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Encountering and addressing racism as a multiracial counselor

By Michelle Fielder and Lisa Compton August 11, 2020

It was a simple question, “How are you doing?” that started us on a path of discovery. I (Lisa) wanted to check in with Michelle, my teaching assistant, after racial tensions consumed the news. George Floyd had just been killed, and the media were focused on his death, the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, and the outcry for justice for the African American community.

Michelle was initially numb, unsure of how to articulate the different thoughts and feelings the recent events had triggered for her. I could tell she needed a break from our usual academic work, so I assigned a reflective activity to give her space for introspection.

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The events brought to my (Michelle’s) mind a comment that actor Will Smith had previously made on a late-night television show: “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”

As my ideas began to crystallize, Lisa and I began to share our perspectives on the sobering current events. The result was a rich dialogue between us — raw, authentic and refreshingly open.

What follows is an excerpt from our discussion. We hope that it will stimulate other discussions and encourage counselors to not fear engaging in dialogue about race. We believe that such open communication will help us to better understand one another and the reality of systemic issues, to identify our blind spots and areas for growth, to improve our care for clients and to move our profession forward.

Racism at first glance

Lisa: Michelle, you told me how triggering the recent acts of racism in America and subsequent protests have been for you. Could you share some of your background?

Michelle: I was born to an African American father and a Japanese mother around the civil unrest and well-publicized riots of 1968. The United States was embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam, and racial tensions at home were an additional black eye on our status as a world leader. It is sobering to consider that the institutionalized racism which led to the widespread violence and destruction of many cities, including Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, has not been eliminated over my lifetime.

My first understanding of racism occurred when I was in the first grade. My mother would meet me after school each day to walk the mile or so back to our house. One day, a white pickup truck pulled alongside us, and two Caucasian men started yelling racial epithets and throwing beer bottles at us. My mother grabbed me and ran into a nearby park where they could not follow in their vehicle.

My mother reported the incident to the police, but it was not investigated, and the matter was dropped. It was not until several years later that I understood what transpired that day and the reality that the very notion of my existence was abhorrent to someone simply based on how I looked.

The path to becoming a counselor

Lisa: That must have been a terrifying experience for you. What impact did your childhood have on your career path as a professional counselor?

Michelle: I became driven to prove my value and worth to society through academic and athletic achievement. When it came time to apply to college, I wanted to mark the “other” box because, back then, “multiracial” was not an option.

My mother surprisingly challenged my decision: “Michelle, whether you like it or not, the world is going to look at the color of your skin and decide that you’re African American. Why not show them you are also kind, driven, intelligent and talented? It doesn’t have to be either-or.”

My mother’s advice empowered me to look beyond my neighborhood and the typical path of my peers, which was community college or service and retail jobs. I applied to the United States Naval Academy and was accepted into the 10th class that allowed women. As a midshipman, it was not lost on me that there were few black or brown faces, and I was often reminded that there were 20 other applicants for everyone who was accepted, so I had to make my presence count.

I found my follow-on experience in the Marine Corps to be a great example of inclusion, as we all worked together toward a common mission. There were not black, white, brown or yellow Marines — we were all “green.” As an intelligence officer, I became adept at understanding the human nature of our enemies and advising appropriate responses to conflict. This intuitiveness and desire to bring healing to suffering led me straight to my next career as a professional counselor.

Experiencing racism with clients

Lisa: Have you experienced racism in your interactions with clients and, if so, how have you managed it?

Michelle: Depending on how I wear my hair, it has apparently been difficult for others to determine my race. Over my lifetime, I have been mistaken for Filipino, Puerto Rican, Thai/Burmese, South Korean and Samoan.

As a licensed professional counselor, I have had clients decline to meet with me because I was not pale enough for their liking or not dark enough “to understand their experience.” Several clients have made racially disparaging comments about African Americans or Asian groups in my presence because they were unaware of my multiracial background. One Caucasian client made the flip comment, “She [a Hispanic friend] is so stupid. What did she expect dating a Black guy? They’re all dogs and can’t keep a job!”

Those comments were spoken so casually that it is not hard to imagine that worse was being said in other settings. It is a sad reminder that racial prejudice and stereotyping are still at the forefront of some people’s minds. Sad because such views prevent the speaker from seeing the potential good aspects of another race and benefiting from their culture. Sad because such divisiveness prevents unity that could make us stronger as neighbors, co-workers or fellow journeyers on this path through life. My identity is not the “little mongrel” girl who had to hide in a park, nor are those individuals being described the sum of those demeaning or devaluing statements. We can and need to do better.

Early in my career, I had a Caucasian client tell me he hated “Black people.” I was quite surprised, and it must have shown on my face because he immediately added, “But you’re all right. You’re not like the other ones I’ve met.”

As you can imagine, I was angry at his audacity and saddened by his views, but I knew based on where he was in treatment that it was not the time to get into a heated debate about his racial beliefs. However, I realized that his sharing of those ideas with me indicated that he felt safe to do so in my presence and that I had been entrusted with a variable that I had not known about him previously. While I was offended by his remark, I remember thinking, “Stay focused on the client. This is not about me; it’s about the client.”

I am going to be judged, fairly and unfairly, but I choose to live in a manner to be a credit to my race rather than a detractor. I also recognize that every instance of racism is a learning opportunity — for me to better understand how the other person came to their beliefs and for clients to perhaps expand their views to see past a person’s appearance to their character. We are all a product of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experience. A client’s life may have taught them to hate, but if we, as counselors, do not believe in the potential for people to change and grow, we are in the wrong profession.

Racism can come in many forms. It can be overt or covert, generational or situational, and institutional or individual. As counselors, we need to be prepared for however it manifests and to recognize that some people are not even aware of how hurtful their beliefs are until they are uttered out loud and someone checks them on it. When working with clients, I have come to recognize that racism is often based on fear, and the more information the client is willing to learn about the object of their fear, the less impact it has. Working with a client’s racist remarks takes the same unconditional positive regard that you would give any client, and it is an opportunity to model healthy self-concept and emotional regulation.

So, take the client I mentioned previously who stated that he hated Black people. For this interview, I will call him “John.” When John made that statement, I did not react to his remarks, but I was able to work with him later in therapy surrounding some of his distorted schemas when he was ready. The following are some practical suggestions for working with clients who show signs of racism:

1) It’s not about you. (Do not personalize clients’ racist remarks).

Me: “It sounds like there are anger and pain behind that statement. Tell me about the Black people you’ve previously met.”

John: “Well, they make me sick. They’re lazy. They lie around doing drugs and collecting a welfare check while I bust my butt working all the time.”

2) Gently challenge any overgeneralizations.

Me: “Who are ‘they’? Are you talking about specific people you know?”

John: “No, you know what I mean. Just Black people.”

Me: “I know some Black people, but they don’t do drugs and they have jobs.”

John: “I know they’re not all like that. Like I said, you’re all right because I know you work for a living.”

Me: “So you don’t hate all Black people, just the Black people who are uneducated or unemployed?”

John: “Yeah, I guess.”

3) Help clients clarify their feelings.

Me: “Some might take your response as jealousy rather than hatred. You work hard, but they get by without working. Would you consider jealousy to be a better word?”

John: “No! I’m not jealous of those Black people. Shoot, I’m way better than them. I’m financially secure with a good job and a house. There’s nothing to be jealous of.”

Me: “You do work hard and have a lot going for you. So, why are you comparing yourself to them?”

John: “I’m not! They’re a drain on society. They could be doing as well as I am if they would just apply themselves.”

Me: “So, help me understand. If there is no comparison in your eyes, why do you even care?”

John: “Because my taxpayer dollars are going to finance their lifestyle.”

Me: “Actually, your and my tax dollars are going to finance a lot of things, like the military, Social Security and the national debt. Do you hate them too?”

John: “No, that’s just stupid. Of course I don’t hate the military. They’re necessary for our nation’s defense. It’s just our precious resources should only be used on important things that benefit all of society.”

Me: “If hate is too strong, or not the right word, what is a better way to describe how you feel?”

John: “I guess you could say I’m frustrated.”

4) Help clients clarify their beliefs.

Me: “OK, you are frustrated with some uneducated or unemployed Black people.”

John: “Yeah, because they’re on welfare.”

Me: “I also know a lot of people on welfare — White, Black, Hispanic, etc. Are you frustrated with them as well?”

John [staring at me]: “I know what you’re doing. No, I’m not frustrated with all of them. You are just twisting things around.”

5) Follow up with psychoeducation.

Me: “I’m just trying to understand what you believe and why you believe it. Words matter, and I hope you can see there is a big difference between ‘I hate Black people’ and ‘I’m frustrated with what I believe is the misuse of taxpayer money.’

Some people are where they are due to a lack of nurturing, growing up in an unsafe environment or even traumatic experiences. But when you are hindered by those things, which are outside of your control, and the color of your skin habitually prevents others from seeing you as a person or recognizing your worth, it is hard to have hope of living any other way.

We all have biases — because of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experiences — that can incite our emotions and distort our thinking. Racism occurs when we start believing those distortions about an entire group of people without considering individual differences. It may be easy to blame an entire group of people in a situation, but it is much more helpful to honestly examine why we feel the way we do and, when in our power, to do something about it.

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Having an open conversation about race with a client is possible, but counselors must consider the client’s readiness and make sure the discussion is integral to the context of the client’s presenting issue. The counseling office is not a bully pulpit, nor is it a place for counselors to get their own emotional needs met. However, when a client is ready and open to discuss the subject, counselors should be ready to “go there” while maintaining empathy and without allowing countertransference to interfere with their effectiveness.

Experiencing racism within the profession

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your experiences and such practical suggestions for working with clients. I think we are often caught off guard by comments made during sessions, and it is very helpful to think ahead of time about what to do in those situations. In addition to interactions with clients, have you experienced racism within our professional field?

Michelle: Sure. I once had a colleague tell me that she was no longer going to take Medicaid clients because they were “all Black, unemployed and unmarried with a gang of kids.” Another colleague commented that the Black clients brought their kids in for testing for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “just so they can get a check.” These were seasoned professionals who had been seeing clients for many years.

Lisa: How disappointing to hear such comments from your peers. As a Caucasian, I have noticed that many of my White colleagues feel content in knowing that they do not personally hold prejudiced feelings against others. However, I realize that a lack of personal hate does not do enough to confront systemic racism. What can we do as a profession to make progress and move forward in this area?

Michelle: The first thing is to stop apologizing. I cannot speak for all people of color, but we are not looking for apologies. Now, let me caveat that: I always advise my clients to “own what’s yours.” If you personally contributed in any way to the oppression of a person of color, then apologize to that person. Otherwise, a blanket apology often indicates that someone does not understand the nature of institutional racism.

Secondly, ask, listen, learn and act. We will never solve the problem if we do not understand the nature of the problem. Ask people of color about their experiences. You may be surprised how many instances of racism — such as inappropriate comments or jokes in the workplace — individuals have had to push aside or ignore. Question formal processes at work that have been in place for a long time because “that’s the way we’ve always done things” attitudes can indicate tacit approval of an oppressive infrastructure (e.g., not taking Medicaid clients because it does not pay as well as commercial insurance).

Listen to the conversations being held when people of color are not in the room. They may be an indication of an undercurrent of racism (e.g., gossip or complaining regarding people of color) that needs to be exposed.

Learn by reading books, listening to podcasts or subscribing to YouTube channels by people of color.

Act by speaking up when you hear racist comments or when you see acts of discrimination. Be willing to get involved with faith organizations, social justice movements and causes of people of color (e.g., speaking at a city council meeting about trauma-informed care for African American neighborhoods or joining a peaceful march). Lastly, help affect the future of the counseling profession. Become a supervisor and share the wisdom you learn about institutional racism and the need to work with people of color to fix the system.

Thirdly, for supervisors, it is important to recognize that our supervisees are coming from different backgrounds and are at different levels of multicultural competence. I hold an initial interview with my supervisees to get a sense of their goals, strengths and weaknesses. Included in this interview is a question about their ethnicity, nurturing, environment and experience as it pertains to working with race and other marginalized groups. The answer is usually, “I had a multicultural awareness class as part of my master’s degree.” I take that to mean that they do not know what they do not know, so the onus is then on the supervisor to prepare counselors-in-training in this area of competency.

I take a developmental approach with supervision and challenge supervisees to take multicultural considerations into account as they approach each client and their diagnosis. Our discussions also include case studies tailored to increase their ability to recognize their own biases and blind spots.

These past weeks, with all of the media coverage of the racial unrest, have offered a rich environment for my supervisees to learn about institutional racism and to ask questions about social justice for their clients. It is not just a multicultural issue but also an ethical one. So, I try to ensure that my supervisees are not only comfortable working with people of diverse backgrounds but also willing to admit their own areas of cultural ignorance and work toward increasing their knowledge.

Connecting multicultural competency and trauma-informed care

Lisa: Is there any other area where we can look for change?

Michelle: All professional counseling organizations have submitted statements of support to the current nonviolent protests and offered ways to help support the victims of racial trauma. This is a great start to addressing the issue. However, if we want to make a difference, we need to reevaluate the profession’s approach to multicultural and trauma-informed education because they go hand in hand.

Most counseling programs have one mandatory multicultural class and may offer some trauma electives. However, multicultural competency should be infused throughout the program, and trauma-informed care should be a required part of every curriculum. Recognizing that the design of the master’s programs is toward clinical competency as determined by face-to-face hours, how well do practicum and internships expose and evaluate multicultural and trauma care competencies? Your new book, Preparing for Trauma Work in Clinical Mental Health, addresses concepts such as historical trauma, disenfranchised grief, advocacy and ethnic identity strength and would really fill this curriculum void.

For provisional and licensed counselors, in the same way that ethics continuing education is required every year, multicultural and trauma refresher training should be required on an annual basis to ensure that counselors are maintaining the best practices. To obtain licensure, counselors should demonstrate competency in working with diverse clients and various trauma backgrounds. In addition, all professional counselors should take an active role in advocacy work on behalf of their clients and in their communities.

Just as the color of my skin is going to be subconsciously noted by the people I meet, similar experiences are happening to our clients of color, most of whom have lived with some form of oppression during their lifetime. Counselors need to be prepared to approach multicultural considerations in trauma-informed care to understand how to appropriately establish strong therapeutic alliances with clients and enhance safety and stabilization. This is a herald’s call for counselors to change the way we approach the effects of institutionalized racism if we truly want to be agents of change.

 

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Michelle Fielder is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in private practice. She is also a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at Regent University. Contact her at michfi3@mail.regent.edu.

Lisa Compton is a certified trauma treatment specialist and full-time faculty at Regent University. Contact her at lisacom@regent.edu.

 

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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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.

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.

Investigating identity

By Laurie Meyers November 21, 2016

“W hat are you?”

That is a question commonly asked of individuals who are multiracial. As a society, we have gotten used to checking off a metaphorical — and often literal — “box” when it comes to questions of race. We seem to expect everyone to “just pick one.”

But the population of the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, not just in terms of our nation’s racial makeup, but also in the growing number of people who identify themselves as belonging to two, three or more racial groups.

The U.S. Census Bureau first started letting respondents choose more than one racial category to describe themselves in its 2000 survey. Since then, the multiracial population (defined as individuals who have at least two different races in their backgrounds) has grown rapidly. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white and black Americans who identified as biracial more than doubled, and the population of Americans who identified as being of both Asian and Caucasian descent grew by 87 percent. In addition, according to information compiled from the family2010 census and the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the percentage of infants born to parents of two or more different races increased from 1 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2013. And, of course, in 2008, in a historic event that in part reflects the nation’s growing multiracial population, Americans elected a biracial president, Barack Obama, the son of a black Kenyan farther and a white mother.

The Census Bureau estimates that 2.1 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. However, in 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey and issued a report, “Multiracial in America,” estimating that 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is multiracial. The Pew study arrived at this figure by taking into account not only how individuals describe their own racial backgrounds, but also the backgrounds of their parents and grandparents, which the U.S census does not do.

The Pew survey also found that many people with mixed racial backgrounds do not identify themselves as “multiracial.” In fact, 61 percent of such respondents identify themselves as belonging to only one race. However, the survey also discovered that individuals’ racial self-identification can change over the years. Some choose to identify with a different part of their racial background later in life or decide to begin identifying as multiracial rather than monoracial (and vice versa).

Counselors who study multiracial issues and in some cases are multiracial themselves say that this finding of shifting racial identity is indicative of one of the core issues of being from multiple races — identity and belonging.

On the outside looking in

“When I was young, I didn’t know I was different,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Leah Brew, who is half white and half Japanese. “Then we moved, and I was made fun of [at her new school] because they said I was Chinese.”

Brew didn’t know what being Chinese meant, but based on the teasing she was subjected to, she assumed it was something horrible. “So I asked my mom if I was Chinese, and she said, ‘No, you’re Japanese,’” Brew recounts. She was relieved but soon found that when she corrected her tormentors, it made no difference. Although Brew was also white, it was her Japanese appearance that mattered to her classmates.

As she grew older, Brew, a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling at California State University, Fullerton, became interested in exploring the Japanese side of her heritage and even traveled to Japan. Although she loved experiencing the culture and the people, she didn’t feel quite at home there either. For one thing, she says, she inherited her white father’s height and towered over everyone on the street. “I thought, ‘No, that’s not it’” — where she “belonged,” Brew says.

“When I moved to California, I thought this was it” because the state has many residents from various racial backgrounds, Brew says. “But the other biracial people I encountered were very dissimilar to me and got their identities from other things, like religion.”

Today, Brew, a member of the American Counseling Association, sees a significant number of multiracial and multicultural clients in her practice. She also helped write the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, a set of professional counseling practices developed by ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network to competently and effectively attend to the diverse needs of the multiple heritage population. When it comes to her own identity and culture, Brew says she at times sees herself as mostly white and at other times mostly Japanese. She acknowledges that she is always moving back and forth between the two.

C. Peeper MacDonald, a practitioner and counselor educator whose research focuses on multiracial issues, is both white and Native American. Most people assume she’s white, however, which makes MacDonald feel that they are missing or ignoring a large part of who she is.

“I often use the opportunity [the assumption of her monoracial whiteness] to correct people and educate them about my identity,” MacDonald says. “I do, however, often get the sense that people feel that I am reaching. For example, I often hear, ‘Oh, well, everyone in the United States has Native American in them.’”

MacDonald, who teaches undergraduate psychology classes part time at Georgia Gwinnett College and is also counseling and supervising part time at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, often feels compelled to “prove” her ethnicity, she says. For instance, she will share her Cherokee name with people, which seems to satisfy them.

It was actually MacDonald’s interest in her family’s Native American heritage that led to her maternal grandfather reclaiming his history. For most of his life, MacDonald explains, her grandfather experienced severe racism because he was a Native American, so he often identified himself as Hispanic instead. MacDonald’s mother was raised by her white mother and a white stepfather and, as a result, has never really considered herself Native American, even though MacDonald says her mother does not look white. It wasn’t until MacDonald started asking as a child about the Native American side of the family that her grandfather, then in his 70s, started to embrace his heritage again.

ACA member Derrick Paladino, who is part Puerto Rican and part Italian American, grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. When kids at school would question him about “what” he was, Paladino would simply say Italian because that seemed easier and perhaps safer.

Paladino, who also helped to develop the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, says he didn’t have a lot of contact with the Puerto Rican side of his extended family when he grew up, so he didn’t have much opportunity to explore the Latino part of his identity. When he ultimately decided to go to college at the University of Florida, Paladino says he was thrilled at the prospect of meeting other Latino students.

“I got my Latino Students Association card, and I was so excited,” Paladino recalls. “But I discovered that because I was not fluent or hadn’t had [what was considered] the full Latino experience, I didn’t fit in well.”

Paladino, a professor and coordinator in the graduate studies in counseling program at Rollins College in Florida, may no longer stand out like he did in the white Connecticut enclave in which he grew up, but like most people of color, he is still subject to many assumptions and microaggressions. For instance, Paladino, who co-wrote and co-edited the book Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families (published by ACA), has been asked by a cashier at a department store whether he was his son’s nanny. Recently, as he stood in line at an amusement park, he was asked to settle a bet between two people he didn’t know. The wager? Whether Paladino was Puerto Rican.

These counselors’ stories provide a glimpse of the myriad forces — societal, familial and personal — that shape and challenge the lives of multiracial individuals. Counselors can play an integral role in helping their clients navigate these forces.

Identity intervention

That sense of not quite belonging — or even being told that they don’t belong — often starts early for multiracial individuals.

As Brew notes, as early as elementary school, multiracial children can begin experiencing microaggressions such as that question: “What are you?” Or, as in Brew’s case, these children might become the targets of racist taunts based on their actual or perceived ethnic backgrounds. For that reason, it is important for the parents of multiracial children to talk to them about race and racism from an early age, she says.

“Parents, in general, are reluctant to do that, but when parents do engage in it, the children are more prepared to handle comments,” Brew says. “There was an interesting study out of [the University of Texas at Austin] where they asked participants to talk with their kids about racism. When it came down to the wire, most parents dropped out of the study. It was simply too hard.”

Because the topic is so difficult and sensitive, counselors can be a tremendous asset to these parents by helping them to have conversations about racism with their children and with each other, Brew says. “This conversation needs to be explicit and purposeful,” she says. “The parents may need to work on thinking in inclusive ways rather than judgmental ways — the way we teach our students to respect differences. It’s the seed that helps teach children about their own culture as well.”

“I think it’s important for parents to start with very small children talking about skin color and how it’s different, but to give no meaning to color,” Brew continues. “We all see differences, and that’s fine. It’s when meaning is applied that differences become a problem. For biracial children, talking about how mommy and daddy — or mommy and mommy, or daddy and daddy — are different is also important to note, although, again, not giving meaning to those differences.”

“If the child is likely to experience racism or any other type of prejudice based upon differences, then [it’s] letting kids know that some people don’t understand differences and believe that people are bad based on how they look or how they dress, etc.,” she says. “Then when it actually happens, kids can feel safe to talk with parents, who should validate the child’s experience and help them make sense of it.”

It isn’t unusual for multiracial children to grow up, like Paladino did, in predominantly white neighborhoods. Even if these children don’t encounter bullying or overt racism, being one of the few (or perhaps only) children of color in an overwhelmingly white environment can exacerbate their feelings of not belonging. Counselors can help these children cope, Paladino says.

“I would want to continually validate what they are feeling and experiencing, which may be ‘otherness’ or not fitting in,” he explains. “At a young age, it may be difficult for [children] to fully grasp why they are experiencing these feelings, so I really want to be there for them in this part of the journey and allow them to ventilate feelings, thoughts and experiences.”

“For the parents, if they are a part of counseling or a parent consult, I would talk to them about what their child is feeling,” Paladino continues. “[I would] help them to experience empathy toward their child, talk to them about how to create a safe space for their child to talk and ventilate about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing, and help them look up children’s books as a way to talk about feeling different.”

School counselors — indeed all school faculty members — also play a critical role in helping multiracial children cope with racism and the struggle to feel included, says Taryne Michelle Mingo, an ACA member and former school counselor whose research focuses on marginalized populations. “I would [as a school counselor] develop a trusting relationship with the children and let them know that I can be a support system,” she says. For instance, she explains, if a child is being taunted or verbally abused, it is important for the child to view the school counselor as a safe person whom he or she can trust and feel comfortable going to for help.

One of the primary tasks for school counselors, Mingo says, is to get to know their students and make sure that everyone feels included. During her time as a school counselor, Mingo, who is African American, worked at a majority white school where only a small number of students were African American. Children of color aren’t typically used to seeing themselves reflected or represented in school materials, Mingo says, so she was careful about making sure there were dolls and books in her office that included children of multiple races. “Make sure that [these children] know they are visible,” she urges. “[That as counselors you are saying], ‘We know you are here.’”

When children who were feeling excluded showed up in her office, Mingo, who is now an assistant professor in the Counseling, Leadership and Special Education Department at Missouri State University, would engage them by asking them what they thought about themselves aside from what anyone else thought about them. She would have them describe themselves and ask them to draw a self-portrait. She would then go on to ask them what they liked to do and who their friends were.

If during the course of the conversation Mingo discovered that the child was feeling harassed or hearing negative comments, she would inquire where the child was and what was happening when he or she heard such comments. Mingo then asked what the child said or would have liked to say in response to those comments. Finally, she and the child would practice responding.

Mingo would also bring in the child’s teachers to make them aware of what was happening. When possible, she also liked to bring in the child’s parents or parent so that she and the parents could work together to more effectively support the child as a team.

Family tensions

In some cases, a child’s feelings of exclusion might be emanating from within the family itself. Not necessarily within the immediate family, but more often from the extended family, which might not have approved of the multiracial relationship in the first place, Paladino says. He notes that it was only in 1967 that it became legal to marry outside of one’s own race throughout the United States. That’s when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in the Loving v. Virginia case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Brew has worked with multiracial couples and families facing the disapproval of extended family. “In terms of working with extended family racism, I first provide empathy to both partners,” she says. “Then I provide psychoeducation about the damage to self-esteem on children who listen to that type of talk. The biggest challenge is that so many minority families are hierarchical, so the adult child may not feel comfortable initiating these kinds of conversations. When it’s a Caucasian family member, then the relationship can often be less hierarchical, so the biggest challenge is just getting that partner to buy in and set limits with family members.”

“I haven’t had experiences with needing to cut off family members,” Brew continues. “[I] try to avoid that unless abuse is part of the picture. So, I help the clients manage their feelings about their own family members’ disapproval and try to offer support so that they eventually have the courage to confront their families. If they choose to confront, of course we practice that many times and prepare them for the worst possible outcome so they feel more confident.”

But even when there is no racial tension in the family, a multiracial person’s parents and other monoracial family members can never truly understand what it is like to be multiracial or multiethnic, Paladino says. “Validation is huge for this population,” he says. “They need support to figure out what they are, to allow them to be angry at family, angry at friends.”

MacDonald agrees. “My father, who is white, never understood why it was important for me to identify as biracial,” she says. “He views me as white and thinks I should identify as white. In a way, my white dad has always been a symbol for me of white culture because he also holds beliefs that don’t acknowledge institutionalized oppression and a belief that because we live in America, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed — beliefs in which I do not share. Even as adults to this day, we do not speak of race, politics or privilege.”

Identity and acceptance

Ultimately, it is up to the multiracial individual to determine how he or she wants to self-identify. “A lot of clinical work is to help my clients articulate and identify what is from what culture so that they can make choices,” Brew says. “What feels right in different situations? Who am I, and what’s the right way to be?”

Counselors can play an important role by helping multiracial clients sift through all of their experiences and beliefs in the search for identity, says Mark Kenney, who helped write the multiracial counseling competencies and co-founded ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network. He advises counselors to start by validating a client’s personal experiences and creating a safe environment for self-disclosure.

In some cases, counselors may need to help clients find resources, such as social groups or books, to explore their heritage because these clients didn’t have full access to part of their heritage growing up, Kenney says. He uses Barack Obama, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents, as an example. “His white family can’t tell him about being African American, and his father is Kenyan, so he can’t impart the African American experience,” Kenney notes.

Although identity is a pressing issue for many multiracial individuals, so is the question of feeling accepted or belonging. Kenney returns to the example of President Obama. Because of his phenotype, or physical appearance, most people automatically view Obama as African

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

American, and physical appearance is often an important factor that influences how multiracial individuals ultimately choose to identify themselves, Kenney explains. Given his lineage, Obama could have decided to identify himself as white, Kenney says, but because of the way he looks, society at large wouldn’t see or “accept” him that way, especially in our current racial climate. At the same time, Kenney continues, because Obama’s father was black but not African American (and because his mother was white), other people may not embrace Obama fully as being African American.

MacDonald says she sometimes struggles with feeling that she is a legitimate member of the multiracial community. “I am often viewed as white and, as a result, receive white privilege,” she explains. “So in many ways, I am an outsider to the multiracial community because I still receive privilege versus minority status.”

Again, counselors can help multiracial individuals reconcile these factors, but the process may not be smooth or easy. “Helping the person sort through their particular journey and come to their own decision about how they want to identify may put them in conflict with their family and their community,” Kenney notes.

With multiracial clients, Kenney likes to use solution-focused and narrative therapy. With narrative therapy in particular, clients can write a new story of their identity, he says. Kenney also stresses the importance of counselors familiarizing themselves with multiracial identity models so they are aware of all the factors involved in a person choosing an identity.

Because individuals who are multiracial might not be or feel fully accepted by any of their racial groups, counselors should help them seek out individuals who possess similar backgrounds, Kenney says. If organizations for multiracial individuals aren’t readily available in their communities, counselors might consider forming groups — perhaps using the group therapy model, but for social rather than therapeutic purposes, Kenney says.

Kenney and Paladino also recommend bibliotherapy as an effective intervention with multiracial clients who are struggling with their identity or sense of belonging. Paladino says he personally found Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural, edited by Claudine Chiawei O’Hearn, very helpful in his journey.

No assumptions

All of the counselors interviewed for this article caution against assuming that individuals who are multiracial have come to counseling because of their multiracial status. At the same time, Brew and MacDonald say it is important not to automatically assume that no connection exists between the person’s presenting problem and his or her multiracial status. After all, being multiracial does exert influence on clients’ lives, just as do other factors bound up in identity, such as being female, having a disability or identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Catherine Chang, an ACA member whose research specializes in multicultural issues, believes that society needs to change how it identifies people. Counselors can help, she says, starting with their intake forms and how they designate racial background.

“We force people to check a box,” Chang says. “I’m 100 percent Asian and married to a Caucasian man. My children have to check two separate boxes — white, Asian. They can’t check multiracial or biracial.”

Chang urges counselors to offer an option for multiracial individuals on intake forms and to also leave space for clients to fill in what they feel their background is. Paladino agrees, noting that check boxes don’t encompass multiple heritages such as being black and also being Jewish.

Finally, Chang says that it is important for counselors to examine their own heritage and how that background affects who they are and how they interact with individuals from other groups and races.

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s online article about transracial adoption, “Adopting across racial lines” wp.me/p2BxKN-4xn

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, take advantage of the following resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

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

ACA Interest Networks and Divisions

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

  • Counseling Multiple Heritage Individuals, Couples and Families, written and edited by Richard C. Henriksen Jr. and Derrick A. Paladino
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latina/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata
  • 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, edited by Courtland C. Lee
  • Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, edited by Ellen P. Cook
  • Experiential Activities for Teaching Multicultural Competence in Counseling, edited by Mark Pope, Joseph S. Pangelinan and Angela D. Coker

Podcasts (counseling.org/continuing-education/podcasts)

  • “Queer People of Color” with Adrienne N. Erby and Christian D. Chan
  • “Microcounseling, Multiculturalism, Social Justice and the Brain” with Allen Ivey and Mary Bradford Ivey
  • “Multiculturalism and Diversity: What is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does it Matter?” with Courtland C. Lee

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

  • “Why does culture matter? Isn’t counseling just counseling regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee

VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/continuing-education/vistas

  • “The Invisible Client: Ramifications of Neglecting the Impact of Race and Culture in Professional Counseling” by Issac Burt, Valerie E.D. Russell and Michael Brooks
  • “Appreciating the Complexities of Race and Culture” by Ria Echteld Baker
  • “Counselors’ Multicultural Competencies: Race, Training, Ethnic Identity and Color-Blind Racial Attitudes” by Ruth Chao
  • “Enhancing Multicultural Empathy in the Classroom and Beyond: A Proposed Model for Training Beginner Counselors” by Jorge Garcia, Gerta Bardhoshi, Matthew Siblo, Sam Steen and Eileen Haase
  • “Ethnic Minority Clients’ Perceptions of Racism-Related Stress in Presenting Problems”
    by Ruth Chao
  • “Interracial Adoption and the Development of Cultural Identity” by Kimberly Kathryn Thompson

Practice Briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Racial Microaggressions” by Cirleen DeBlaere, Terrence A. Jordan II and David G. Zelaya

 

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@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.

Preparing counselors for America’s multiracial population boom

By Bethany Bray July 15, 2015

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the nation’s multiracial population will triple by 2060.

That prognostication only heightens the long-standing need for counselors to better understand this population, say Kelley and Mark Kenney. The husband-and-wife counselor educators spearheaded development of the Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population, which were endorsed by the American Counseling Association Governing Council this past spring.

The new multiracial competencies, which offer guidance for working with individuals, couples and families who have backgrounds from more than one racial heritage, were developed by a task force made up of members of the ACA Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network, co-chaired by the Kenneys.

Counselors are going to have multiracial clients walking through their doors more and more frequently, says Mark Kenney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who is a professor and coordinator of the master’s program in psychology at Chestnut Hill College at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. That client might be a multiracial teenager who is struggling in school, a same-sex couple that has adopted a child of a different heritage or many other scenarios.

The ACA Code of Ethics’ call for counselors to be competent and ethical practitioners applies here, Mark says. Understanding and being sensitive to the multiracial experience “isn’t an option anymore,” he says. “This is an expectation with this population.”

“Historically, there has not been a good relationship between this community and the helping professions,” he adds. “Only within the last 20 years has there been better research and understanding of this population.”

Much of the talk leading up to the 2008 election of President Barack Obama – a man with a white mother and a black father – suggested that Americans still harbor significant misunderstandings about the biracial population, says Kelley Kenney, a full professor and program coordinator of student affairs in higher education at Kutztown University.

“There was a lot of discussion about [multiracial] couples and families, brought on by the fact that we had a man who was running for president who, oh by the way, just happened to be of multiple heritages,” Kelley says. “As recent as 2008, there was still a lot of bias and stereotyping going on.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in September 2014. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/via Flickr)

And we still hear it now. … We [counselors] hold the same biases, stereotypes and assumptions as the general public, based on misinformation we’ve gotten growing up.”

There is good news, however, Kelley says. The United States has come a long way since Loving v. Virginia, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The case, which made its way to the Supreme Court from Virginia, involved Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison for marrying each other in 1958.

Kelley noted that it was significant that she and her husband – an interracial couple – were interviewed by CT Online on June 12, the anniversary of the court decision, a day that is also referred to as Loving Day.

“We definitely know this is an ever-growing population,” she says. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of multiracial couples since 1967 when the Supreme Court decision was made. That alone speaks to and is the most compelling reason why these competencies are important. This population is here, they’re everywhere. … They have become a large segment of the U.S. population.”

 

Bridging the gap

The multiracial counseling competencies were developed by ACA’s Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network, of which the Kenneys are co-founders and facilitators. They started the interest network two decades ago with Bea Wehrly, author of the 1996 book Counseling Interracial Individuals and Families.

“As we’ve been working as a core group for the last 19 years, it’s really been our aim to promote and raise awareness and knowledge about this emerging and growing population,” says Kelley, a past member of ACA’s Governing Council. “That’s really how the idea for the competencies came about.”

In the nearly two decades since Wehrly’s 1996 book, Kelley notes, only two other titles have been published within the counseling profession about working with interracial clients, one of which the Kenneys co-wrote with Wehrly (Counseling Multiracial Families).

The competencies were written to help fill that void, she says, and to create a complete, accessible and up-to-date resource for counselors.

“We felt there was a need,” Kelley says. “In putting together a competencies document to be approved by the ACA Governing Council, we are able to provide a document that would be much more far-reaching than books. We are the only, as of this point, helping profession that has developed a set of competencies for working with this population. … Having Governing Council approval further elevates this population in the minds of the profession.”

The multiracial competencies, posted on the ACA website and available to the public, are the eighth set of competencies endorsed by ACA.

The Kenneys were part of a team of 14 people who developed, wrote and edited the multiracial counseling competencies over the past two years. Members of the Multiracial/Multiethnic Counseling Concerns Interest Network contributed to sections they specialize in, such as adoptive families, couples and so on (see sidebar, below).

The competencies are divided into sections focused on segments of the multiracial population: interracial couples, multiracial families and individuals, transracial adoptees and families. In addition to competencies specific to each segment of the population, the sections include information on the contextual framework used to inform and create the population’s competencies, language and definitions specific to the population and current issues and needs. The competencies’ bulleted points of information are further divided into subcategories for different aspects of the profession: research, group work, career development, assessment, ethical practice and so on.

The competencies are dedicated to Wehrly, who passed away in 2014.

 

A growing need

Americans were first allowed to select more than one race on census forms in 2000. Since that time, it has been found that the country’s multiracial population is growing three times as fast as the population as a whole.

In June, the Pew Research Center released a study that estimated multiracial adults currently make up 6.9 percent of the adult American population.

At the same time, the amount of research and data available to counselors about this population is behind the curve, the Kenneys agree.

There is very little on this topic in counseling journals, says Mark, and only recently have counseling textbooks begun to include chapters on working with multiracial clients. The Kenneys know this because they have been involved in writing for several counseling textbooks recently.

In years past, counselors searching for information on working with interracial couples would find Multiracial familyresearch only on couples in therapy in which one spouse was white and the other was black, Mark says.

“It was all pathology [and] the assumption that the offspring of multiracial couples will never find their identity in society,” he says. “We as a profession did not do a very good job – just as with the monoracial experience of race – in our society. We still have a problem of misdiagnosis and overdiagnosis.”

Although there is still a long way to go, there are signs of progress in some areas.

“This is not a group that is one size fits all. There might be over-research with one group [within the multiracial population], or under-research with another,” Mark says. “There is still a dearth of information to prepare counselors for counseling families after a transracial adoption. Most graduate programs don’t even go there, [but] there will be an increase going forward. A lot of [doctoral] dissertations are being written. Young professionals are the driving force.”

 

Becoming part of the solution

Above all, the Kenneys stress that counselors should be aware of their own biases when it comes to working with multiracial clients. Self-monitor and hold yourself accountable, Kelley advises.

“If you do happen to realize you’re working from a place of bias, now you have a resource” — the ACA competencies — “for gaining knowledge and skills for working with this population,” Kelley says. “This becomes a way to hold our profession accountable. … There is importance in the intentionality around, if you don’t know, acknowledging that you don’t know and taking the time to read up and consult research. For me, that’s the important piece. I’ve seen the impact of the harm that’s done, and I don’t want to continue to see that go on.”

“It’s the awareness piece,” Mark agrees, “making sure professionals are working from the most recent and complete research, not misunderstanding or holding assumptions.”

Additionally, counselors should understand that no two multiracial clients will have the same needs and sensitivities. For example, geography and social history may play a role. Some areas of the United States, such as the West Coast, have high numbers of multiracial families, while other regions have very few.

“As I’ve lived and learned and experienced this population, the takeaway for me is being aware of the diversity within the diversity in this community,” Mark says. “We’re not all having the same experience.”

It’s all contextual, he explains. For example, a person with a black/white identity will have different needs and experiences than a person with a white/Asian identity, and so on. Within this diversity, there will also be different needs for heterosexual couples versus LGBT couples, cisgender versus transgender individuals, etc.

“Therefore, you need to be open [and] truly empathically listening, allowing the story of the individual, couple or family to unfold in front of you,” Mark says. “Appreciate the strengths of the family or the individual couple. These individuals have strengths. Don’t forget to be listening for their strengths, in terms of how they journeyed to the point of coming to your office. Allow the individual, couple or family to come to their own determination of identity. [Their identity] is not for us to decide as counselors; it’s up to the individual or family, how they wish to come to their sense of who they are.”

 

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Find the full competencies on the ACA website.

 

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Contributors

The multiracial competencies were written by a team of 14 people, including:

  • Full document: Kelley R. Kenney and Mark E. Kenney
  • Editor: Carmen F. Salazar
  • Couples and families section: Mark E. Kenney, with team of Leah Brew, Mark L. Pope, Hank L. Harris, Cheryl L. Crippen and Stuart Chen-Hayes
  • Individuals section: Derrick A. Paladino, with Richard C. Henriksen Jr. and Anneliese A. Singh
  • Transracial adoptive families and individuals section: Amanda L. Baden, with Susan B. Alvarado and Krista M. Malott

 

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Related reading from the Pew Research Center:

 

Today’s multiracial babies reflect America’s changing demographics

 

Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers

 

 

Also, from the August 2014 issue of Counseling Today: “Counseling transracial adult adopted persons

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

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