Counseling Today, Cover Stories

A quest for identity and connection

By Laurie Meyers June 25, 2020

“In some ways, the ‘one-drop rule’ still exists in the minds of society,” says Derrick Paladino, a licensed mental health counselor and professor of counseling at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. “I will always be brown to others, and not white and Puerto Rican, upon first look. Along with that comes people’s immediate perceptions of me based solely on phenotype.”

American society’s understanding of race and ethnicity is still based primarily on skin color. Although cultural identity is composed of myriad factors such as shared tradition, language, religion and familial connections, for people who come from varied ethnicities and diverse communities, racism too often resides in the foreground.

The unbearable whiteness of being

“I really hated being brown, as it was not seen as positive in my youth in that community,” says Paladino, who grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. At a young age, he began adding a special prayer to his nightly Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

“I asked God if I could be white like my dad [who was Italian American] when I woke up in the morning,” recalls Paladino, an American Counseling Association member who helped develop the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population as part of ACA’s Multiracial/Ethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network. “Each morning, I would walk into our hallway and look at this wooden, ornate — fake gold — mirror and stare with disappointment. I have a picture of that mirror, and it is a reminder of that struggle.”

From a young age, Paladino also received a “brown is bad” message from his paternal grandfather, an unrepentant racist who disapproved of the marriage of Paladino’s parents and was hostile and disrespectful to his mother, who was Puerto Rican. When Paladino was born, his grandfather asked his mother “if the baby was black,” Paladino says.

“I also always felt like my grandfather favored my brother because he had light skin,” Paladino adds.

Paladino’s mother also managed to convey a “brown is bad” message by making him wear an undershirt whenever he went to the public pool so that he “wouldn’t get so dark.”

Paladino believes his mother probably downplayed his heritage as a person of color because she thought it would protect him, but the approach instead contributed to his self-stigmatization. Paladino’s parents never talked to him about being biracial and how that might affect the way others in the community viewed him.

Colorism is also a problem within the Latinx community. Being of European descent is still prized, despite the reality that most Latinx people are multiracial, says ACA member Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado, an associate professor of counseling at the University of Colorado Denver who researches the ethnic identity development of Chicanas/os and Latinas/os and the effects of internalized racism on students of color.

Those in the community who are of Afro-Latinx descent experience the most stigma — often considered too dark to be Latinx but not African enough to be African American, Hipolito-Delgado explains. “They have nowhere to turn, no cultural support,” he says.

Sometimes belonging isn’t about color and the perception of race but other cultural signifiers. As an undergraduate, Paladino attended the University of Florida, where he at last encountered numerous fellow students who looked like he did. He enthusiastically joined a Latino student group on campus, only to find out that because he didn’t speak Spanish or have specific shared experiences, he was “not Latino enough.”

That experience — of being part of different worlds but not quite belonging in either — is not uncommon for individuals with biracial and multiracial backgrounds. After all, we still live in a society that largely equates identity with placing a check mark in one of a few racial “boxes.” Multiracial people are often relegated to “other” in such instances, but rather than choosing to shade squares, they are creating their own categories out of the cultural elements with which they resonate.

Pieces of the cultural mosaic

Hipolito-Delgado recommends that individuals with multiracial backgrounds learn as much about their culture and history as they can. “Think about what is meaningful to you and speaks to you, not what the media says,” he asserts. He explains that in his time as a college professor, he has seen many first-generation or immigrant Africans seize upon a stereotypical image of what it means to be African American, including dressing like rappers and listening exclusively to hip-hop, even when those weren’t things they particularly enjoyed. “It wasn’t necessarily a piece of them,” he says.

Hipolito-Delgado urges multiracial individuals to go and experience pieces and parts of their heritage to find what feels authentic to them. “Don’t feel like you need to do X, Y or Z,” he says. “Start by looking back at your family. … What is your story? What is your experience? What spoke to you?” 

“Ask yourself what has affirmed me so far and made me feel happy. Like when my mom makes tamales at Christmas,” Hipolito-Delgado says. He notes that his mother recently threatened to skip making tamales this year, but a united family rebellion — centered on the necessity of a significant, shared cultural experience — quashed that notion.

Hipolito-Delgado acknowledges that the search can be difficult, and it can help for biracial and multiracial individuals to have a guide. However, this may require showing up at a community group meeting where acceptance is not readily given. A first visit might be met by stares and people saying that the individual doesn’t belong there, but Hipolito-Delgado urges those who genuinely want to learn about that piece of their culture to keep trying. By the third or fourth time, the group’s members will typically realize that the individual is authentic. Being greeted initially with hostility can be disconcerting, but it is also understandable. As Hipolito-Delgado explains, people of color often have a legitimate fear of the outsider based on a long history of people coming in and appropriating their traditions.

Paladino sought community through social groups and individual friends but says his sense of cultural identity didn’t really begin to solidify until he was in his master’s program, also at the University of Florida. That’s when, through his multicultural counseling class, he started gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning and experience of being biracial.

In college, Paladino’s sense of self shifted, as is true for most students of all backgrounds. “I have found that community is very important for college students and in my personal life,” he says. “In some ways, our sense of self is connected to who we decide to surround ourselves with. College students run in many social circles — mini-communities — and depending on their level of perceived connection, they will fall within a continuum of feeling completely connected to feeling completely alienated. … Students experience a strong sense of self when they can be fully congruent and genuine in other spaces, thus not shifting who they are in order to feel connected.”

For many people with multiracial backgrounds, this is hard to achieve during the college years and throughout life in general, Paladino says. Struggling with one’s identity can create a feeling of balancing on a fence between worlds — an act that requires significant energy, he says.

When that feeling of not belonging runs deep and lasts a long time, it can have a profound effect on a person’s mental health, eliciting symptoms of depression and anxiety, low-self-esteem, low self-efficacy and harmful coping mechanisms, Paladino explains. In other words, “It’s not good to be siloed from society,” he says.

However, Paladino cautions counselors not to assume that all clients with multiracial backgrounds need or want to talk about their racial, cultural and ethnic identities in counseling. “Counselors would be wise to notice it on the intake and ask if the client sees that as a part of their work. If the client says no, then we should honor and respect that,” he says. “It may eventually become part of therapy, as identity usually is at some level, but we don’t push that. Looking back on the history surrounding anti-miscegenation, the limitations of the census, the one-drop rule, and the continuation of parts of society disapproving of interracial unions, much power and voice have been taken away from this population. The last thing a counselor wants to do is continue this.” 

Paladino urges counselors to educate themselves about the multiracial population by reading personal histories, reviewing both ACA’s Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies), and learning more about multiracial and interracial organizations.

“There is a lot of information out there, and it continues to increase,” he says. “If you are working in college counseling, check to see if there is a student cultural organization that matches what the student would like in a community. If the client wants to work on discovering their identity, having them interview family they feel safe with or researching the population on their own can be very helpful.”

Paladino emphasizes that the issues the multiracial population struggles with can be as diverse as the people themselves. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach for working with multiracial clients, he recommends some tools that may assist in their exploration of identity, including:

  • Using an ecological framework such as an ecomap
  • Providing psychoeducation
  • Using bibliotherapy
  • Introducing Maria P. P. Root’s “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People”
  • Guiding a free expression of emotions attached to lived experiences

Paladino encourages counselors to enable clients to identify in whatever way they desire — e.g., by only one race, culture or ethnicity; as biracial, multiracial or mixed race; as multiple heritage, multiethnic, bicultural, hapa or mestizo — by including the full range of choices on intake forms.

“Don’t expect them to want to write it under ‘other,’” he emphasizes. After all, too many of these clients have been “othered” their entire lives.

Counseling multiracial couples

Melody Li is a licensed marriage and family therapist from Austin, Texas, whose practice specialties include counseling multiracial couples. Her approach is centered on social justice and creating a place to understand the oppression that has made it harder for clients to thrive individually and as a couple. Li believes this is essential for helping to establish client confidence and trust in the therapeutic relationship, but it is also a practical necessity because life doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

For example, the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color, Li notes. Asian communities are experiencing violence, immigrant businesses are being lost, one or two family members are trying to support extended family and friend communities, and the deaths of brown and black people are being swept under the rug, she emphasizes. If one partner in a couple minimizes the other’s racial struggles or how their family is handling the crisis, this can leave that partner feeling isolated and alone in their grief.

What is particularly difficult about the pandemic is the way it has disrupted everything, putting plans and goals on hold (if not derailing them permanently) and leaving many things outside of people’s control, Li says. In addition, there is a systemic pattern in which marginalized communities often get hit first and hardest when disasters strike.

In collectivist cultures, the response to individual tragedy is shared by the community, Li points out. Some of the couples she counsels are currently trying to get pregnant or have recently endured miscarriages while simultaneously providing financial support to multiple family members who have lost their jobs or businesses and access to health care. “They [the couples] are going through disappointment and grief. Having that added [sense of responsibility] is hard, heavy,” Li explains. “Without that understanding of collectivism, [one partner] might say, ‘Why is this on you? We’re all having problems.’”

But for the other partner, collectivism is a part of their cultural and personal strength. So, Li will work together with the couple to come to an understanding and, ultimately, a compromise. She guides the partner making the request through the steps of nonviolent communication: Make an observation, state how the observed situation is making them feel, state what they need to address the emotional reaction, and make a request.

For example, the partner might say, “When my family asks for support and you describe them as overbearing or too demanding, it makes me feel small and misunderstood. I feel like you don’t understand my culture and our strengths, and I need that validation from you. Would you be willing to learn more about our family dynamics and what that closeness is about?”

The other partner may acknowledge and respect the tradition behind the request but still have concerns. So, that partner might say, “I understand and want to help you honor your desire to do all that you can to support your family, but I feel that taking on the responsibility for everyone’s needs will be emotionally and financially overwhelming. Is there a way that we can provide some of the needed resources and perhaps help locate other sources of assistance?”

Ramadan also occurred recently and, as was the case with other religious observances such as Passover and Easter, the performing of traditional rituals was challenging under quarantine conditions. As Li observes, “One partner might say, ‘What is the big deal about fasting and having to see family right now? We are in crisis. … This is not a big deal. Why don’t you just skip it this year?’”

Li notes that such minimization on the part of one member of a multiracial couple is hurtful to the other. She would help the partner develop a more respectful message, such as, “I know this is important to you and your people and family. I understand the significance, and I want to incorporate as much [tradition] as possible. How do we minimize risk while honoring the rituals?”

Transracial adoption

“Adoption is really complicated. It’s not a win-win situation,” says Amanda Baden, an ACA member who specializes in working with transracial adoptees and their families. “Adoptions have gains and losses; you don’t just get one without the other.”

These dynamics can be particularly fraught in transracial adoptions, which makes it especially important that adoptive parents not hold what Baden calls “antiquated notions of adoption,” such as the chosen child or rescue narrative. “The chosen child narrative ignores that to be chosen, they [children] have to be released,” she says. Some adoptive parents from Western countries may also view international adoption as a “rescue,” without considering the child’s loss of ethnic or biological ties.

Baden, a counseling psychologist who is herself a transracial adoptee, is not condemning such adoptions. However, she says, it becomes problematic when families don’t see the need to expose these children to their birth culture. Some families also fail to consider how the rest of the world perceives their transracial child.

Baden, whose practice is in New York City, sees a lot of adopted children and adolescents who struggle with being Asian but feeling white, although the world clearly does not view them that way. The adoption is obvious — an Asian child with two white parents — so these kids often get asked questions such as, “Who is your real mom?” Baden says. When the family goes out to places such as restaurants, the transracial child may inadvertently not be seated because they aren’t immediately recognized as belonging, particularly if they have a white sibling. Adoptive families often minimize these incidents, which creates tension, Baden says. 

As transracial children grow older and become more aware of how their experiences diverge from those of their adoptive families, they start to realize that, yes, they are a person of color, and this is something their parents have never really understood, Baden says. That is part of why having a connection to their birth culture can be so important, she adds. Adoptive parents want to believe that if they love their children and give them everything they need, that should be enough — but they have never experienced racism themselves, Baden explains. 

Baden was adopted before there was much awareness of the importance of establishing a connection to a transracial adoptee’s birth culture, but she says her parents did make an effort. “In my high school of approximately 550 students, I think there were three Asian kids, including me. … My parents tried to make friends, but there were not many Asian people [in their area],” she says. “We did talk about race, which was one of the best things they did.” Baden says her parents never tried to pretend that she wasn’t experiencing racism and never told her that she just had to “deal with it.” In addition, they always reassured her that the incidents were not her fault.

Ultimately, Baden says, her parents could have moved to a more integrated neighborhood, which is what she mentions to parents who are interested in adopting transracial children.

Baden also tells parents to begin talking to their children from the start about racism and how to handle it so they will be prepared the first time they encounter it. “Parents want to believe it is not going to happen, but it is,” she says. “Talk about racism not being about them [the child]; it’s about the other person.”

In fact, Baden advises parents of transracial adoptees to get really comfortable talking about race. This is something that many white parents can struggle to do without personalizing it or feeling attacked.

“A lot of people think racism is just about violence, but it is a system,” Baden says, noting that policies can be racist. It’s not that everyone who is white is racist but rather that the system benefits whiteness, Baden continues. One way of explaining systemic racism to children might be to say that sometimes groups of people in charge will treat them differently because of the way they look. However, this happens not because there is something wrong with them (the children), but because the people in charge think it’s OK to not treat everyone fairly.

“One of the things I really worry about is that because it [transracial adoption] has become more common, the bar has maybe been lowered for parents,” Baden says. Many adoptive parents want to think of themselves as being colorblind and assume the majority of the world will be that way too. She advises parents to not even think about adopting a child from a race they know nothing about, and if they already have, she strongly suggests they go out and meet others from their child’s birth culture. 

“What am I supposed to do?” clients ask Baden. “Go to a black church and say, ‘Hi, my name is so and so, I want to be your friend?’”

“Yes,” Baden responds. “That’s what you are asking your kid to do every day.”

Baden also works with adult transracial adoptees who are deciding how they would like to connect with their birth culture. Some people want to immerse themselves, whereas others just want to gain a little bit of knowledge. She encourages people to connect with adoptee groups.

Baden also helps clients learn more about the different aspects of their birth culture, with an emphasis on how family structures and expectations are often very different. Adoptees also need to consider how their experiences growing up in the white world set them apart from those who were raised in their birth culture. “There’s an assumption that certain cultural values are universal, and they’re not,” Baden says.

 

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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)

Books (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, Fifth Edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latinas/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata

Continuing Professional Development: Multicultural (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/specialties/158/view)

  • “Addressing Clients’ Experiences of Racism: A Model for Clinical Practice” with Scott Schaefle and Krista M. Malott
  • “Counseling Refugees: Addressing Trauma, Stress and Resilience” with Rachael D. Goodman
  • “Multicultural Counseling With Immigrant and Refugee Communities” with Vivian V. Lee and Courtland C. Lee
  • “Affirmative Intakes: Creating Intentional, Inclusive Forms to Retain Diverse Clients” with Shannon M. Skaistis, Jennifer M. Cook, Dhanya Nair and Sydney C. Borden

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

  • Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population
  • Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies

Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (multiculturalcounselingdevelopment.org)

 

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@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.

2 Comments

  1. Virginia Friedel

    The article covered racial issues wonderfully through the eyes of someone who has experienced it their whole life. Very insightful and informative and I would say even educational. Where the article fell down, for me, was in the lack of awareness of the same discrimination that occurs across cultural lines.

    I am an Australian, of European descent living in the South in the USA. While I may be white, I am discriminated against constantly because of the fact I am not born in America, and have a different accent and cultural heritage from the dominant culture – despite having lived here for 30 years.. Your article would have elevated these issues more if you also included multi-cultural diversity and the challenges it creates in a society that doesn’t embrace it. As you said, culture identity is made up of a myriad of factors, let’s look at the discrimination that occurs in a covert, as well as overt, fashion as well.

    Reply

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