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The historical roots of racial disparities in the mental health system

By Tahmi Perzichilli May 7, 2020

Racial disparities, or unfair differences, within the system of mental health are well documented. Research indicates that compared with people who are white, black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are:

  • Less likely to have access to mental health services
  • Less likely to seek out services
  • Less likely to receive needed care
  • More likely to receive poor quality of care
  • More likely to end services prematurely

Regarding racial disparities in misdiagnosis, black men, for example, are overdiagnosed with schizophrenia (four times more likely than white men to be diagnosed), while underdiagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and mood disorders. Additionally, concerns are compounded by the fact that for BIPOC, mental health care is often provided in prisons, which infers a multitude of issues.

BIPOC are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, as the system overlays race with criminality. Statistics show that over 50% of those incarcerated have mental health concerns. This suggests that rather than receiving treatment for mental illness, BIPOC end up incarcerated because of their symptoms. In jails and prisons, the standard of care for mental health treatment is generally low, and prison practices themselves are often traumatic.

The vast majority of mental health treatment providers in the United States are white. For example, approximately 86% of psychologists are white, and less than 2% of American Psychological Association members are African American. Some research has demonstrated that provider bias and stereotyping are relevant factors in health disparities. For nearly four decades, the mental health field has been called to focus on increasing cultural competency training, which has focused on the examination of provider attitudes/beliefs and increasing cultural awareness, knowledge and skills.

Despite such efforts, racial disparities still exist even after controlling for factors such as income, insurance status, age, and symptom presentation.Established barriers for BIPOC are the following:

  • Different cultural perceptions about mental illness, help-seeking behaviors and well-being
  • Racism and discrimination
  • Greater vulnerability to being uninsured, access barriers, and communication barriers
  • Fear and mistrust of treatment

In addition to emphasizing culturally competent services, other recommendations to bridging the gaps and addressing barriers have largely focused on diversifying workforces and reducing stigma of mental illness in communities of color.

One area not often noted is the historical (and traumatic) context of systemic racism within the institution of mental health, although it is well known that race and insanity share a long and troubled past. This focus may begin to account for how racial differences shape treatment encounters, or a lack thereof, even when barriers are controlled for and the explicit races of the provider and client are not at issue.

Historical context

In the United States, scientific racism was used to justify slavery to appease the moral opposition to the Atlantic slave trade. Black men were described as having “primitive psychological organization,” making them “uniquely fitted for bondage.”

Benjamin Rush, often referred to as the “father of American psychiatry” and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, described “Negroes as suffering from an affliction called Negritude.” This “disorder” was thought to be a mild form of leprosy in which the only cure was to become white. Ironically Rush was a leading mental health reformer and co-founder of the first anti-slavery society in America. Rush did observe, however, that “the Africans become insane, we are told, in some instances, soon after they enter upon the toils of perpetual slavery in the West Indies.”

In 1851, prominent American physician Samuel Cartwright defined “drapetomania” as a treatable mental illness that caused black slaves to flee captivity. He stated that the disorder was a consequence of slave masters who “made themselves too familiar with the slaves, treating them as equals.” Cartwright used the Bible as support for his position, stating that slaves needed to be kept in a submissive state and treated like children to both prevent and cure them from running away. Treatment included “whipping the devil out of them” as a preventative measure if the warning sign of “sulky and dissatisfied without cause” was present. Remedy included the removal of big toes to make running a physical impossibility.

Cartwright also described “dysaethesia aethiopica,” an alleged mental illness that was the proposed cause of laziness, “rascality” and “disrespect for the master’s property” among slaves. Cartwright claimed that the disorder was characterized by symptoms of lesions or insensitivity of the skin and “so great a hebetude [mental dullness or lethargy] of the intellectual faculties, as to be like a person half asleep.” Undoubtedly, whipping was prescribed as treatment. Furthermore, according to Cartwright dysaethesia aethiopica was more prevalent among “free negroes.”

The claim that those who were free suffered mental illness at higher rates than those who were enslaved was not unique to Cartwright. The U.S. census made the same claim, and this was used as a political weapon against abolitionists, although the claim was found to be based on flawed statistics.

Even at the turn of the 20th century, leading academic psychiatrists claimed that “negroes” were “psychologically unfit” for freedom. And as late as 1914, drapetomania was listed in the Practical Medical Dictionary.

Furthermore, after slavery was abolished, Southern states embraced the criminal justice system as a means of racial control. “Black codes” led to the imprisonment of unprecedented numbers of black men, women and children, who were returned to slavery-like conditions through forced labor and convict leasing that lasted well into the 20th century.

Scientific racism early on indicates motives of control and containment for profitability. Leading health professionals propagated the idea that blacks were “less than” to justify exploitation and experimentation. The mislabeling of behavior, such as escaping slavery, as a byproduct of mental illness did not stop there. Significant transformations in defining mental illness also occurred in the civil rights era, suggesting that institutional racism becomes more powerful in the context of moments of heightened racial tensions in the collective social consciousness.

Prior to the civil rights movement, schizophrenia was described as a largely white, docile and generally harmless condition. Mainstream magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s connected schizophrenia to neurosis and, as a result, attached the term to middle-class housewives.

Assumptions about the race, gender and temperament of schizophrenia changed beginning in the 1960s. The American public and the scientific community began to increasingly describe schizophrenia as a violent social disease, even as psychiatry took its first steps toward defining schizophrenia as a disorder of biological brain function. Growing numbers of research articles asserted that the disorder manifested by rage, volatility and aggression, and was a condition that afflicted “Negro men.” The cause of urban violence was now due to “brain dysfunction,” and the use of psychosurgery to prevent outbreaks of violence was recommended by leading neuroscientists.

Researchers further conflated the symptoms of black individuals with perceived schizophrenia of civil rights protests. In a 1968 article in the esteemed Archives of General Psychiatry, schizophrenia was described as a “protest psychosis” in which black men developed “hostile and aggressive feelings” and “delusional anti-whiteness” after listening to or aligning with activist groups such as Black Power, the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. The authors wrote that psychiatric treatment was required because symptoms threatened black men’s own sanity as well as the social order of white America.

Advertisements for new pharmacological treatments for schizophrenia in the 1960s and 1970s reflected similar themes. An ad for the antipsychotic Haldol depicted angry black men with clenched fists in urban scenes with the headline: “Assaultive and belligerent?” At the same time, mainstream white media was describing schizophrenia as a condition of angry black masculinity or warning of crazed black schizophrenic killers on the loose. A category of paranoid schizophrenia for black males was created, while casting women, neurotics and other nonthreatening individuals into other expanded categories of mood disorders.

The black psyche was increasingly portrayed as unwell, immoral and inherently criminal. This helped justify the need for police brutality in the civil rights movement, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration in prisons and psychiatric hospitals, which at times was an exceedingly thin line. In general, attempts to rehabilitate took a back seat to structural attempts to control. Some state hospitals, presided over by white male superintendents, employed unlicensed doctors to administer massive amounts of electroshock and chemical “therapies,” and put patients to work in the fields. Deplorable conditions went unchallenged as late as 1969 in some states.

Deinstitutionalization, a government policy of closing state psychiatric hospitals and instead funding community mental health centers, began in 1955. Over the next four decades, most state hospitals were closed, discharging those with mental illness and permanently reducing the availability of long-term inpatient care facilities. Currently, there are more than three times as many people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons than in hospitals. The shifts in defining what constitutes mental health reflects the reality that the definition is shaped by social, political and, ultimately, institutional factors in addition to chemical or biological ones.

Conclusion

Looking at the historical and systemic context of the mental health system may provide insight into why racial disparities continue to exist and why these disparities have been resistant to interventions such as cultural competency training and standardized diagnostic tools. Focusing primarily on the race of the provider and the client, while valid, is an approach that does not consider the system itself, the functions of the diagnosis, and its structurally developed links to protest, resistance, racism and other associations that work against the therapeutic connection.

Racial concerns, including overt racism at times, were written into the mental health system in ways that are invisible to us now. Understanding the past enables new ways of addressing current implications and identified barriers, including how schizophrenia became a “black disease,” why prisons emerged where hospitals once stood, and how racial disparities continue to exist in the mental health system today.

 

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Additional resources

 

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Tahmi Perzichilli is a licensed professional clinical counselor and licensed alcohol and drug counselor working as a psychotherapist in private practice in Minneapolis. Contact her through her website at www.tahmiperzichilli.com.

 

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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.

The psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on Asian Americans: Counselor interventions and considerations

By Adrianne L. Johnson April 27, 2020

April is Counseling Awareness Month, and every year, counselors dedicate efforts to promoting our profession through evaluation of service delivery, community promotion, and increased legislative advocacy efforts. This year, counselors are faced with an unprecedented challenge: to promote mental health while transitioning to telehealth session delivery, modeling physical distancing while closing cultural mental health gaps, and connecting clients with services from their own homes.

This is a critical time in our profession’s history, and we are needed now more than ever. Treatment is now largely shifting to a triage approach as counselors move to the front lines in psychosocial stabilization amid fear, isolation, anger, anxiety and depression.

One population being alarmingly affected is the Asian American population. The novel coronavirus global pandemic has observably spurred a stark increase in violent attacks on people of Asian descent. Xenophobic racism against Asian Americans has surged as the coronavirus sweeps the U.S., with reports of hate crimes averaging approximately 100 per day, according to Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

Counselors are now called upon to address the concerns of this population in our practice. Knowing the multicultural considerations of this population, and prioritizing culturally sensitive treatment approaches, has become an essential service now and for the foreseeable future.

Counselor advocacy

Through advocacy, we are able to influence the creation and delivery of transformative initiatives and programs that offer immediate and long-standing benefits to our clients. For example, we may lobby legislators to implement targeted mental health screening of at-risk populations, including clients with prior mental health diagnoses. The psychosocial needs and responses of Asian populations will be unique, and interventions should be trauma-focused, including components of building social support and community resources.

Address terminology: On March 20, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted to issue a statement expressing “grave concern” regarding “growing anti-Asian racism and xenophobia” related to the coronavirus pandemic. The commission suggested that using terminology such as “Chinese coronavirus,” “Wuhan flu” and “Yellow Peril” was fueling xenophobic animosity toward Asian-Americans. Using racially based language to describe a pandemic attaches ethnicity to a viral outbreak and contributes to the instigation of race-based assaults.

We have an ethical obligation as counselors to redirect the language of our colleagues and to address this language with our clients as our approaches and frameworks allow. Using proper, professional terminology for this pandemic and directly addressing defamatory language with clients can expand a culturally humble dialogue and allow clients to explore their fears and anxieties in the safety of our offices.

Offer trainings: We may also use our expertise to offer site training in trauma and crisis response to help educate the public and health care workers about how best to deal with the immense pressure and anxiety of Asian American families. This may help minimize the detrimental psychosocial response in these times of crisis.

The American Counseling Association has compiled a comprehensive database of trauma resources and continuing education opportunities for counselors. ACA states that “disasters tend to stress emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physiological, and religious/spiritual beliefs.” Among the tools provides are external trauma and disaster resources, disaster mental health resources, sheltering-in-place resources, and trauma-related articles from Counseling Today. The database also offers information on resiliency, grief, and helping survivors manage skills and healing.

Educating our colleagues on the disaster impact and recovery model has particularly relevant and important applications at this time. This model incorporates several phases of assessment and identification of trauma stages preceding anticipated grief.

Client interventions

Asian Americans are experiencing exhaustion from elevated fears of harm beyond microaggressions outside of the home. Stress-based responses to dramatic environmental changes often lead to a dissolution of coping skills that previously have served as protective factors for Asian American clients.

As global attention is largely focused on the active physical treatment and recovery of patients on a medical level, the cultural considerations of specific populations have largely been left unaddressed. Many symptoms of post-trauma will not present for several months. Until then, we can rely only on our knowledge of disaster models to meet the needs of these clients.

Currently, our focus should be on intervention and prevention through building resiliency, developing community support, and encouraging social connectivity during physical distancing. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Encourage individuals of Asian descent to reach out to one another through social media and other technologies to share experiences and feelings related to these fears and exposure to aggressive acts. It would be helpful to suggest joining an Asian American online community or advocacy organization to build feelings of self-agency and empowerment.
  • Introduce mindfulness. When our clients notice sensations in their bodies such as a tightening in the chest or quickened heart rate, the observation of these feelings can build insight into the triggers. This helps clients develop awareness and a heightened sense of mind-body connection. Introduce mindfulness activities such as breathing, body mapping, and concentration to help clients focus on emotional balance. When in public, clients are more likely to access rapid-action options when they are calm, instead of habitually relying on immediate defensive or avoidant impulses.
  • Directly address symptoms related to depression, anxiety and hypervigilance. Discussing these symptoms and suggesting evidence-based practices to aid in restoring rituals, connecting with family and friends, and incorporating spirituality may offer critical tools to prevent symptom-related impairment.
  • Prompt clients to lean into literature, such as Grace Lee Boggs, Maxine Hong Kingston and Thich Nhat Hanh. Understanding how others of Asian descent have persevered through pain and difficulty is emboldening in a time of isolation and disenfranchisement.
  • Be ready to discuss and disseminate resources on financial help, vocational disruption or academic distress, and maintenance of a cohesive family environment. Have handouts and weblinks prepared, phone numbers for emergency help and response, and community locations that will aid clients if they are in active crisis and cannot reach authorities or hospital treatment centers in their areas. As this public health crisis escalates, it is critical that Asian American clients have multiple resources on which they can rely for a sense of needed safety and security. 

Suicide prevention

The potential for suicide cannot be overlooked in this vulnerable, targeted population. Suicide screening should be done early and often. In Asian American clients, warning signs of suicidal ideation are often ignored because of stereotypes associated with Asian ethnicity. Counselors should approach the issue from a culturally informed perspective and consider intergenerational influences, pressures of perfection, collectivistic values, and the attributed image of being a “model minority.” The pressure of cultural expectations is elevated in times of severe stress and trauma exposure, and counselors should be direct when assessing risk factors, protective factors and treatment options.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health:

  • Asian American females in grades 9-12 are 20% more likely to attempt suicide compared with non-Hispanic white female students.
  • Southeast Asian refugees are at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with trauma experienced before and after immigration to the U.S. One study found that 70% of Southeast Asian refugees receiving mental health care were diagnosed with PTSD.

The American Psychological Association offers additional data:

  • Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian Americans ages 15-34, which is consistent with the national data across all racial/ethnic groups (the second-leading cause for those 15 to 24 years old and the third-leading cause for those 25-34).
  • Among all Asian-Americans, those ages 20-24 have the highest suicide rate (12.44 per 100,000).
  • Among females from all racial backgrounds between the ages of 65 and 84, Asian Americans have the highest suicide rate.

Counselors should remember the importance of confidentiality and informed consent as a delicate balance between rapport and mandated reporting. Two tools to consider using in suicide screening are the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality model and the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory−2.

Other counselor considerations

Compassion fatigue. Effectively managing our own emotional responses to trauma has been a focus of training and continuing education for professional counselors. As of today, the majority of counselors have transitioned to providing online telebehavioralhealth services to their regular caseloads and have taken on additional responsibilities in their communities, including providing crisis intervention for individuals whose exposure to sudden violence has superseded their ability to cope effectively.

This presents unique challenges for counselors who are experiencing multiple pressures to fulfill additional responsibilities for decompensating clients and new referrals. It is not uncommon for counselors to feel physical, emotional and psychological fatigue daily due to our deep concern for the safety and well-being of our Asian American clients during the current circumstances. Dennis Portney (2011) described compassion fatigue as “burnout plus the accumulation of stress resulting from empathizing with clients over time.” Compassion fatigue may appear suddenly and feel pervasive, interfering with normally ascribed self-care routines. To combat compassion fatigue, counselors need to affirm for themselves that commitment, not perfectionism, is the key to maintaining energy during this time.

Self-care. Counselors should consider the work they do as essential, necessary and sacred. And we cannot minimize, trivialize or dismiss our own emotional trauma-based reactions through overidentification and countertransference. We should commit to honor ourselves and our mental health, just as we do with our Asian American clients, and monitor our investment in their care within this framework. As our resilience wears down, we may see our usual compartmentalization skills regress into exhaustion, anxiety, impaired sleep, and reduced investment in client care.

Another important application of self-care is diligently reminding ourselves to practice what we preach. We need to apply our prescribed coping skills to our own daily routine during this time. Yoga, breathing techniques, visualization, and staying connected with positive, supportive groups builds our resiliency and reminds us of Irving Yalom’s key principle of universality. The incorporation of coping skills that Asian cultures embrace are applicable to our own lives and will ease our own trauma-based reactivity during this time.

Promoting posttraumatic growth for ourselves and our clients In the Counseling Today article “The transformative power of trauma” (2012), Lea Flowers and Gerard Lawson suggest that positive psychological change experienced as the result of a struggle with highly challenging life circumstances can lead to personal transformation as a by-product of the traumatic experience itself.

Focusing on the client’s growth, and not just the circumstances of xenophobically based violence, can help Asian American clients deliberately build a repository of demonstrated strengths and skills to help them reframe their experiences. These reframes will shape their reactions to future traumatic events and build emotional, psychological and mental resilience.

In the words of Lawson, “This is right in our wheelhouse as counselors. What are the strengths that this person continues to demonstrate despite their traumatic experience? We need to be deliberate about highlighting those for our clients.”

And ourselves as counselor.

 

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Adrianne L. Johnson is a licensed professional clinical counselor supervisor and an associate professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She is the past president (2018-2019) of the Ohio Counseling Association and the executive editor of the Journal of Counselor Practice. Contact her at adriannejohnson@gmail.com.

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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.

Five points of discussion for conversations about racial injustice

By Amanda L. Giordano April 10, 2019

When teaching multicultural counseling courses, I often get questions from White students about how they can leverage their White privilege to help change America’s broken social system that privileges some while oppressing others. In addition to continuing to explore their own White racial identities, I encourage these students to initiate conversations with other White people in their lives about racial injustice. As more White individuals become aware of their White privilege and the racial injustice that exists in our country, greater degrees of systemic change are possible.

Counselors and counselors-in-training are uniquely equipped to facilitate these discussions, given their strong interpersonal skills and passion for advocacy. The goal of the conversation is to invite White individuals to engage in a dialogue about systemic privilege and oppression rather than become defensive. In an effort to assist White individuals who desire to initiate conversations with other White people about racial injustice, this article provides five possible points of discussion.

 

1) What characteristics do we attribute to race? Since the start of this country, we have fallen prey to an insidious scheme based on faulty logic: attributing characteristics and behaviors to race that have no rational correlation. We do it so frequently and so automatically that it often goes unrecognized. For example, if a Latino contractor does not complete his work satisfactorily, we are tempted to conclude, “Latino contractors cannot be trusted.” We erroneously attribute personal work ethic to race. Or, if we are cut off in traffic by a Black woman, we somehow link her behavior to the fact that she is Black rather than to an isolated driving decision.

When we pause and reflect on what characteristics and behaviors we attribute to race, we may be surprised by what we find. Logically, we know that skin color, eye shape and hair texture have no correlation with an individual’s morality, intelligence or trustworthiness — yet we have been socialized to make these associations. This is something that we need to unlearn.

Consider what would happen if someone watched a documentary about Charles Manson and concluded that he was a cult leader because he was White. We likely would explain that Manson’s role as a cult leader was the result of myriad factors (psychological state, early childhood experiences, environment, etc.) and that his behavior cannot be attributed to his race. In the same way, we need to examine the correlations we make between a person’s race and her or his personal characteristics or behaviors. How logical are these attributions? 

2) Do we desire people of color to “act White”? Many White people are genuinely trying to learn how to be culturally competent, but sometimes they can get stuck in a particular mentality: “I enjoy diversity … just as long as people of color act/talk/think in ways that I am familiar with.” Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we may encourage people of color to deemphasize their unique cultural identities to fit into the mold of White cultural norms. As a result, many people of color expend a lot of energy working to make White people feel comfortable around them (such as expressing only certain aspects of themselves while in the company of White individuals).

What is the cause of our desire for people of color to “act White”? It’s likely that we feel more at ease with what is familiar to us. There is a certain way of being that we deem “normal,” and it makes us comfortable when people behave accordingly. Therefore, the desire for people of color to “act White” is for our comfort.

Sadly, we rarely consider the discomfort that people of color face as they navigate White cultural norms every day. Often, their culturally diverse ways of being are not reflected back by those around them. As a result, people of color are forced to learn all the nuances of White cultural norms, whereas White individuals know very little about the cultural norms of other racial/ethnic groups.

What would it be like to let go of the strong grasp we have on our own cultural preferences and enter into the preferences of others (despite the unfamiliarity)? “Different” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “negative”; different can be exciting, invigorating, enlightening. Can we create space for all people to be proud of their cultural identities and to express those identities in whatever ways they choose?

3) Do we acknowledge that multiple interpretations exist for past and current events? Education is an amazing gift, and the opportunity to learn is something we should never take for granted or outgrow. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the stories we’ve read and the accounts we’ve learned in school represent one perspective, one side of the story. Authors of textbooks and class curricula write from their own frames of reference — they are not neutral, blank slates who simply report the facts. These authors make interpretations, derive meaning and present information from their personal lenses. It is important to consider that authors from different cultural backgrounds may have different interpretations, derive different meanings and present information differently, simply due to their frame of reference.

Consider an example from history: the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Depending on the perspective of the storyteller, this could have been a brutal uprising against the Spanish who were dedicated to bettering the community (Spanish as protagonists) or a liberating revolt in which oppressed Pueblo Native Americans took back the land that was rightfully theirs (Native Americans as protagonists). There are always multiple perspectives to every event, and it is important for us to consider differing viewpoints. Can we concede that what we think we know is only one perspective and that multiple, equally valid viewpoints exist?

4) Does defensiveness keep us from truly listening to people of color? It is important to consider what comes up for us when we hear people of color share their experiences of oppression. If our initial response is defensiveness, it is likely that our focus in that moment is off. Rather than focusing on the lived experience of the speaker, we are focused on what the information says about us. We are not attending to the oppression of our neighbors and how they feel; instead, we are attending to the impact of the information on our own sense of self.

One strategy that can help us maintain the proper focus is to listen with the goal of understanding rather than evaluating. Often when we listen, we are evaluating what we have just heard (Is this information right or wrong? Do I agree or disagree? What does this mean about me?) and simultaneously developing responses and counterpoints in our head. This process keeps the focus on us — our reactions, our beliefs and our assessment — and gets in the way of truly listening. There certainly are times when evaluation in conversation is necessary, but when people of color are sharing their experiences of oppression, it is more helpful to listen with the intent to understand, not to evaluate.

If we feel ourselves becoming defensive, we should do a quick mental check-in: “Am I evaluating what is being said and focusing on what it means about me?” If so, perhaps we should press pause and mentally switch our focus back to the speaker (“What was that like for her? How did she feel when it happened? How did this experience affect her life?”). When a person of color shares her or his experience, can we truly listen with the goal of understanding rather than evaluating?

5) We could do nothing about racial injustice, but do we want to? If we are honest, we all know that something is wrong with our social system. It is clear that people are treated differently as a result of their race. Consider two high school students (one White and one Black) who get caught with marijuana. Sadly, it is more likely that one of these students will be sent home with a warning (to a family who will “get him back on track”), while the other will be ushered into the criminal justice system. Or consider two identically qualified job applicants — one with the last name Jones and the other with the last name Hussain — who submit their résumés for an open position. Again, it is likely that one will get the interview because he seems like a “better fit,” whereas the other will stay on the job market.

We know, just by looking at the world around us, that inequity exists and that things are unjust. We also know that we can go our whole lives without saying or doing anything about it. We can choose to live in silent disapproval and never challenge the status quo, but is that what we want? Saying and doing nothing despite evidence of racial injustice likely means that we are living in opposition to our values (e.g., equality, justice, respect for the innate worth of all human beings), which can lead to incongruence and cognitive dissonance.

Also, if we allow our unjust system to continue, we likely will never experience the true joy that comes from living in a diverse community and celebrating cultural differences. We will not have the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives or to feel the excitement of experiencing new cultural norms. We may never form deep, meaningful relationships with those from different racial/ethnic backgrounds or experience the gifts that come only through diverse friendships. If we remain silent, we may be living life, but are we living it to its fullest? Those with privilege have a responsibility to leverage their unearned advantages to combat injustice and oppression. What does that look like for us personally?

There are many more talking points to consider, but these might help start conversations with White people in our spheres of influence. Let’s remember that as counselors, we have a unique set of interpersonal skills that can be extremely useful when facilitating conversations about racial injustice. We are primed to listen well, validate, and gently present alterative viewpoints. Perhaps we can all commit to using our skills to facilitate meaningful dialogue that could lead to lasting, systemic change.

 

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Amanda L. Giordano is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include addictions counseling, multiculturalism, and religious and spiritual issues in counseling. She is a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor. Contact her at amanda.giordano@uga.edu.

 

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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.

Counseling individuals of African descent

By Malik Aqueel Raheem and Kimberly A. Hart March 5, 2019

In 1963, James Baldwin wrote that to be Black and relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all the time. The historical record of people of African descent is filled with triumphs and trials. The great empires and kingdoms of Africa, including Egypt, Mali and the Moors, experienced vast triumphs. Records of tremendous successes, such as those led by Mansa Musa, Hannibal, Queen Nana Yaa Asantewa, Shaka Zulu and Amenhotep IV, demonstrate the great history of people of African descent prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade had a unique impact on Africa and on individuals of African descent. Historians report that Brazil was one of the last governments to make slavery illegal in the Americas, in 1888. However, long after slavery formally ended in the United States — in 1865 with ratification of the 13th Amendment — the psychosocial oppression of people of African descent continued. For the next 100 years, Black codes and Jim Crow laws were influential in creating a second-class citizenship for people of African descent. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed, appearing to offer the full promise of freedom, but the civil right for freedom remained existent in theory only. A separate existence dominated by institutional racism — highlighted by such laws and policies as redlining, the federal crime bill of 1994 and the school-to-prison pipeline — was the actualized manifestation of post-slavery experience for many individuals of African descent.

In 1991, the movie Boyz N the Hood included an opening scene of four young males of African descent walking through the neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles. This could have been any urban area in America during the height of the crack epidemic and the infamous “war on drugs.” One of the four young men shows his peers the remains of a dead body among the weeds of an empty lot. Similar scenes have transpired regularly across the United States and throughout the African diaspora. It stands as one example of the trauma being experienced in many urban areas and inner cities today.

The crises of institutionalized racism, race-based oppression and racial trauma are significant aspects of the intersectionality of individuals of African descent. Counselors need to understand the meaning and impact of this intersectionality on the students and clients they counsel. Understanding the core constructs of historical and complex crisis and trauma for individuals of African descent who present in counseling is an essential phase for developing counselor efficacy.

Definitions

The information presented in this article can be understood and discussed using the definitions that follow. Scholars such as Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda have contributed to critical race theory. According to the theory, racism has three levels: institutional, individual and internalized. Racism is to be understood as discrimination, marginalization or oppression inequitably inflicted upon individuals identified as belonging to a socially constructed racial category. Racism requires the combination of prejudice, power, access and privilege. For an individual to be racist, he or she must have access to an element of power and privilege to oppress the group being prejudicially discriminated against.

In the 2007 article “Racial microaggressions in everyday life,” Derald Wing Sue and colleagues defined racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities that are used, unintentionally or intentionally, to communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults to the targeted person or group based on their socially constructed racial category.

In 2003, William Smith coined the phrase racial battle fatigue. The term captures the psychological attrition that people of color experience in their daily encounters as they try to deflect racial insults, stereotypes and discrimination. Racial battle fatigue is the cumulative debilitating effect of being on guard against attacks about or because of one’s socially constructed racial category. It is also a theoretical framework for examining social-emotional-psychological stress responses such as frustration, anger, exhaustion, physical avoidance, psychological withdrawal, acceptance of racial stereotypes, and verbal, nonverbal or physical fighting back related to the experience of racism and racial microaggressions in acute episodes or chronic intervals.

Culture is a collective constellation of behavioral norms, values, spirituality, traditions, history, language and unique variables such as food, music, dance and clothing that guide and influence a people’s cognitive and affective complexity. This in turn determines their behavioral response to life circumstances. Culture frequently is identified by ethnic populations. However, the concept of culture is not restricted by ethnic groupings. Microcultural norms influence the unique intersectionality experiences of microcommunities and individuals within identified cultural groups.

Intersectionality is a term coined by Crenshaw in 1989. It is used to recognize systemic influences on individual identity, positionality, access and experience narratives. The primary influence on Crenshaw’s discussion of intersectionality was the exclusion of differential narratives of women of African descent during the feminist movement in the United States. Intersectionality is used in identification of nonmajority sociopolitical experiences that were suppressed by individuals operating from racist and heterosexist sociopolitical majority narratives. Intersectionality is understood to encompass microcultural influences such as religious diversity, nation of origin diversity, gender expression diversity, sexual orientation diversity, ethnic diversity and generational diversity.

White supremacy is the belief and practice that individuals who racially identify as White are superior to all other races, especially to people of African descent or Black people. Within this belief system, people of Whiteness and White culture are considered rightful dominators in dictating normalcy and social policies. Neely Fuller said, “If you do not understand White supremacy, what it is and how it works, everything else you think you understand will confuse you.” The supremacy of Whiteness, like racial categorization, is a sociocultural myth. Nevertheless, these constructs influence trauma.

Trauma is defined as an emotional response to distressing or life-threatening events. Traumatic events overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, leaving the person fearful of injury, mutilation or death. Trauma has affective, cognitive and behavioral influences on human development and functioning. Some trauma is communal in that a collective of individuals sharing some community or temporal space connection is affected by a single traumatic event (e.g., the trans-Atlantic slave trade). Individual trauma affects one individual at one point in time. Complex trauma is identified by compound experiences (i.e., more than one traumatic event is experienced before the healing of a previous trauma or serves to restimulate a traumatic response to a distressing event that was previously managed). Trauma can manifest through vicarious experiences, transgenerational events or the experience of persistent adverse events that may not have been traumatic in isolation. There are different types of trauma and levels of traumatic responses. Trauma is individualized on the basis of perceptions of events and the person’s ability to cope in the present moment of the crisis.

Race-related trauma

A multicultural assessment of problematic behavior for people of African descent should not be limited to a description of mental and emotional deficits or to observations of atypical externalized behaviors. An accurate multicultural assessment must include responses to psychosocial and environmental conditions in which the observed behavior might be a normative and rational response. Behavioral pathology of people of African descent can be a consequence of ecological systems rather than intrapsychological deficits.

Racism is a psychological disease; racism is pathology cultivated through transgenerational neglect, and it has negative influences on perpetrators of racism, victims of racism and racism survivors. Unfortunately, as individuals in society have refused treatment for so long, people of African descent have continued to experience overt and covert culture-deteriorating suffering and trauma as the result of being targets of racism. Racism is both extremely common and extremely complex. Racism is entrenched in societal history, institutions and policies, with the exerted supremacy of Whiteness perpetrated and perpetuated as a societal norm.

Racism is pathology of power marked by ignorance. In 2013, racism scholar and healing racism advocate Lee Mun Wah described the privilege of numbness as an outcome of racism that is experienced by individuals of Whiteness. The privilege of numbness is a paradoxical term used to articulate the adverse impact of racism that influences the ability of individuals of Whiteness to perpetuate racism. Privilege in this equation of racism is one’s positionality of normativity. This privilege is the gift of psychological and emotional numbness resulting in not having to think about:

  • The construct of race or racism
  • How racism is oppressive
  • How complicit and explicit racists are advantaged in direct relationship to the oppressive trauma of individuals of African descent

This article focuses on direct counseling for individuals of African descent. However, it should be noted that healing the trauma of racism needs to include healing the numbness of racists. In general, this includes individuals of Whiteness within institutions of Whiteness reallocating their forcibly gained and complicity perpetuated power that has been used for oppressing individuals through policies and institutional norms.

Individuals of African descent commonly experience racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are communications of assumptions, including assumptions of intellectual inferiority, assumptions of criminality, assumed superiority of White values and culture, and assumed universality of the Black experience. People of African descent experience unrelenting forms of direct, vicarious and institutional oppression, marginalization, discrimination and microaggressions. Many of these incidents manifest as hypersurveillance, stigmatization, provocative irritations and recurrent indignities, and people of African descent experience these microaggressions daily. Microaggressive events can accumulate and compound into experiences of racial battle fatigue and race-based trauma, some of which is experienced by a collective group of individuals during the same time period.

Community-experienced trauma

One example of community trauma is the economic devastation in communities of people of African descent resulting from periods of deindustrialization in many urban areas. The convergence of deindustrialization and racial desegregation created losses in vital social and economic capital among communities of African descent. Increases in unemployment and underemployment quickly snowballed into lost wealth and concentrated poverty within communities of African descent.

Although deindustrialization was not targeted racism, the intersection of racism was a compounding factor in the unfortunate and traumatic impact on communities of African descent. Within this atmosphere of community poverty and a reduction in already sparse resources, a dynamic and traumatic upsurge of violence, drugs and institutionalized mass incarceration was also experienced in many of these communities.

Another example of community trauma is manifested through interpersonal violence and economic deprivation within communities of African descent. Men of African descent are the primary targets of this trauma. Nonetheless, women and children of African descent are also exposed to violence in the streets, violence in the schools and violence in the homes. The violence experienced within communities of African descent is a multifaceted intersection of trauma. Structural and institutional racism and oppression have created pandemic conditions of poverty and violence in these communities. By oppressive design, these communities have been deprived access to develop viable, legal and consistent wealth-producing economic avenues. Racist, oppressive and marginalized social structures have translated into drug, sex and weapons trafficking becoming the most consistently accessible sources of economic survival for communities of African descent.

Men of African descent

Men of African descent are disproportionately represented among both perpetrators and victims of violent crimes. According to the National Center for Health Statistics in 2017, men of African descent were nine times more likely than White men to be victims of homicide. Historically, men of African descent were (and continue to be) feared as a threat to the status quo of White supremacy. This social fear remains cloaked in racial stereotypes today. Stereotypically, men of African descent are prejudicially viewed as intimidating, scary and dangerous.

Educational disparities have created a cultural experience known as the school-to-prison pipeline within communities of African descent. The school-to-prison pipeline refers to policies and practices that push children at risk for school failure and civic disengagement due to poverty and marginalization out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Current policies such as “zero tolerance” in disciplinary actions have resulted in more suspensions, expulsions and even arrests by law enforcement officers who are typically assigned to schools in areas that are predominantly populated by people of African descent. Students of African descent are six times more likely than White students to be affected by such policies.

Women of African descent

Multigenerational and transgenerational trauma — in the form of coercive segregation of female/male units during slavery, lynchings, sexual violence, murder and intimate partner violence in different forms — have historically been a part of life for women of African descent.

It was previously documented that women on average made 71 cents to every dollar that men made; in comparison, women of color made 65 cents. Reports in 2018 included a marginal increase, with women in America making an average of 80 cents for every dollar that men made. However, that average included a decrease for women of African descent, who received only 63 cents per dollar that men made.

Violence perpetrated by men who are usually their community partners is one of the leading causes of death among women of African descent. A complicated lack of protection from men who were their life mates was a strategy that slave owners and post-slavery oppressors used to dismantle communities of African descent. This also prolonged trauma responses within these communities.

Another part of the marginalization and trauma for women of African descent involves their social image. Within literature and media, Black women are often stereotyped as one of four archetypes: Jezebel, Mammy, Matriarch and Sapphire. Jezebel is characterized as a woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon. Although these women do not necessarily engage in sexual relations, they utilize the lure of sexual possibility and overt sexual innuendo to navigate access and fulfillment of their life desires. Mammy is the woman primarily observed in roles of upkeeping other households; historically, she was the maintainer of a White family’s home and children. The Matriarch is the head of household of the Black family. Also called Medea or big momma, these woman provide protection, wisdom, connection, gospel and community history to the family.

Traditional family structures within communities of African descent include extended family units that are seamlessly interwoven into the family concept. The Matriarch was often the oldest living woman in the family unit, whereas Sapphires were usually women who had an aggressive attitude toward men. These woman were full-hearted and physically strong. They often worked to match men in traditionally male roles, which is often portrayed as an emasculation of their male counterparts. Sapphires are also portrayed as lacking maternal drive and striving for individual equality to the point of pushing men away. The strength and community utility of these archetypes are frequently ignored, whereas exoticism and exploitation of these stereotypes are perpetuated as a means of ongoing marginalization of women of African descent.

Counseling approaches and interventions

As individuals of African descent experience various adversities, crises and traumas related to racism and cultural discrimination on individual, community and generational levels, counselors can offer supports for healing trauma. Counselors must be aware of this history and the current sociopolitical institutions that traumatize and retraumatize individuals of African descent before healing work can begin.

Postmodern, humanistic and cognitive approaches have proved to be efficacious for counseling people of African descent. Other approaches are also being used with this population, however. For example, an African-centered psychological approach has been created as an alternative paradigm. This approach is grounded in traditional African spiritual philosophy but can easily be adapted for the specific religion/spirituality of the person of African descent. Because counseling is a sacred and spiritual relationship between the counselor and the client, it is important that the foundation of the therapeutic relationship be built on authenticity, trust and respect. Important interventions for counseling individuals of African descent include a focus on identity congruence, invitation for repair and the use of spiritual or religious connections salient to the individual or community.

Identity congruence: Culturally competent counselors need to be knowledgeable and sensitive to ethnic and racial issues. Ethnic identity is an aspect of a person’s social identity and self-concept derived from knowledge of their membership in a social group and the value and emotional significance they attach to that membership. Racial identity is one’s psychological response to one’s race. Racial identity reflects the extent to which the person identifies with a particular racial or ethnic group, the person’s self-perceptions because of their identified race and how that identification influences perceptions, emotions and behaviors toward people from other racial/ethnic groups.

Invitation for repair: Multicultural competence principles are rooted in internal awareness and critical reflexivity. Counselors must be aware of their biases and sociopolitical blind spots that might affect the therapeutic relationship. Multiculturally therapeutic relationships can be established using invitation for repair, as described by Malik Aqueel Raheem, Charles Myers and Scott Wickman in 2015.

Invitation for repair is acknowledging that overt and possibly covert differences in experiences exist between the mental health professional and the client. The invitation involves requesting that the client correct the counselor if the client feels that the counselor is not connecting or does not have empathy for the client’s intersectionality. Multicultural social justice principles exhort counselors to become more active advocates in addressing the institutional and environmental factors that influence client distress and trauma.

Spirituality and religion: A protective factor for many people of African descent is their connection between spirituality and psychological well-being. Research has shown that people of African descent are able to regulate and resolve distress through the practice of their spirituality or religious beliefs. Counselors should inquire about and create intervention opportunities that infuse these religious or spiritual norms. This approach will help to develop and maintain therapeutic alliance and efficacious therapeutic outcomes.

According to John Dillard, spirituality is a view of an individual’s place in the universe or a personal inclination or desire for a relationship with a transcendent power or God. Religion is an organized social means through which people express spiritual beliefs. Spirituality and religion do not necessarily have positive correlations for people of African descent. Spirituality can be experienced independent of religious contexts, and not all religions promote spirituality as part of their practices. However, many individuals of African descent are simultaneously religious and spiritual.

A majority of people of African descent identify as Christian from various religious microcultures of Christianity. There is also a movement toward infusing traditional African spirituality into some of their Christian practices. In addition, many in the African diaspora were from West African, and it is estimated that 30 percent of these Africans who were brought to the Americas were Muslim. In Islam, Sufism is the more mystical aspect of the religion. It is believed that the spiritual aspect of Sufism helps the Muslim to have a deeper and stronger connection with Allah (God). In 2018, scenes from the movie Black Panther depicted visitations to the “ancestral plane.” While in the ancestral plane, individuals could discuss issues with their ancestors. The belief that ancestors are ever-present and guiding forces is common among individuals of African descent. The tradition of libations (the ritual pouring of a liquid or other element to honor ancestors) or the West African practices of Vodun (more commonly known as Voodoo in the United States) may also be relevant for some clients of African descent.

Summary

As counselors work with individuals of African descent, acknowledgment of racism and oppressive structures that influence clients’ trauma experiences and trauma responses is vital to building therapeutic alliance. Interventions such as invitation for repair are most effective when used in the present moment of a psychological, affective or behavioral injury to the individual or the therapeutic relationship. Humanistic counseling approaches, including validation and implementation of relevant spiritual or religious practices, have also been shown to be effective for working with individuals of African descent.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Malik Aqueel Raheem has more than 10 years of clinical experience and seven years as a professional counselor educator at California State University, Fresno. Contact him at malik2xl@gmail.com.

Kimberly A. Hart focuses on multicultural inclusion as an area of counseling practice, counselor preparation and research. She provides presentations and training on mental health and intersectionality. Contact her at hartkimberly27@gmail.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@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.

Addressing ethnic self-hatred in Latinx undergraduates

By Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado September 3, 2018

When Europeans first made contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a path toward Eurocentrism was set in the Western Hemisphere. In the years since the conquest and colonization of North America and the establishment of the United States, the cultural values and social policies of this country have favored people of Western European heritage.

Although the sociopolitical and cultural superiority of Europeans validates the experience of white Americans, these edicts render Latinx communities marginalized or invisible. What is worse, people of Latinx descent might come to accept the superiority of the white population. When this occurs, a person is said to have internalized racism.

In the 2006 article “Naming racism: A conceptual look at internalized racism in U.S. schools,” Lindsay Pérez Huber, Robin N. Johnson and Rita Kohli defined internalized racism as “the conscious and unconscious acceptance of a racial hierarchy in which whites are consistently ranked above People of Color. … It is the internalization of the beliefs, values and worldviews inherent in white supremacy.”

Internalized racism is thought to have negative physical and psychological consequences for people of color. Even so, the bulk of the research on internalized racism has focused on communities of African descent. Most of this research can be credited to Jerome Taylor, as either he conducted these studies or other researchers used his survey instrument, the Nadanolitization scale, to assess internalized racism.

Research studies have linked internalized racism in communities of African descent with increased abdominal fat, higher glucose levels and larger waist circumference, which are indicators of more serious health concerns. Additionally, internalized racism has been linked to marital dissatisfaction, increased depressive symptoms, increased stress, decreased self-esteem and decreased life satisfaction. In one of the few studies examining internalized racism in Latinx communities, I found that internalized racism was negatively related to ethnic identity development among Latinx undergraduates.

Although it appears that internalized racism has a negative impact on communities of color, we do not know why racism gets internalized. Two prominent theories are that 1) exposure to racism leads to its internalization and 2) acculturation to a racist society leads to the internalization of racist values. The exposure to racism hypothesis is largely grounded in social conditioning, in which repeated exposure to racism ultimately leads an individual to accept racist notions as truth. The acculturation hypothesis argues that by adopting the values of a racist society, the individual must accept racist notions in conjunction.

The research

Given the limited research on internalized racism in Latinx communities and the desire to better understand why racism is internalized, I undertook a study guided by two research questions:

1) Does exposure to racism predict the internalization of racism in Latinx undergraduates?

2) Does acculturation to U.S. society predict the internalization of racism in Latinx undergraduates?

(A quick note on usage of the word Latinx. Spanish is a gendered language with masculine and feminine pronouns; some readers might be more familiar with the usage of Latina and Latino, for example. To break from these gendered conventions and to be more inclusive of folks who do not identify strictly with one gender, scholars and activists have called for the usage of Latinx.)

Participants in this study were recruited from college Latinx student organizations. Using a variety of group email lists, I reached out to faculty and student advisers at two- and four-year colleges and universities and solicited their aid in recruiting potential participants. In total, 350 first-generation Latinx students participated in this study. These participants represented 93 universities from 29 states. All of the participants self-identified as Latinx. Furthermore, 75.7 percent of the participants identified as female, 20.6 percent identified as male, 0.3 percent identified as transgender and 1.1 percent identified as other (2.3 percent of participants declined to identify). The average age of participants was 21.81.

Participants completed an online survey consisting of the Everyday Discrimination Scale (EDS), the Abbreviated Multidimensional Acculturation Scale (AMAS) and the Mochihua Tepehuani scale. Furthermore, I used hierarchical linear regression in an attempt to answer my research questions regarding the cause of internalized racism. The Mochihua Tepehuani, a revised version of the Nadanolitization scale adapted to assess internalized racism in Latinx communities, acted as the criterion variable in the analysis. The EDS assessed exposure to racial discrimination. The AMAS was used to assess participants’ degree of acculturation to U.S. culture and values. Both exposure to racism and acculturation acted as predictor variables in this study.

Through hierarchical linear regression, I was able to assess the strength of the overall model with both exposure to racism and acculturation acting as predictors of internalized racism and the individual impact of the two predictor variables. Although the overall model was statistically significant, the amount of variance accounted for by this model was slight (R2 = .06, p < .001). This means that the relationship between the predictor and criterion variables is not likely due to chance, but that the predictive power of combined variables is small. Individually, exposure to racism (β = .14, p < .05) and acculturation (β = .20, p < .001) were significant predictors. In this case, a one standardized point change in exposure to racism or acculturation produced a .14 or .20 standardized point change, respectively, in the internalized racism scores of participants.

Based on these results, it appears that both research questions can be answered in the affirmative: Both exposure to racism and acculturation to U.S. society predict internalized racism in Latinx undergraduate students.

Interrupting racism’s impacts

Although most counselors might intuitively know that racism negatively affects Latinx undergraduates, the findings of this study provide empirical evidence of racism’s impacts. Furthermore, the impacts of racism — hurt feelings, a sense of exclusion and the like — are not fleeting. Rather, the impacts linger in the minds of Latinx undergraduates. Over time, the cumulative impacts of racist encounters can lead to the internalization of racism, ultimately steering Latinx undergraduates to conscious or unconscious acceptance of the cultural and intellectual superiority of whites.

To intervene in the internalization of racism, counselors are encouraged to help Latinx undergraduates talk through instances of discrimination. This begins with validating students’ perceptions that they have experienced racism. The challenge with processing incidences of discrimination is that racism can be subtle and subjective — as in the case of microaggressions. This inability to objectively say that a racist incident has occurred might lead some individuals to dismiss or downplay the incident.

Recently, I was working with a university student who shared a story of experiencing discrimination on campus. The student, uncertain of how to make sense of the event, shared her experience with a good friend, who immediately told her she was making a big deal out of nothing. After talking through these events with me, the student came to the realization that her friend’s reaction was more hurtful than the original discriminatory event had been. When processing an incidence of racism, it is important to remember that the perception of the event can be more important than the facts of the event. Therefore, a microaggression might not be a big deal for me as a Chicano counselor who has dealt with racism all of my life, but it could be a huge deal for a student who is experiencing racism for the first time. As such, we should take time to validate the perceptions of the student.

Another strategy I have found useful in helping Latinx undergraduates process incidences of discrimination is to examine the source of racist notions. Beverly Tatum (in her classic text Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?) explained that biased thoughts are a product of limited information. From this perspective, bias is a product of the perpetrator’s ignorance; the person possesses limited information about the Latinx community and has made a gross generalization.

After talking through a student’s emotions surrounding an incident of discrimination, I will introduce Tatum’s perception of bias. My hope is for the student to realize that racism is not the student’s fault. It is not a reflection of the student’s culture or heritage, but instead is the product of a biased perpetrator and a racist society. This typically alleviates some of the student’s stress and allows the student to see the interaction in a new light.

Avoiding assimilation

The melting pot and other assimilationist notions can be viewed as an American ideal. Assimilation tends to gain popularity in communities of color during periods of heightened racism. Since the presidential election of 2016, Latinx communities have faced an onslaught of racist depictions by politicians and media outlets. This is especially true of the Mexican community, whose members have been described as drug dealers, rapists and murderers by President Donald Trump.

In an attempt to avoid racism and discrimination, Latinx parents might try to expedite assimilation in their children by promoting the adoption of traditional American cultural values and the abandonment of Latinx values. The belief is that Americanization will enable Latinx youth to pass as Americans and avoid racism. Alas, the promotion of assimilation leads to the portrayal of American culture as being superior to Latinx culture — the very definition of internalized racism described earlier.

Unfortunately, some Latinx individuals are overdetermined by their physical features; dark-skinned folks such as myself can never pass as Euro American. Regardless of attempts to assimilate, we will always be recognized for our cultural heritage. As such, an assimilationist upbringing can backfire if Latinx students experience rejection from their white peers for being too brown. These same students can then also be excluded by their Latinx peers for not being Latinx enough. In part for this reason, I encourage counselors to help Latinx families take a strength-based perspective on their cultural heritage and to look to biculturalism over assimilation.

Assimilationist notions also have a history in higher education. Respected higher education scholar Vincent Tinto described the need for students to assimilate to the college campus and leave the home culture behind to be successful and persist to graduation. Alas, campus climates are a reflection of Euro-American values. Higher education personnel who promote an assimilationist agenda of higher education success also promote notions of American cultural superiority, thus increasing the Americanization of Latinx undergraduates and, potentially, increasing the internalization of racism.

Fortunately, higher education scholars such as Sylvia Hurtado have recognized the flaws in Tinto’s early work and promoted models of student engagement that recognize the positive influence of cultural heritage, family and community. Furthermore, Hurtado and her colleagues have argued that assimilationist models do not accurately account for the success and persistence of students of color in higher education.

Based on the work of Hurtado, a multidimensional approach might be better for promoting the success of Latinx undergraduates and avoiding the internalization of racism. In a multidimensional approach, Latinx students are encouraged to retain their ethnic culture, remain engaged with cultural support systems and view culture as a resource in promoting their academic success. Similarly, undergraduates learn about the culture of their institution and the skills necessary for them to successfully navigate higher education. A significant body of research supports this multidimensional approach, but for this perspective to be successful, higher education personnel must recognize the value of traditional support systems.

A first step toward this is helping Latinx students recognize the value of their culture and heritage. This can include promotion of Latinx ethnic identity, such as exploring what it personally means to be Latinx and building connections with other Latinx students, for example. Positive Latinx ethnic identity is linked to increased persistence in higher education and higher GPA and might also block the internalization of racism.

Second, institutions of higher education can also work to affirm Latinx culture on campus. This includes holding cultural celebrations; recognizing the achievements of Latinx students, staff, faculty and community members; and providing space for Latinx students to study and socialize.

Finally, higher education personnel can find ways to collaborate with Latinx families and communities.

These combined interventions signal to Latinx students that their culture and community are of value, reducing the perceived superiority of whiteness and, subsequently, blocking the internalization of racism.

Conclusion

Although counselors might intuitively know that racism and internalized racism negatively affect Latinx undergraduates, the full impact of internalized racism will remain unknown until additional research is conducted. Within the context of higher education, it would be helpful to know how internalized racism influences academic performance and persistence. In addition, it would be helpful to know how internalized racism affects self-esteem, academic self-efficacy and depression. Finally, knowing how and why racism is internalized might lead to better strategies to interrupt this process.

Although additional research is needed on the topic of internalized racism in Latinx undergraduates, this study represents an important step in empirically documenting factors that lead to the internalization of racism. It is my hope that this article inspires counselors to consider the impacts of internalized racism and strategies that they might take to help Latinx undergraduates avoid internalized racism.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences

Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado is associate professor in counseling at the University of Colorado Denver. He researches the ethnic identity development of Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, the effects of internalized racism on students of color, the sociopolitical development of students of color and how to improve the cultural competence of counselors. He currently serves as the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development representative on the ACA Governing Council and is the past chair of the ACA Foundation. Contact him at carlos.hipolito@ucdenver.edu or on Twitter @DrCarlosHD.

Letters to the editor: ct@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.