Counseling Today, Features

Counseling while Black

By Lindsey Phillips June 29, 2021

The counseling field is not immune to racism, systemic or otherwise. Before the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD) formed, nonwhite members of the American Counseling Association paid their dues but had limited representation on ACA’s board and senate. A group of counselors lobbied for AMCD (then the Association for Non-White Concerns) to become an official ACA division, but their initial requests were denied. It was a struggle to get ACA’s leaders at the time to recognize the need for and legitimacy of a division that would focus on nonwhite needs, but the hard work of advocates finally paid off when the AMCD division became a reality at ACA’s 1972 conference. (See more about AMCD’s history at multiculturalcounselingdevelopment.org/amcd-history.)

Ebony White, an assistant clinical professor and the program director of the master’s in addictions counseling program at Drexel University in Philadelphia, points out that the counseling profession — like other smaller systems in our society — has largely tried to dismiss the role that racism has played and continues to play in the profession and society as a whole. 

“The counseling profession has mimicked that model of sweeping it under the rug,” she asserts. “So, it’s important that there is first an acknowledgment about what has happened, and instead of … saying, ‘This is what we are going to do about [racism],’ counselors should ask, ‘How have we perpetuated racism in our profession?’ And they should look at what’s been published in the literature and incorporate what has worked [for others] into our profession and our organizations to make change.” 

To shed light on embedded racism and help others better understand it, six Black counselors shared their experiences of working in a predominantly white field and their hopes for the future of the profession. 

Acknowledging racism in the counseling field

Black counselors’ intersecting identities affect the way they understand the world around them as well as how others perceive them. “I live and experience situations as a Black woman every day more than I live as a counselor,” says Noréal Armstrong, a licensed clinical mental health counselor supervisor in North Carolina and a licensed professional counselor supervisor (LPC-S) in Texas. 

As a Black woman in the counseling field, Armstrong says she has encountered microaggressions and racism from colleagues. For example, when serving as the department chair of the counseling program at a liberal arts college, Armstrong informed her colleagues about a Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) standard needed to support the success of the counseling program. But, she says, her white colleagues questioned her, debated options without her and asked to speak to a CACREP representative, who simply confirmed that Armstrong had the correct information. This encounter left her wondering: “Are they questioning me because they lack confidence in me, because I’m a woman or because I’m Black?” 

The uncertainty in this and similar situations is “what keeps me up at night,” Armstrong says. “That’s what has my stomach in knots. That’s what has me frustrated.” 

Armstrong, an ACA member and the vice president of the AMCD Women’s Concerns group, says she didn’t ask her white colleagues why they felt it necessary to bring in the CACREP liaison because she was tired of having to navigate their defensiveness and denial that race played a role in their actions, even if it may have been implicit. 

White, who was part of the panel for ACA’s webinar “Our Community Gathers: A Conversation With Counselors About Mental Health in 2020” and is president-elect of the ACA division Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ), says she has been “dismissed … ignored, oftentimes not heard and many, many, many times called the ‘angry Black woman.’” 

White, the immediate past chair of the North Atlantic Region of ACA, recalls a microaggression that occurred in her last meeting as chair-elect. During the video call, she was looking down and typing notes from the meeting. A white colleague unmuted to remark, “Ebony, you look so angry. What’s wrong?” White was stunned. She had been labeled as “angry” simply for taking notes.

“The reality is that for some people, your complexion is more important than your intellectual ability,” says Raphael Bosley, a licensed mental health counselor associate who works at Cross Connections Counseling and at Courageous Healing in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

Bosley, an ACA member, acknowledges that this truth weighs on him. He says that he questions himself and what he knows more than other clinicians might. He also finds that he frequently has to elaborate on the rationale behind his professional assessments to colleagues and clients. Bosley admits that sometimes he is the one who doesn’t trust his own thoughts, which he believes is the result of living in a society that has conditioned him to trust his athletic ability more than his intellectual ability. 

He also finds that incorrect assumptions about his intellect can be a natural barrier with some clients in the therapeutic space — a space that involves understanding the brain. “They’re not used to seeing a Black male face as the one providing the service when it comes to dealing with the mind and emotions. Why? Because Black men are angry. Black men have rage. Black men are not supposed to be able to teach me how to calm down and ground myself,” Bosley says.

The (in)ability to be one’s authentic self 

Diversity is not just about issues such as race, ethnicity, gender and religion; it is also about the way we communicate, notes Tyce Nadrich, an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at Molloy College. Black counselors often can’t communicate in a way that is natural or authentic to them around their white colleagues, students and clients, he says. Instead, they code-switch, adjusting their style of speech, appearance or behavior to appeal to a different audience, often as a means of receiving fair treatment.

“The amount of code-switching that I think [Black counselors] are required to do is egregious,” says Nadrich, a licensed mental health counselor and coordinator of clinical training at Balance Mental Health Counseling in Huntington, New York. “It’s exhausting because I know if I communicate … the way that is natural to me … I will not be heard because folks will pretend that they don’t understand me or they’ll just dismiss it as not worth listening to.” 

For example, Nadrich says that when he gets upset, he may not use three- or four-syllable words — despite having them in his vocabulary — because that’s not the way he talks when he has heightened emotions. He expresses his feelings in a more casual register.  

Bosley, who is also an associate minister at Greater Progressive Baptist Church in Fort Wayne, concedes that as a Black counselor working in a predominantly white field, he often feels the need to be polished in the way he communicates, even in situations that don’t require it. He feels like there is a spotlight on him 24/7 because of his race. 

For Armstrong, whose areas of interest include substance use, Black women in academia, multiculturalism, the deaf community and spirituality in counseling, code-switching involves adopting a professional discourse of privilege. When speaking with white colleagues, she often avoids personal or emotional language and relies on data and numbers to convey her message and ensure they are listening to her. 

White, whose research interests focus broadly on advocacy and social justice within the Black community, came to the realization that no matter how she spoke or presented herself, people would have preconceived notions about her. She says she has reached a point where she will no longer code-switch for white colleagues because she knows she can’t control how others perceive her. So, she is her authentic self with colleagues, which may include saying “ain’t,” dropping verbs or rolling her neck. 

The fatigue factor 

Too often the burden of raising issues related to racism and educating others falls on Black counselors. “It’s a constant and common fatigue,” White says. “Because advocacy is such a huge part of my identity, I’m not one of those people that really chooses my battles. I’m always chosen to battle, which is tiring and exhausting.”  

White recalls sitting in multiple meetings and being so upset by what was being said or not said about race and diversity that she spoke up because no one else would. “It’s angering that I have to be the one to address it,” she stresses. White is a licensed professional counselor who developed the Center for Mastering and Refining Children’s Unique Skills (M.A.R.C.U.S.), a nonprofit organization that provides tutoring, mentoring and mental health counseling to children and adolescents, especially in the Black community.

A few days after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, Nadrich noticed many of his white colleagues remained silent. So, he decided to broach the issue himself because he knew that students and faculty were hurting. 

After addressing the issue, a few white colleagues told him, “I’ve been thinking about this for so long, but it’s just so hard, so emotional. I’ve been torn up about what to say.” Rather than sharing those words after the fact, Nadrich, an ACA member who specializes in racial ambiguity, diversity and social justice work, wishes his colleagues had stepped up and spoken out against racial violence and injustice before he felt compelled to. 

The burden to respond to the wider community shouldn’t have been placed on his shoulders, Nadrich stresses, especially considering that he isn’t in a leadership role and because he was already dealing with the trauma and grief of yet another horrific act of racial violence being committed against someone in the Black community. 

Bosley says he often deals with white guilt and the burden of being expected to answer or pose questions about race himself. He never knows which one of those tasks will be required of him on a given day. He finds that being a mental health professional only compounds this obligation to educate others. “You have that uninvited burden that [you] need to take advantage of this moment to educate because any silence is going to give permission for the fire to keep burning. Whether that’s right or wrong or whether I should take that on or not, it’s my reality,” he says.

White stresses the importance of self-reflection and awareness, especially for white counselors. Counselors must unpack their own privileged identities and examine what that means for how they operate in the world, she argues. 

“We often talk in terms of ‘what do white people need to do,’ so it becomes another version of us having to educate white people and tell white people what to do when they can literally just read and watch what’s been put out there,” she says, offering the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies as one example. 

Having courageous conversations 

Right after George Floyd was murdered, white students and colleagues asked Armstrong, who serves as the new executive director for A Therapist Like Me, a nonprofit organization that connects marginalized clients with marginalized therapists, how she was feeling. She wasn’t sure how to describe her emotions or even how this latest instance of racial violence was affecting her. 

“For the longest, I wasn’t able to put a word to it because I kind of didn’t feel anything. And I don’t mean that in a cold, shut off, numb way,” she explains. “I mean it more so in that, unfortunately, I feel like I’ve become desensitized to it because racial violence and injustice are so ingrained now in our society. It’s another thing I carry with me as a Black person in America.”

Armstrong wondered if her white colleagues were also bothered by these horrific acts of murder and violence against the Black community. Did they have knots in their stomachs? Did they call their family members to check on them too? 

So, Armstrong asked them a straightforward question: How did they feel about George Floyd’s death? But her white colleagues dodged the question. Armstrong’s frustration over this exchange resulted in her presentation, “Please Stop Asking, Because I Am Not Okay: The Struggle for Black Counselors During a Racial Pandemic,” at the North Carolina Counseling Association’s 2021 conference. Her goal, she says, was to start a serious dialogue on issues faced by Black mental health professionals.  

When it comes to race and social justice, counselors “have to get out of their own way and allow conversations to happen,” says ACA President S. Kent Butler. “Just like what we are trained to do as counselors … we must take ourselves out of the equation and be there as a culturally competent counselor for our [clients] so that we do no harm and [do not] negatively impact the outcome of what’s happening within the therapeutic relationship. We’re trying to help clients move forward,” he says. “That same philosophy also needs to go into social justice work. Counselors need to take themselves out of the equation because sometimes they may represent or be a part of the problem. And if you are indeed a part of the problem, then it is imperative that you take measures to understand your role in it and figure out how you may in fact help elicit systemic change. That’s what self-awareness is all about.” 

Camellia Green, an LPC-S with a private practice in New Orleans, agrees that lack of self-awareness often prevents society and the counseling field from moving forward. “In the field of counseling, we’re taught you have to know yourself and be aware of all the potential areas of countertransference. … Clinicians [are encouraged] to go to counseling themselves … but many people don’t,” she says. 

But this mandate goes deeper than counselors just knowing themselves. It requires them to dig into their racial identity development, which isn’t something they get in a continuing education unit, and to question their worldview, which has been developed over their lifetime, says Green, an ACA member who specializes in working with people who have experienced trauma. 

Bosley advises white colleagues to give themselves permission to be a beginner at discussing race. “Be courageous enough … to talk about it,” he says. “Because the same lump that’s in your throat is in my throat when I gotta bring it up. But I recognize if I don’t bring it up, you’re not.”

“And have the commitment not just to talk about it but then to do something about it,” he adds. 

fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Agents of change 

Counselors are in a prime position to put these courageous conversations into action. “We’re supposed to be leading the charge because from a psychological and mental health perspective, we know what’s at the foundation of [racism] … and we’re the ones who can speak to it and say here’s how you change it,” Armstrong says. “But counselors are not doing that.” 

Incongruity between counselors’ words and actions is a big part of the problem, Bosley stresses. He finds counselors often say they are against discrimination, but they don’t publicly speak out against those who are discriminating, or they claim to be “an agent for the voiceless” until they have to speak for them. Then, they are silent. 

“Don’t just use your voice for me when I’m there,” Bosley says. “Use your voice when I’m not there and your friend … [or] colleague is saying something [harmful].”

ACA began its own crucial conversations when the Governing Council released an ACA anti-racism statement in June 2020. Later that year, ACA created an anti-racism task force, which was chaired by Butler, who was then the ACA president-elect. 

The task force proposed an ACA anti-racism action plan, which includes nine initiatives to help combat systemic racism and racial injustices. ACA also recently formed a commission to help counselors understand ways to move this narrative forward, promote research, provide counselors with anti-racism resources, and incorporate more action-based projects such as providing scholarships to help underrepresented counselors attend conferences, adds Butler, the interim chief equity, inclusion and diversity officer and a professor of counselor education at the University of Central Florida, as well as a fellow of the National Association of Diversity Offices in Higher Education. 

The need for more representation 

Another problem within the field is the need for more diverse counselors and therapists. According to the American Psychological Association, only 4% of psychologists are Black, compared with 84% who are white.

Nadrich was one of two Black men in his master’s counseling program. When the class started discussing race, the students would often turn to these two men and explicitly or implicitly ask them their thoughts, as if they were appointed spokespeople for the Black community. Although Nadrich’s doctoral program was more diverse, he was still the first Black man to graduate from the program. 

When Nadrich, along with Michael Hannon (an associate professor of counseling at Montclair University) and four other colleagues, researched the underrepresentation of Black men in counselor education, they faced an interesting dilemma: How could they incorporate the voices of the eight Black men they interviewed without exposing or “outing” their identities? With so few Black male counselor educators, they feared other professionals would easily be able to identify their participants by the way they spoke. (The resulting article, “Contributing Factors to Earning Tenure Among Black Male Counselor Educators,” was named Outstanding Counselor Education and Supervision Article for 2020 by the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision [ACES] Awards Committee.) 

The counseling profession needs to make itself more accessible not only to nonwhite clients but also to nonwhite counselors. “There is very little intentional mentorship when it comes to including and getting … Black people into the counseling profession,” says White, the recent recipient of ACA’s Dr. Judy Lewis Counselors for Social Justice Award. “There’s this ruse … [that] we have all these things available, but it’s not accessible if it’s not attractive.” 

By way of explaining, White recalls attending a division meeting of one of the ACA regions a few years ago where she was greeted by a room filled with white faces. She remembers thinking how unwelcoming the space could be for other Black professionals like herself. As the counselors started discussing business as usual, White felt compelled to ask why there was so little diversity in the room. Her question was met with silence for a full minute. Then, passing comments were made about how the group had tried to address diversity. “It gives you the message that they don’t care; it’s not really of importance or value,” White says.

Although the counseling profession still has work to do to attract diverse counselors and clients, White is hopeful because she has noticed a shift in Black people becoming more open to counseling. “We’ve done something right where now more people in the African American community are considering [entering the] counseling [profession], are getting counseling and are recognizing the value of mental health,” she notes.  

White is also excited by the increase of Black counselors entering leadership positions: ACA’s current president is a Black man; the presidents of CSJ and the Military and Government Counseling Association (MGCA) are Black women; and the presidents-elect of ACA, AMCD, ACES, CSJ, MGCA, the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association, the National Career Development Association, and the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities are Black women.

These individuals “are more than qualified, but also I know that our voting body is very white. And so that gives me hope that they were able to see promise,” White says. At the same time, she worries that this shift in representation at the leadership level could cause a backlash. She says she has already heard counselors asking, “How did this happen?” 

The ongoing journey toward cultural competence

Multicultural training is central to preparing counselors to understand the experiences of people who differ from them as well as to be aware of their own privilege and bias. But Butler asks, “How can we change the narrative on systemic racism when the profession has some counselor educators and counseling programs that do not value multiculturalism or change?” 

Nadrich says that the multicultural education offered in his master’s counseling program was insufficient, which was more of a reflection on the dynamics of the one multicultural course he took rather than on the institution, he adds. The instructor of the course didn’t know how to navigate conversations about race and culture. “It was a very Black/white course. We didn’t talk much about anything beyond issues faced by Black and white people. We barely spoke about other oppressed groups and never spoke about topics like intersectionality,” he says. 

Some counseling programs require students to take only one multicultural counseling course, and as Armstrong and Green point out, one course is not enough to prepare clinicians to be culturally competent. Armstrong believes there needs to be an emphasis on cultural self-awareness and community awareness from the onset and through the entirety of the counseling program because cultural competence occurs over time and through practice. 

Multicultural counseling involves more than an organization or department saying that they value it and tacking on an extra cultural assignment to the curriculum, notes Green, a doctoral candidate in the counselor education program at the University of New Orleans. She would like to see counseling programs incorporate multicultural awareness into all counseling courses, not just one.

Butler, whose research interests include African American men, spirituality and ethics in counseling, and diversity and social justice in counseling, agrees that multicultural training needs to be integrated into every aspect of counseling, including theories, techniques and research. His forthcoming textbook, Introduction to 21st Century Counseling: A Multicultural & Social Justice Approach, which he co-edited with Anna Flores Locke and Joel M. Filmore, embeds multicultural and social justice competencies throughout each chapter and serves as a guide to enhance teaching and help counselors better understand themselves, their clients and the world around them.

“Cultural competence is not an endpoint. It’s not a destination. It’s a journey,” White says. And part of the journey involves self-awareness, especially for white people. “Your whiteness shapes your … interactions. It shifts the room. It takes up oxygen,” she notes. 

And people’s own perspectives shape their awareness of others, she continues. “How you see me is not fact,” she says. “It’s your perception of who I am.” So, counselors must be “aware of what shapes those perceptions and then be able to constantly trigger [themselves] to be mindful of those things when interacting with colleagues, students, clients [and] communities,” she adds.

White argues that the profession needs to figure out a way to make diversity training a requirement throughout a counselor’s professional development. For example, she suggests requiring counselors to take a set number of continuing education credits on anti-Black racism.

Counselor educators should also consider if nonwhite counseling students have the same opportunities as their white counterparts when it comes to mentorship and financial assistance, Butler says. It may be helpful to engage in some self-reflection: Are you overlooking working with nonwhite students on a research project? Who receives graduate assistantships in your department? Do mainly white students receive the more desirable graduate assistantships? How do you think nonwhite counseling students perceive you as their instructor or feel about the ways they are treated within your courses? 

Early in Nadrich’s career as a counselor educator, he wrote in his academic profile that he was passionate about mentoring and supporting students of color. Another colleague approached him and asked if his statement would dissuade white students from working with him. Although Nadrich was an untenured new faculty member, he declined to change his profile because he wanted to uphold his own beliefs. He told the colleague it would be OK if some white students didn’t come to see him because of his statement. 

Nadrich points out that his colleague’s comment contained two incorrect assumptions. First, it assumed that white students didn’t already have a large number of staff, faculty and professionals who looked like them and shared similar experiences to go to for support and resources while students of color did. Second, it assumed that Nadrich stating his passion for working with students of color was harmful even though stating other professional preferences, such as a passion for behavioral neuroscience or socioeconomic disparities, would have been viewed as less threatening.

Bridging the gap 

Bosley says it breaks his heart when people still insist they are colorblind anytime the specter of racism is raised. They may think they are making him feel better by uttering such statements, but they are in fact saying that they don’t see race rather than addressing it directly. The message they are sending is that “they don’t even think enough of me to try to see me,” he says. 

Nadrich teaches his counseling students why it is harmful to always look to underrepresented groups to explain themselves, the injustices they face and what others should do to help. “You have to figure out what it means to be you and how you can start bridging the gap between your identities and the identities of the people you serve and work with,” he says. 

If Nadrich is working with an adolescent woman of color, for example, then he knows his identity as a person of color might help bridge the gap between them. But he also recognizes that his identity as a man could widen the gap depending on the client’s own history and experiences. “I have to be cognizant of that,” Nadrich says, “and say overtly to myself, ‘How am I going to make sure that I’m bridging across gender in this situation?’”

And in speaking to his white colleagues, Nadrich asks, “Are you willing to be affected by my lived experience? Are you willing for my lived experience to be relevant to yours or necessary to yours when it doesn’t have to be?” 

Nadrich is grateful for the colleagues who don’t avoid the issue and demonstrate a willingness to bridge this gap. “If you’re willing to be affected by it, now you hear me,” he says. “Now you know what’s going on with me and people like me.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@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. Shawndrika Cook

    Thank you for this article. I serve in multiple positions with the Alabama Counseling Association. One position that I have is president-elect of the Multi-cultural Division. I have been saying for a while how it took all of me to be a therapist after George Floyd’s death. I really didn’t know how to navigate the counseling field as a black therapist. Hearing my brothers in tears and my black clients telling me their fears was way too much! This article really shares my heart and the heart I continue to have as I and other therapists/counselors continue to figure out how to maneuver through the field in the most healthy way possible. It hurts to know that in a field where were are taught to check our biases, understand our differences, and advocate for those that need it, that our colleagues don’t see fit to extend those same skills to us. UGH!!! is the only emotion that I can express even now. Because the grief and trauma that I have experienced being a black woman in American intensify when I step into the position of a black therapist. Thank you again for this. It’s a great start to an ongoing conversation

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