the person identifies with a particular racial or ethnic group, the person’s self-perceptions because of their identified race and how that identification influences perceptions, emotions and behaviors toward people from other racial/ethnic groups.
Invitation for repair: Multicultural competence principles are rooted in internal awareness and critical reflexivity. Counselors must be aware of their biases and sociopolitical blind spots that might affect the therapeutic relationship. Multiculturally therapeutic relationships can be established using invitation for repair, as described by Malik Aqueel Raheem, Charles Myers and Scott Wickman in 2015.
Invitation for repair is acknowledging that overt and possibly covert differences in experiences exist between the mental health professional and the client. The invitation involves requesting that the client correct the counselor if the client feels that the counselor is not connecting or does not have empathy for the client’s intersectionality. Multicultural social justice principles exhort counselors to become more active advocates in addressing the institutional and environmental factors that influence client distress and trauma.
Spirituality and religion: A protective factor for many people of African descent is their connection between spirituality and psychological well-being. Research has shown that people of African descent are able to regulate and resolve distress through the practice of their spirituality or religious beliefs. Counselors should inquire about and create intervention opportunities that infuse these religious or spiritual norms. This approach will help to develop and maintain therapeutic alliance and efficacious therapeutic outcomes.
According to John Dillard, spirituality is a view of an individual’s place in the universe or a personal inclination or desire for a relationship with a transcendent power or God. Religion is an organized social means through which people express spiritual beliefs. Spirituality and religion do not necessarily have positive correlations for people of African descent. Spirituality can be experienced independent of religious contexts, and not all religions promote spirituality as part of their practices. However, many individuals of African descent are simultaneously religious and spiritual.
A majority of people of African descent identify as Christian from various religious microcultures of Christianity. There is also a movement toward infusing traditional African spirituality into some of their Christian practices. In addition, many in the African diaspora were from West African, and it is estimated that 30 percent of these Africans who were brought to the Americas were Muslim. In Islam, Sufism is the more mystical aspect of the religion. It is believed that the spiritual aspect of Sufism helps the Muslim to have a deeper and stronger connection with Allah (God). In 2018, scenes from the movie Black Panther depicted visitations to the “ancestral plane.” While in the ancestral plane, individuals could discuss issues with their ancestors. The belief that ancestors are ever-present and guiding forces is common among individuals of African descent. The tradition of libations (the ritual pouring of a liquid or other element to honor ancestors) or the West African practices of Vodun (more commonly known as Voodoo in the United States) may also be relevant for some clients of African descent.
As counselors work with individuals of African descent, acknowledgment of racism and oppressive structures that influence clients’ trauma experiences and trauma responses is vital to building therapeutic alliance. Interventions such as invitation for repair are most effective when used in the present moment of a psychological, affective or behavioral injury to the individual or the therapeutic relationship. Humanistic counseling approaches, including validation and implementation of relevant spiritual or religious practices, have also been shown to be effective for working with individuals of African descent.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Malik Aqueel Raheem has more than 10 years of clinical experience and seven years as a professional counselor educator at California State University, Fresno. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kimberly A. Hart focuses on multicultural inclusion as an area of counseling practice, counselor preparation and research. She provides presentations and training on mental health and intersectionality. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
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