Tag Archives: Multiculturalism & Diversity

Multiculturalism & Diversity

Counseling while Black

By Lindsey Phillips June 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging racism in the counseling field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fatigue factor 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having courageous conversations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Agents of change 

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

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

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

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

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

The need for more representation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ongoing journey toward cultural competence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridging the gap 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Responding to the increase of hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans

By Yumiko Ogawa, Yi-Ju Cheng, Yung-Wei Dennis Lin and Terence Yee June 2, 2021

Violent attacks on Asians and Asian Americans (A/AA) have increased exponentially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, although the number of overall hate crimes in the United States’ largest cities decreased by 6% in 2020 compared with 2019, anti-Asian hate crimes soared by nearly 150%. Cities with the largest increases in anti-Asian hate crimes included New York City (833% increase), Philadelphia (200% increase), Cleveland (200% increase) and San Jose, California (150% increase). 

According to data from Stop AAPI Hate, 3,795 cases of anti-Asian hate incidents were received by its reporting center between March 19, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. Verbal harassment made up the majority of the reported hate incidents (68.1%), followed by avoidance or shunning (20.5%), physical assault (11.1%), civil rights violations such as refusal of service (8.5%) and online harassment (6.8%). Media coverage of hate crimes against A/AA reached a fever pitch after the horrific killings of six Asian women in the Atlanta metropolitan area and the physical assaults in New York City of a Chinese woman who was slapped and set on fire, a Filipino American man who was slashed across his face with a box cutter, a Thai immigrant who died after being shoved to the ground, and a Filipino American woman who was suddenly kicked in her stomach and head repeatedly in broad daylight. 

Like those in other ethnic groups, A/AA experiencing racial discrimination may develop mental health concerns such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, depressive disorder, a low level of life satisfaction, low self-esteem, sleep problems, low appetite and even suicidal ideation. On top of these potential mental health concerns, the recent violent attacks may have caused many A/AA individuals to become hypervigilant or even fearful in public more frequently and to constantly worry about the safety of their families and friends. 

These attacks and harassments immediately drew heightened attention in many professional fields, including counseling. Professional counseling organizations such as the American Counseling Association, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, and the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling have responded to anti-Asian hate crimes through official statements, specific research grant releases and other supportive actions. At the same time, individual counselors should also recognize our ethical obligation to nondiscrimination and social justice. According to the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, professional counselors are responsible for providing nondiscriminatory counseling services (Standard C.5.), advocating for individuals who are underserved or experience barriers to services (A.7.a.), and contributing to the public good (C.6.e.). 

So, what should and can professional counselors do to respond to anti-Asian hate crimes? Perhaps, the very first step is to gain a deeper understanding, especially about the hidden factors and prejudices that might have historically contributed to the discrimination behind anti-Asian hatred.

Lev Radin/Shutterstock.com

Contributing factors

Various factors contribute to the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. One of the most visible and widely debated factors is the use of racist language (especially by influential public figures) such as “China virus,” “Wuhan virus” and “kung flu.” The use of such language provides permission or license for others to express their deeply held prejudices. Researchers have coined this phenomenon the “emboldening effect.” There are many other myths, however, that have fostered the prejudices that we, as a nation, have toward A/AA.

One hidden prejudice could be that A/AA are viewed as perpetual foreigners. Seemingly innocuous questions such as “Where are you from?”; “Where are you really from?”; and “What’s your real name?” perpetuate this belief, with the underlying assumption being that they cannot be from the U.S. and their English-sounding name is not their real name. This belief that A/AA are foreigners extends to the entertainment industry. Take the movies Minari and The Farewell, for example. Despite being American-made films, both movies were ineligible for the Golden Globes’ best picture category. Instead, they were relegated to the best foreign language film category because much of the movies’ dialogue was not in English. The implicit message here is that A/AA experiences are not American enough or, even worse, that these populations are always viewed as being foreigners/outsiders. Such perspective relegates A/AA populations to some kind of marginalized status and also fosters disdain or hostility among many Americans toward them.

Another hidden prejudice is the model minority myth. This myth perpetuates the belief that A/AA are the most successful minority due to their hard work, focus on education and community support. There are three problems with this myth. 

First, the myth paints a monolithic picture of the Asian community when there can be huge disparity within the different Asian diasporas. For example, Bhutanese Americans experience a higher poverty rate than do other Asian groups, such as Japanese Americans. Second, the internalization of this myth puts enormous pressure on A/AA to succeed, which can negatively affect their mental health. 

Third, and perhaps most damaging, is that this myth perpetuates another myth: the myth of meritocracy. The underlying message is that the Asian community has transcended decades of racism because of their hard work; therefore, if an individual (or a particular group) is not as successful, it is assumed to be due to their lack of effort rather than systemic injustice. This line of thought effectively creates a wedge between different minority communities in the U.S. and
maintains the status quo of white privilege and supremacy.

Collectivism may be another significant but often neglected factor. The majority of A/AA populations share a belief that their identity lies within a group, such as their family, a specific community or even collective society (see Derald Wing Sue and David Sue’s Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice). Growing up and living in such collectivistic culture, A/AA individuals are typically educated to honor harmony and avoid conflict, and gradually they develop a tendency to be compliant and quiet or to keep away from standing out, even in a positive manner. 

Coupled with this sense of collectivism, many historical policies, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, have silenced the A/AA community. To survive, A/AA populations learned to be self-reliant and not bring attention to issues surrounding the A/AA community. Sayings such as “keep your head down” and “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” are common mantras that A/AA individuals typically hear from their parents and grandparents. Thus, when they experience unfair treatment, bullying, discrimination or even violence, they tend to tolerate it and choose not to report. Although the collectivistic way of being in no way causes hate crimes against A/AA individuals, perpetrators of hate crimes may perceive members of the A/AA community to be easy targets because of their lack of self-advocacy. 

Many A/AA people have internalized the model minority myth and developed a condition of worth around it. They believe they should be exemplars for others and succeed in various aspects of their lives — socially, academically and financially. Otherwise, they “fail.” In fact, one study reported that Asian American college students were more susceptible than other ethnic minority college students to experiencing feelings of being impostors. Failure to tolerate the discrimination and preserve the collective honor of becoming a model minority may result in a sense of guilt, bringing shame to the family, community or society. 

The perception of A/AA as foreigners has also become an inhibitor to self-advocacy. There are legal and political histories that have contributed to this perception, but a lack of English proficiency, the presence of prominent accents and the use of nonalphabetic characters are also believed to promote their “foreigner” status, discouraging them from voicing their experiences of racism and discrimination. 

Furthermore, some A/AA populations may have inherited the feeling of “indebtedness” to America from the first generation of Asian immigrants. Many Asians immigrated to the U.S. for better educational, economic and employment opportunities, especially for their children. Some Asian immigrants also fled to the U.S. to avoid human rights abuses and nondemocratic rule in their own countries. Early Asian immigrants may thus rationalize the racism they experience in America as the price of admission they need to pay to this country.

Emerging voice and hope

However, since the surge of xenophobia toward A/AA resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, A/AA have been taking more active and vocal roles to advocate for the realization of their rights. Stop AAPI Hate, sponsored by multiple organizations, was established in March 2020 to stand united against racism and hate that targets Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. In addition, the news media has been highlighting the escalation of hate crimes against A/AA. In March, Democrats in the House of Representatives held the first congressional hearing on anti-Asian discrimination in three decades.

Several factors, such as the utilization of social media and the increased representation of A/AA in entertainment, politics, sports and executive roles, are conducive for this somewhat unusual movement among A/AA to make new cracks in the “bamboo ceiling.” We want to highlight two other plausible factors: a demographic change within the U.S. and a generational change among A/AA. 

Many A/AA grow up in a collectivistic cultural background that encourages the pursuit of harmony with others (in particular, others in the majority) and values showing respect toward others who are higher in the social hierarchy. The fact is that minority populations are becoming a majority in the U.S. Activism against racial injustice, for civil and human rights, and for equity for themselves is becoming a part of the discourse of this new majority. A/AA are drawing inspiration from activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that have emerged out of other underrepresented communities. Even as we recognize the divisions between minority communities and their different histories of suffering, there is a chance to continue the history of solidarity for those who have been kept in subordinate positions.

Generational change is another significant factor. Second, third and even younger generations of immigrants are often substantially better off on several socioeconomic attainments such as income, education and homeownership than their parents who migrated to the United States, according to Pew Research Center analysis. These individuals are more assimilated to the U.S. culture and more astute to the issues of inequality and social justice than their parents or grandparents are or were. Thus, thoughts about racial identity and racism may be quite different between younger generations of A/AA and early Asian immigrants. 

For example, younger A/AA individuals may naturally claim their identity as Americans and thus may not possess the deep indebtedness that was part of their parents’ or grandparents’ experience. In addition, whereas early Asian immigrants typically embraced collectivism and harmony, younger A/AA generations may prioritize equality and social justice. Even the use of technology makes a difference between A/AA generations. Younger A/AA individuals are much more familiar and comfortable with using social media to communicate their thoughts and advocate. All of these generational changes have contributed to raising a stronger voice against anti-Asian hatred.  

Suggestions for counselors

Highlighting issues surrounding the A/AA community is a step in the right direction because it combats the invisibility of A/AA experiences. Efforts to include the A/AA community in the discourse should be consistent rather than a one-time event. We offer a few suggestions for counselors on starting and maintaining the conversation. 

1) Practice self-reflection: If you are a counselor educator or supervisor, have you talked or facilitated discussion in your class or with your students/supervisees about the escalation of hate crimes and discrimination against A/AA? If so, why? If not, why? If you pause and examine your thoughts, feelings and physical reactions, what do they tell you about your perceptions or hidden beliefs regarding A/AA populations?

2) Broach the conversation: After the mass shooting in the Atlanta area in March, each of the authors of this article were reached out to by friends, colleagues, former professors and even their students. We all appreciated and felt touched by even short messages such as “How are you doing?”; “I am just thinking about you”; and “I am grateful you are in my life.” There might be hesitation to bring national news to an individual level, but we encourage counselors to reach out if they think about doing it. These gestures can make many A/AA individuals feel cared for and assured that they are part of the larger community in the U.S. 

3) Voice concern about exclusion of A/AA: We noticed that some organizations were offering multicultural training on racial minority groups that did not include A/AA or having diversity committees without an A/AA representative. Reaching out to organizations to address the need for the inclusion of topics related to the A/AA community or individuals from an A/AA background is advocacy work that we all can engage in. 

4) Reach out to your elected officials: Email or call your local elected officials and ask them about specific bills and votes that affect A/AA communities. Express your concern and support for A/AA in your community. The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (napawf.org) has a petition page that suggests elected officials focus on fighting systemic racism and address the needs of survivors and the affected community.  

5) Reach out and enhance counseling accessibility to A/AA populations: We encourage counselor educators and professional counselors to consider providing support groups for A/AA individuals on campus and in the community. Professional counselors could collaborate with local elementary, middle and high schools to provide individual counseling, support groups or psychoeducation sessions not only for A/AA students but also for their parents and families. Professional counselors may also consider posting mental health service information specifically related to A/AA populations and anti-Asian hate crimes on their professional websites. Asian mental health communities such as the Asian Mental Health Collective (asianmhc.org) provide lists of Asian counselors. 

6) Provide education in the community to foster mutual understanding and promote equality: Share your knowledge on mental health and multiculturalism with people in your community. For example, local public libraries often hold workshops and presentations. Professional counselors can use such channels to help people in the community gain a better understanding of the impact of racism and discrimination on their daily functioning.  

Conclusion

As we were working on this article, continual occurrences of hate crimes (as of April 24, the latest being the mass shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx facility that killed four Sikhs, among others) prompted us to revise the manuscript multiple times. The addition of each hate crime example added heaviness and fear to our hearts. This feeling of heaviness and fear is a glimpse into the world of racism. 

Hate crimes/violent crimes against A/AA are not a new phenomenon, and racist acts are occurring on a daily basis. However, these acts often receive attention only when they result in mass shootings, viral videos or sensationalized coverage in the media. Then, gradually, the attention fades away. 

One of our co-authors, Terence Yee, remembers a comic strip in which everyone wants change, but fewer people want to change, and even fewer want to lead the change. The fact that anti-Asian hate/violent crimes have captured national attention and people are talking about them is progress. This progress is giving us something to ponder: Now that we know it, what will we do with it?

 

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Yumiko Ogawa is an associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education at New Jersey City University. She has more than 25 years of clinical experience in various settings. In addition, she has been providing play therapy training in the U.S., Japan and the Philippines. She is a co-founder of the Play Therapy in Asia Summit. Contact her at yogawa@njcu.edu.

Yi-Ju Cheng is an assistant professor in the counseling program at Rider University. She is a licensed professional counselor and registered play therapist whose clinical and research interests center on children and their families from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Yung-Wei Dennis Lin is an associate professor in the Counselor Education Department at New Jersey City University. He came from Taiwan and has resided in the U.S. for 17 years.

Terence Yee is an assistant professor in the Department of Education and Counseling at Villanova University. Being an immigrant from Malaysia and identifying as Malaysian-Chinese, his research interest includes the experiences of international counselor educators and international students. He has a private practice that serves predominantly Asian and Black men.

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit 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.

Listening to voices of color in the LGBTQ+ community

By Laurie Meyers May 26, 2021

It has been 52 years since the Stonewall uprising — a multiday protest that began when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village in New York City, in the early hours of June 28, 1969, and began arresting patrons and employees. The bar was a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, and the raid — purportedly for liquor license violations — was one more in a pattern of police harassment of queer and transgender establishments. 

Many in the LGBTQ+ community credit Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman and frequent patron, with throwing the first brick that sparked the uprising. However, in interviews in the 1970s, Johnson said she didn’t arrive until the clash was underway. Other stories had Sylvia Rivera, a Black and Latina transgender woman, throwing the first Molotov cocktail. Rivera later said she was in the crowd throwing coins before the cocktails began flying. LGBTQ+ historian Charles Kaiser believes that Stormé DeLarverie, a Black biracial lesbian and drag king, sparked the resistance by throwing the first punch. 

People may not agree on how the uprising began, but one thing is clear: Trans and queer women of color were at the forefront of the gay liberation movement that emerged from Stonewall. Johnson and Rivera also helped found the group STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which offered housing to homeless and transgender youth. 

Their contributions to the LGBTQ+ communities are starting to be recognized. The East River State Park in Brooklyn was renamed Marsha P. Johnson State Park, and in 2019, New York City announced plans to build monuments to honor Johnson and Rivera. They will be the first permanent monuments of transgender women in the state of New York. The monuments are also part of the city’s effort to address the gender gap in public art. 

But the gap stretches beyond gender. Over time, the contributions of Johnson, Rivera, DeLarverie and many other queer and trans people from Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities have been overshadowed by white narratives and priorities. In the eyes of many, the face of the LGBTQ+ community is still too often exclusively that of white, gay, cisgender men. 

Often, nonwhite queer and trans people do not feel included — or necessarily even safe — within the larger LGBTQ+ community. As in other spaces in a system built on white supremacy, racism is all too prevalent. People who are part of communities across the BIPOC spectrum also face increased oppression and unique challenges because of the intersection of their cultural and LGBTQ+ identities. Although the term BIPOC is meant to be inclusive, sometimes it can be used as a catchall term that — intentionally or not — erases individual communities. What follows are professional insights from seven Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian counselors on how racism and oppression affect clients who identify as both ethnic/racial minorities and LGBTQ+.

Creating safe, inclusive spaces

Historically, white people have been the ones to decide where or how people of color fit into their world, observes Adrienne Erby, an assistant professor of counselor education at Ohio University. Her research focuses on intersectionality and racial, cultural and LGBTQ+ issues.

In a wider society that consistently looks to white, cisgender men to lead, LGBTQ+ communities can replicate that same dynamic, Erby says. White, gay, cisgender men may not lead all aspects of the LGBTQ+ movement, but they  have become the face — and the voice — of it, she notes.

“Who gets to have a voice? Who sets the agenda for activism?” Erby asks. Navigating racism and genderism — particularly among Black transgender women — increases the risk of experiencing violence or being killed, she explains. Constantly questioning one’s safety creates different priorities — such as sheer survival, notes Erby, an American Counseling Association member. For BIPOC queer, trans and nonbinary individuals, the interaction of racism and genderism affects even the most basic things, such as the ability to find and keep employment, health care and safe housing.

Trans activists note that the addition of transphobia on top of racism compounds the problems with employment and housing. Transgender women often have no place to go when they need shelter or are in danger because most homeless and domestic violence shelters do not accept trans individuals. 

Disrupted education is also a major issue for LGBTQ+ individuals who are BIPOC. Trans and nonbinary adolescents — particularly those of color — frequently drop out of school to escape race- and gender-based bullying by peers and even teachers, in addition to being pushed out of school through disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect BIPOC students, Erby says. 

Counselors can be crucial advocates by challenging policy and procedure and function as “safe adults” for these students, she emphasizes. At the same time, Erby cautions counselors to resist the desire to “reframe” legitimate issues such as racism, heterosexism, genderism and transprejudice. Rather than helping, these approaches serve as barriers to open communication, especially among queer, trans and nonbinary people of color. BIPOC are more likely to respond to honesty and authenticity, she says. 

“In our homes, most of us have learned to read very quickly if a person is someone [we] can talk to,” Erby says. “Instead of expecting people to come out to us, we need to show that we can be invited in.” Inviting someone in — putting the power with the student or client to share what they choose — is essential to building trust, she stresses.

Counselors are often trained to assess through questions that are information driven rather than narrative driven. “We ask for the information that we need to have, which is not a bad thing — it’s essential — but we also need to be asking broader questions,” Erby says. So, instead of just confirming that a client is living with their family, for example, counselors should invite clients to tell them more about their families, she advises. 

Erby recommends that counselors get a sense of who clients are not just in the moment, but in their lives outside of counseling. Who are their family members? Where did they grow up? What is their relationship to a faith community? “It’s important that we talk about the things that shaped [clients], like family, school, race, faith, spiritual belief and how [they] identify,” she says.

“We [also] have to broach the issues of race, culture and gender from the start and throughout our relationship,” she asserts. “I always make sure to mention race, gender, affectional and spiritual identity. These are things that people may not bring up themselves.”

Pushing past a white-centric narrative

Tameeka Hunter, an assistant professor of counselor education and supervision at the University of Arkansas, believes one of the most consequential elements in understanding and centering the diverse stories of the LGBTQ+ population is to stop using white experiences as a benchmark. For example, coming out of the closet is a white, patriarchal construct, she explains. Western (white) culture is an individualistic one that places more emphasis on individual desires and independence than on collectivist or relational cultures. However, as Hunter points out, most of the cultures across the BIPOC spectrum are relational, so the community is a core part of the person’s identity.

“Coming out is not possible for everyone,” says Hunter, an ACA member whose research focuses on marginalized populations, including LGBTQ+ and disability populations. “It may not be safe to do so. ‘Coming out’ may cause significant losses.”

For example, Black culture is a relational culture that honors its elders, and the community’s support is an essential tool in surviving racism, Hunter says. Coming out may jeopardize the person’s place in the community and threaten their source of social and financial support and safety, she notes. 

Part of being an LGBTQ+ affirming counselor requires examining one’s own biases about issues such as gender, affectional identity and race, and understanding the complexity of being at an intersection, says Hunter, who is a diversity speaker and researcher. 

In addition to making sure their intake forms are inclusive, including categories for racial, affectional and gender identity and pronouns, counselors need to let clients know that they’re open to talking about religion and spirituality, because as Hunter points out, that can be a central part of many Black people’s lives. And if an LGBTQ+ client’s family believes that being a sexual minority is sinful, it could create serious identity issues for them. Letting clients know that they can safely talk about religion/spirituality in session “creates a space for them to tell you, ‘I’m in conflict with my family’ or ‘I might believe that my sexuality is a sin or an abomination,’” she explains.

In situations in which clients are struggling with being gay and fear that their family will reject them, counselors should assess the client’s support system, Hunter says. Is there anyone they can talk to in the family? If not, counselors can help clients expand the way they think about support. For example, LGBTQ+ people frequently have “found” families — nonbiological kinships that provide a supportive environment. Hunter helps clients find supportive networks by asking them about places or people who bring them a sense of peace or joy. They can also choose to whom they want to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity. That may mean being open with some family members but not with others, she adds. 

“People of color who are also LGBTQ+ have a tendency to find community with those who share [their] sexual identity, racial identity or another marginalized identity,” she says. “That’s a way to hold on to … culture. Part of finding community is holding on to the validity of our experiences.”

People with multiple marginalized identities are constantly forced into presenting little bite-sized pieces of themselves. Being among like-minded people is a way of finding relief from the strain of holding back so much of one’s self, she says.

But Hunter also cautions that it’s all too easy for counselors to indulge in what she calls “disparity porn” — stereotypical narratives such as being Black makes someone more prone to substance abuse or that Black families are typically less accepting of LGBTQ+ family members or are more homophobic. “While it is important to acknowledge health and other systemic disparities so that we can educate future counselors and support clients contending with those concerns, many times we disproportionately attend to those disparities,” she says. “Disparities and systemic oppression are important topics, but there needs to be balance in how often these topics are covered.” 

Hunter recommends that counselors also focus on positive affirming concepts such as resilience. “We can celebrate those who are thriving in the community by illuminating their stories,” she says.

Hunter concludes by emphasizing our shared humanity: “I strongly believe that our liberation is bound together — all marginalization from systemic suppression is bound together — even if we do not share the same marginalized identity.” In other words, she thinks that when the most stigmatized among us — such as Black transgender women — are free, then we all, as a society, will be free.

Unfracturing identity

When people engage with the LGBTQ+ community, there is often an initial feeling on the part of those who have been marginalized that this part of their identity has finally been validated, and they feel safe, says Misty Ginicola, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who specializes in counseling LGBTQ+ individuals. Often, however, those who are Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous or other people of color “soon learn that [they] are not completely safe,” she says.

Colonization and the oppressive system it established is everywhere, Ginicola notes, so racism and misogyny are also entrenched in the LGBTQ+ community. “It hurts worse when it comes from a space where you think you are safe,” she observes.

Mirroring may be a developmental psychology concept applied primarily to children, but Ginicola, a professor in the clinical mental health counseling program at Southern Connecticut University, thinks that adults instinctively do it too. “We look for people who mirror and validate [us],” she says. “For those of us who have different marginalized identities, we never get a true mirror. … No matter what — I think I can speak personally from this angle — there won’t be a community where you have all of your marginalized identities [mirrored].” 

It’s not just that no one community can encompass every aspect of a person; it’s that when it comes to marginalized identities, there will always be environments that are not only unwelcoming but also hostile, explains Ginicola, an ACA member and co-editor of the ACA-published book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People. For safety — and many other reasons — it may be necessary to suppress parts of one’s identity, which may cause a person’s identity to fracture, she says.

To remain whole, the person must cultivate a home and community within themselves, Ginicola notes. Her goal is for clients to be able to say, “If I don’t feel welcome somewhere, I’m not going to go there. I won’t fracture to fit in anymore.” But getting to a point where the client can say that requires examining all of their identities, Ginicola says. 

She helps clients explore the boxes they are trying to fit into by asking them, “What is it that you think people expect you to be? Do you want to be that?” For example, Ginicola has a client who is queer and grew up in a rigid evangelical family. Because the client still has inner critical voices connected to his strict religious upbringing, she works with the client to explore where those voices come from and whether those voices reflect his value system or someone else’s. Counselors have to look at all of those areas that have shaped the client’s identity, even if it makes them uncomfortable, she says. 

“Colonizing beliefs and the value system that we have in place as a culture is a lose-lose for most people — even for people who do seemingly fit,” she says. “We all walk around fractured in some way, whether it’s about your physical experience [or] mental health diagnosis. We’ve been taught to pull those things inward in order to fit in.” 

“I think the other thing we have to tackle as individuals and as a society is binary thinking,” Ginicola adds. “Everything [is] black and white, good and bad. Our society has not prepared us to have complex emotions.” 

Navigating intersections 

An element of cultural misappropriation exists among the white LGBTQ+ community, says Christian Chan, an assistant professor in the counseling and educational development department at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. One sentiment he often hears from clients who have at least one marginalized identity is that “I’m absolved from being microaggressive. I’m absolved from acknowledging that these other forces are at play. I can’t be racist.” But people with marginalized identities can still act in racially aggressive ways, he says.

In some ways, white LGBTQ+ individuals are established as the “norm and ideal,”  notes Chan, an ACA member whose research focuses on intersectionality, social justice and the LGBTQ+ population. Their white privilege helps mitigate some of the oppression they face, despite being queer or trans. 

Chan also points out that those from BIPOC communities often grow up in collectivist cultures. In Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian and other communities of color, there is a sense of kinship and sharing that helps them bear the weight of hatred and injustice, which is always present but has been particularly visible over the past year, he says. But if identifying as LGBTQ+ makes a person unwelcome in their culture or family and their race/culture is not widely accepted in the queer and trans community, where do they turn? What happens when they are disowned not only from their family but also from their culture? Chan says the sense of isolation that can occur from being physically in a community but not feeling a part of it can be profound. “It’s a dance of hypervisibility and invisibility,” he says. 

Race also intersects with genderism and heterosexist norms, Chan points out. Queer men have internalized many of the stereotypes of masculinity prevalent in straight culture. They not only view being “too feminine” as taboo, but also often have an ideal of hypermasculinity, he says.

Stereotyping and fetishization of BIPOC bodies are widespread in clubs and on dating apps, Chan continues. For example, on heterosexual dating apps, Asian men are often perceived as less masculine because of prevailing stereotypes in queer culture, he says. In contrast, Black gay men are fetishized because they are often perceived as hypermasculine. Blatant racist comments are also common on dating apps, he adds.

It is important for counselors not only to acknowledge that a client’s LGBTQ+ and BIPOC identities are connected but also to understand how the client navigates these overlapping forms of oppression, Chan stresses. He advises counselors against assuming that the reason a client is in their office is related to their racial, affectional or gender identity. But he also urges counselors to let clients know that they are in a safe space where they can talk about all of their experiences because internalized oppression is negatively linked to mental and physical well-being. Chan notes that affirming intersections can actually buffer negative encounters and reduce distress. Counselors can help clients see that there is strength in navigating their intersections because it can build resilience and even be lifesaving, he says.

Becoming an accomplice

“One of my favorite sex educators, Ericka Hart, will frequently note that queerness does not absolve racism,” says Alandria Mustafa, an LPC at Sula Counseling in Goose Creek, South Carolina. “White LGBTQ+ folks perform Blackness, especially Black femininity, through a variety of mannerisms and the use of AAVE [African American Vernacular English] and slang terms that were born and bred in the Black queer community, while also invalidating and gaslighting queer and trans Black people, who are attempting to name and seek acknowledgment for harm done within the community.” 

“White LGBTQ+ people tend to believe that because they are also queer, they have a comparable oppressive experience to queer and trans Black people,” continues Mustafa (pronouns they/them/their). “This couldn’t be further from the truth, but attempts to explain and explore how this is false assumption are usually complicated by white fragility.” 

Mustafa stresses that white LGBTQ+ people need to listen to queer and trans Black people when they say that anti-Black attitudes are harming them, and they need to do the work of unlearning anti-Blackness. “Queer and trans Black people would best benefit from mutual aid and true accomplices, not just allies. Accomplices are willing to leverage resources and power in pursuit of true equity and accountability,” they add.

When working with clients who have been rejected by their communities of origin because they identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, Mustafa encourages them to acknowledge the lack of acceptance as an internalization of white supremacy in individual Black communities. 

“The idea that we are disposable is a direct result of being disposed of over many, many years,” Mustafa explains. “This conversation usually supports the externalization of transphobia and queerphobia, so we can recognize that rejection is a product of generational and ancestral trauma.”

Mustafa also encourages clients to challenge their definition of family and the belief that families must be biological. “Queer and trans BIPOC have always been intentional and thoughtful around creating family dynamics amongst one another as a means to keep each other safe and provide support,” they say. “So, I typically invite the development of chosen family and social support systems as safe familial dynamics that can always be created and nurtured outside of those we share a genetic makeup with.”

Racism within the LGBTQ+ community also leads to extreme marginalization of transgender (particularly Black transgender women) and nonbinary people, who are at the greatest risk of violence and murder, Mustafa says. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that this [marginalization] is due to transphobia and anti-Blackness, both of which are a result of white supremacist rhetoric and the harmful nature of the gender binary,” Mustafa emphasizes. They point out that “trans and nonbinary folks are also less likely to engage in support services — whether this be mental/emotional health services or physical and reproductive health services — and are least likely to access a variety of community programs.” The reason for not accessing these services does not stem from a lack of desire or willingness, Mustafa says. It comes from “a variety of systemic barriers that make it incredibly challenging to access care that is safe.”

Mustafa suggests the following ways that counselors can support transgender and nonbinary people:

  • Offer some pro bono or sliding scale services to ensure that transgender and nonbinary people have access to mental health care. 
  • Do not charge for documentation that is required for transgender people to pursue affirming medical care. 
  • Vet providers who claim to provide gender-affirming medical care before referring clients to them. “We are responsible to our clients, and even more so to our clients who are trans, to ensure that the referrals we use are practicing affirming care and are not likely to cause harm to our clients,” Mustafa stresses.
  • Include gender-neutral language on websites, intake documents and signage in the office (on bathroom doors, for example).
  • Continue to learn and self-critique one’s perceptions about gender and sexual identity. Mustafa adds that counselors should challenge how they perceive gender in their personal lives as well. Counselors cannot say that they believe in affirming gender diversity and gender expansiveness in the therapeutic space and then present with rigidity and a lack of flexibility in the personal space, they say.
  • Advocate for clients. “The personal is political,” Mustafa says. “Trans folks of color are highly politicized, solely based on their intersecting identities.” It is virtually impossible to properly and wholeheartedly serve a population at the intersection of a variety of marginalized identities while also claiming neutrality about legislation and policies that cause harm, they point out. Mustafa stresses that counselors cannot stand by while working with a population of people who cannot access proper medical care because of anti-trans legislation and policies or who are murdered and discarded for simply existing.

Being LGBTQ+ and Latinx

One of Roberto L. Abreu’s principal areas of research is with the parents and families of Latinx queer and trans people. What he has found in his research challenges the belief and stereotype that Latinx families are not accepting of their LGBTQ+ family members. The families whose stories he highlights in his research are interpreting Latinx cultural norms in ways that are affirming of their LGBTQ+ children.

“Like in other collectivist cultures, there is a strong emphasis on community and family among Latinx people,” says Abreu, an assistant professor of counseling psychology and director of the Collective Healing and Empowering Voices through Research and Engagement (¡Chévere!) lab at the University of Florida. “Family is central to everything. The idea is that it doesn’t matter what happens; family comes before anything else,” he says. 

Gender norms are also important in Latinx culture, Abreu notes. Specifically, mothers or those in motherly roles are seen as the keepers of the culture. The mothers he spoke to often reported that one of the reasons they accept their LGBTQ+ child is because it’s their duty as a mother, which includes being self-sacrificing and putting the well-being of their children above all. 

Abreu points out that even Latino male gender norms, which are often described in terms of rigid views of masculinity, has layers. Part of Latino male gender norms involves keeping one’s word, being emotionally in touch with one’s family and setting a good example for the family unit — all characteristics associated with caballerismo (the idea of a man as the family provider who respects and cares for his family). For example, some of the fathers Abreu has spoken to describe working on their own feelings and emotions regarding their LGBTQ+ child and coming to a place of acceptance to ensure that their other children and family members also accept the LGBTQ+ child. 

“Latinx culture also places a heavy emphasis on the idea that everyone should be afforded dignity,” Abreu says. He has found that parents of LGBTQ+ children often interpret this as their child’s right to love whomever they wish.

Abreu also studies issues faced by Latinx transgender people and says access to health care is a challenge for this population. “The barriers go beyond simply getting to the doctor’s office. Not having forms in their native language and [experiencing] negative interactions with office staff are just two examples of the types of discrimination and hostile environments that Latinx transgender people face before they even see the doctor,” Abreu says. 

“Health care providers also frequently attribute everything to the patient’s identity as transgender,” Abreu notes. For example, a person might come in with a cold and be asked intrusive questions about being transgender. “Medical staff also tend to hyperfocus on parts of the trans women’s identities, such as making assumptions about what they do for a living,” he says.  

When Abreu asked study members what services they most needed, they named trans-specific health care sources, financial resources, spaces for transgender homeless people, addiction care, and help for the undocumented such as legal and documentation expertise. Abreu also believes there should be a center that offers education for family members to understand what being LGBTQ+ means. And all of these resources need to be offered in Spanish, he adds.

Acknowledging and advocating for BIPOC LGBTQ+ clients

“It is imperative to understand not only LGBTQ+ experiences, but [also] how that intersects with race/ethnicity,” says Tamekia Bell, an assistant professor at Governors State University in Illinois. “We are not monolithic individuals; we have multiple identities. However, sometimes we struggle or ignore the multiple identities that people have.” 

“I do believe some people of color may feel shut out by the larger LGBTQ+ community,” Bell continues. “BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals need the community to not only speak out against hatred around LGBTQ+ issues, but [also] systemic racism and dismantling white supremacy. Again, the focus needs to center on all members of the community, not just the privileged ones.”

Bell, an ACA member whose research interests include multicultural competency surrounding individuals with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals, cautions counselors that not all individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ have the same experiences. “It is important for counselors to have our clients guide us in that discussion and not assume [that] because they identified as BIPOC and LGBTQ+, they will have struggles with who they are,” she says.

Society as a whole sends constant and consistent messages to BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals that they are not valuable, notes Bell, chair of the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities’ Queer & Trans People of Color Committee. It is society that needs to change, she stresses, yet BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals are expected to adjust to the society they live in. “This is where our work outside the therapeutic spaces is so crucial,” she emphasizes. “We can provide tools, resources and support for our clients, but ultimately, they go back into the world that tells them they are unworthy. In order to truly help our clients, we have to work to dismantle the systems that make our clients feel undervalued and unworthy.”

Bell advises counselors to seek out resources and readings to help them learn how to provide ethical and culturally competent care to BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals. By doing their own work, counselors avoid placing the burden on BIPOC LGBTQ+ counselors, clients and community members. “The work is not always easy, and I sometimes find myself saying or doing the wrong thing,” Bell admits. “In those instances, I acknowledge my ignorance, apologize for my transgression and commit myself to continuing to do better in the future.” 

When working with LGBTQ+ individuals, Bell acknowledges her privileges and asks that they call her out if she says or does something offensive or inappropriate. “Because I know and understand my worldview is different, I am more intentional,” she says. “I do not mind the work because I want to live in a world, and have future generations live in a world, where they are honored and valued for who they are and being their authentic selves.”

Daniel Samray/Shutterstock.com

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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 the impact of barbershops on African American males’ mental health

By Marcie Watkins, Jetaun Bailey and Bryan Gere May 13, 2021

Ralph Ellison, a famous African American novelist, literary critic and scholar, completed a series of essays in Shadow and Act that depicted the many social differences shaping Black and white America. He held the African American barbershop in high regard, proclaiming its significance as an institution as higher than secondary education for the African American male because it was a place of self-expression.

In Shadow and Act, Ellison writes, “There is no place like a Negro barbershop for hearing what Negroes really think. There is more unselfconscious affirmation to be found here on a Saturday than you can find in a Negro college in a month, or so it seems to me.”

This quote from Ellison reveals the historical impact that African American barbershops have had on the African American community in addressing a broad range of issues. It also reveals a foundational support for the therapeutic practices that take place in these barbershops.

During the time Ellison was writing the essays that would make up Shadow and Act, the nation was navigating uncharted waters, with many individuals, especially African Americans, demanding equal rights. Although there were many pressing issues, inequalities in relation to employment and education were considered foremost. African American males were greatly affected by discriminatory practices.

Today, unfortunately, some of these same inequalities still exist, despite major progress being achieved. A considerable body of research shows that the emotional impact of inequality can cause issues such as mild, moderate or severe depression, anxiety and other health-related issues, including high blood pressure, in connection with life stressors such as employment and finances. Although barbers are not typically formally trained to address psychological issues, African American barbershops do provide an avenue for individuals to express and address problems affecting their lives.

Researchers have identified several factors as being responsible for the emergence of the barbershop as the epicenter for African American mental health discourse. These factors include historical and cultural mistrust of health care professionals among the African American community and the low number of mental health professionals of color. Specifically, help-seeking behavior among African Americans has been conditioned by a distrust of formal health institutions and a leaning toward faith-based interventions.

The 2013 article “African American men and women’s attitude toward mental illness, perceptions of stigma, and preferred coping behaviors” by Earlise Ward et al. attributed mental health stigma to increased rates of suicide in African American males, as well as problems with education, marital life, employment and overall quality of life. According to Felecia Wilkins’ 2019 article “Communicating mental illness in the Black American community,” fewer African American males tend to seek out mental health services to address their problems. It is possible, however, that African American men receive mental health services via alternative nonformal and nonmedical institutions such as the African American barbershop.

The nonjudgmental, discursive, yet intimate environment within barbershops engenders individuals to seek them out not only to socialize, but also to obtain and share information, including their personal concerns or challenges, from and with others. African American men with diverse challenges who need input and support to address their needs or to improve their personal well-being may thus consider the barbershop a viable platform for receiving solution-focused counsel and information.

African American barbers: Confidants and counselors

Many African American barbers have unique relationships with their clients, serving as confidants and informal counselors. The significance of this relationship has been captured over the years in several literary works and movies. For instance, in the 1988 movie Coming to America, we see comedic yet intense scenes between the African American barber and his customers regarding relationship advice. In the 2002 movie Barbershop, Eddie (played by Cedric the Entertainer) expounds on the historical roles the African American barber has occupied, including counselor, fashion expert and style coach.

Many might question why barbers are accorded such prominence within the African American community, and especially by African American men. As Erica Taylor explains in “Little Known Black History Fact: History of the Black Barbershop” on blackamericaweb.com, being a barber was the first notable position for newly freed African American males. Taylor further notes that sustainable financial security and professional integrity came along with the profession. Thus, it is likely that many African American men viewed the role of barbers as notable, even if wealthy white customers regarded the job as unskilled.

Historically, the African American community has looked at business ownership, and particularly barbershop ownership, as a symbol of prosperity. In a 1989 article titled “Black-owned businesses in the South, 1790-1880,” Loren Schweninger highlighted the barbering career of John Carruthers Stanly. Stanly, an emancipated slave, became one of North Carolina’s wealthiest businessmen. While in slavery, he owned a barbershop, and by the time he was freed by his owners, he had gained a favorable reputation due to his business skills. A related story found in the Colorado Virtual Library highlights the achievement of another businessman, Barney Ford, who started out as a barbershop owner and eventually became a hotelier and real estate magnate. Collectively, these cases and several others highlight the regard with which the African American community holds barbershops and their operators. African American barbers are viewed as respectable individuals who can be entrusted with the innermost feelings and emotions of members of the community, especially African American men.

In a 2010 Counseling Today article titled “Men welcome here,” Lynne Shallcross wrote that the barber’s chair is more welcoming and less fearful for most men than the therapist’s couch. Perhaps African American men have understood and internalized this notion and feel compelled to highlight the platform of African American barbers and their barbershops as environments that are nonintrusive and welcoming.

A 2019 article, “Lined up: Evolution of the Black barber shop,” captures the perspectives of African American barbers on the pivotal role played by barbers in both the economic and cultural development of African American communities from Buffalo, New York, to Riverside, California. These perspectives capture the display of emotional vulnerability by clients to their barbers. One of the barbers acknowledged the therapeutic practices that go on in the barbershop and his role as an informal therapist. This means that becoming a good barber inevitably requires one to be a good counselor or confidant because many individuals who present for haircuts also use the opportunity to discuss their personal problems, including challenges with mental health.

African American men and mental health issues

In the 2011 article “Use of professional and informal support by Black men with mental disorders,” Amanda Toler Woodward and colleagues reported that African American men are less likely to seek mental health services. At the same time, African American men have more life stressors that cause psychological distress than do other racial groups, according to an article written by K.O. Conner and colleagues in Aging and Mental Health. Specifically, African American men are more likely to be unemployed for longer periods and more likely to be exposed to violence, harassment and discrimination within their communities. Worse still, according to Conner and colleagues, African American men are more likely to be stigmatized due to mental health issues.

James Price and Jagdish Khubchandani, in an article titled “The changing characteristics of African-American adolescent suicides, 2001-2017,” reported an alarming rise in suicide among young African American men. According to the authors, the rate of African American male suicide increased 60% from 2001 to 2017, with young African American males more likely to die by suicide by using firearm (52%) or hanging/suffocating themselves (34%). Conner and colleagues stated that African American men continue to battle insurmountable odds related to unemployment, police brutality and other stressors that lead to increased emotional and psychological distress.

Research shows that within the African American community, mental health issues are rarely discussed, and especially related to how they impact individuals, groups, families and the community. Typically, African American men are socialized to handle difficulties or problems by themselves or with close friends and family members, not with the help of outsiders such as professional mental health service providers.

Programs such as the Confess Project understand the community’s influence in addressing issues related to mental health and overall well-being. Thus, the Confess Project created a solution to bridge the gap concerning the provision of mental health services by exploring the possibility of educating African American barbers. This relates back to Ellison’s position that the knowledge-based institution of the African American barbershop may stand above other institutions in addressing the mental health issues of African American males.

SFBT and the African American barber

The Confess Project Barber Coalition program seemingly utilizes a form of solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), recognizing the barbers’ coaching abilities and assisting them to encourage African American males to speak about emotional health. Coaching, as defined by the website SkillsYouNeed, involves improving one’s agility, both mental and physical, by remaining in the present instead of the past or future. As noted by F.P. Bannink in a 2007 article, SFBT focuses on the fact that people’s ideas of the nature of their problems, competences and possible solutions are construed in daily life in communication with others. Daily life communication is a form of staying in the present, which is often observed in barbershops.

In a 2014 article, James Lightfoot noted that much of the strength of SFBT involves freeing the process from focusing too deeply on the problem and allowing more attention to be given to the solution and the future instead of the past. Unlike traditional therapy, which might keep clients stuck in their past by rehearsing traumatic experiences, SFBT assists clients in positively looking toward the future to change their behavior.

Developed by Steven de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg as a short-term intervention, SFBT focuses on problem identification and motivation, the miracle problem, possibility, hope, scaling/goal formation, exceptions, coping, confidence/strength and feedback. The core functioning therefore shifts the focus from mental illness to mental health and changes the role of the counselor from an active role to that of a facilitator or coach, according to Bannink. The seeming intention of the Confess Project is to promote mental health instead of mental illness in the African American community by way of African American barbershops.

Ellison’s quote ended with an understanding that African American barbershops provide an opportunity for self-expression. This has some connection to the “miracle question” proposed in SFBT, which allows clients to describe what they want out of therapy as a method of self-expression. Ellison and de Shazer thus subtly concede that the interactions in the barbershop and those that occur in SFBT are both modes of treatment that encourage and nurture forms of self-expression and emotional connection.

As a counselor and mental health advocate, I (Marcie Watkins) understand the mental health value of the barbershop in the African American community. My husband, Brandon, was a barber during the early stages of our marriage. I believe that he later selected a career in the counseling/human services field based on his experiences as a barber. My husband would often share that the barbershop was a place of community and weekly refuge for African American men. A sense of pride was established as a man with minimal budgetary resources could come to the barbershop for a haircut, therapy, relaxation and socialization — all in one package deal.

My husband stated that “to choose a barber to cut your hair and pay him your hard-earned money was a true sign of trust. If a man can trust you to cut his hair, he will trust you with every secret and problem, just as you would a therapist.” As such, the qualities of a therapist and a barber in the African American community are synonymous. Barbers hear about major life events because getting a haircut precedes weddings, funerals and any other special activity for which one needs “a fresh cut.” As such, my husband also stated, “When a man trusts you to make him look his best, he will trust you to tell you anything. That trust would also be transferred to his son and grandsons for many generations.”

As a mental health advocate, I forged partnerships with Jetaun Bailey and Bryan Gere, both of whom were professions at a historical Black university near my hometown, in educating African Americans on the importance of seeking and receiving mental health. During a conversation about mental health, Ellison’s quote was introduced, which led to a lengthy discussion among us. During our discussion, we shared experiences of observing dynamic exchanges in African American barbershops in which the owners/barbers seemingly served as facilitators/coaches and several patrons took on the role of group members. We also noted that the exchanges at times became heated. However, we noticed that the barber exuded characteristics similar to those of a group facilitator or coach — like those of an SFBT counselor — in controlling the conversations and making sure that everyone had a voice.

We also collectively agreed that a spirt of “call and response” had been infused in the exchanges between the patrons and the owners/barbers. Call and response is rooted in African American culture. This form of expression is interwoven in African American music, religious gatherings and public conversations. For example, a patron might use a solution-focused technique by asking a miracle question. The question might be “Man, what would you do if you had a million dollars?” A response might be “Get out of debt.” Thereafter, a call might be made by a patron or patrons: “Can I get an Amen?” As such, that patron is calling everyone to respond in unified agreement over the answer of “getting out of debt.”

The expression-type groups of author, educator and counselor Samuel Gladding, a past president of the American Counseling Association, can be closely aligned with call and response. Gladding recommends expression-type groups — such as those involving creative arts, music and literature —as ideal in reaching the African American population. These groups might mirror the outlets of how call and response is delivered. Gladding notes that commonly shared positive values among African Americans include creative expression.

It appears through our observation that with this call and response, the barbershop patrons remain in the present while being coached or guided by the barber, which is the core of the counseling relationship in SFBT. This discussion led to development of a presentation during Black History Month in spring 2019 at a historically Black university in Alabama. The presentation was titled “Investigating the Impact of Barbershops on African American Males’ Mental Health: Are Barbers Untrained Solution-Focused Counselors?”

Group Presentation

Approximately 75 participants, mostly students and some faculty and staff, attended our presentation that sparked much dialogue and generated some potential recommendations in getting African American men to seek formal counseling from more traditional avenues. Students were encouraged to interject throughout the presentation (like the call-and-response traditional method in the African American community) rather than waiting until the end. Therefore, if a student felt the need the comment, they were encouraged to raise their hands and wait for the presenter to acknowledge them to speak.

Based on feedback received from the participants, we cannot conclusively state that African American barbers possess innate characteristics that mirror those of SFBT counselors. Considering the responses received, it seems that African American barbers feature characteristics similar to those of client-centered counselors, because they are actively involved in the sharing process of the discussion, such as sharing their own personal struggles. Participants believed that this client-centered approach on the part of African American barbers was developed through years of listening and engaging with different people.

On the other hand, the participants felt that barbershop patrons generally possess the characteristics of solution-focused clients because they come to the barbershop knowing what they would like to express and discuss. This suggests that patrons are taking on the role of “expert” because they are able to open dialogue without any hesitation and anticipate a positive outcome. This might hint that SFBT could serve as an effective “gateway” therapy method for African American men. This approach could likely give them a sense of authority over their problems, thus leading them to explore more therapeutic approaches if their problems require deeper self-assessment.

Several of the students and a few of the staff members had once worked as trained and untrained barbers to support themselves while pursuing their education. They collectively agreed that the barbershop serves as a “one-stop” location for various businesses within the African American communities. In these barbershops, patrons can find flyers, brochures and pamphlets on everything from soul food restaurants to personal trainers. As such, one student stated, “So why not mental health?” He went on to suggest that grants could potentially be written by local and state agencies to conduct mental health presentations in barbershops periodically. He pointed out that impromptu presentations are routinely conducted in barbershops, such as someone promoting a hair show or concert.

Recommendations and conclusion

It is implied that African American men use supportive services in the community more than professional help for coping with life stressors. This method of support is not necessarily recognized through mainstream research, but it is acknowledged through other avenues, such as Ralph Ellison’s quote, as a place of self-expression. Although it does not replace professional counseling, the barbershop could be a window of opportunity for increasing mental health treatment for deeper psychological issues. As the literature reports, programs such as the Confess Project are successful in providing education to barbers to recognize mental health issues. Other mental health agencies could follow suit in reaching this population or simply networking with this organization. Mental health agencies that link with African American barbers will further promote and reshape their scope within the African American community because it will allow them to evolve from givers of advice to advocates in the mental health community.

It is assumed that some community support is instrumental in aiding mental health, and perhaps the African American barbershop should be further recognized as one of those support systems. By educating African American men through their most prized institution, the barbershop, perhaps mental health providers will be able to reach an upcoming generation that is suffering in silence.

A worthwhile goal would be to decrease/eliminate mental health stigma in the African American community by evolving the barber’s role as an advocate for change, because the legacy of the African American barbershop is deeply rooted. It was one of the few initial professions that gave African slaves and freed men financial stability, pride, voice and respectability, and it gave others a chance for self-expression. Moving forward, the institution can be used as a catalyst for change. This change can come in the form of stressing mental health instead of identifying mental illnesses.

Although SFBT could not be directly linked to the characteristics of an African American barber or its patrons as experts, the theory does promote mental health instead of mental illness. Mental health embodies our emotional, psychological and social connections, thus giving everyone a voice of self-expression instead of hiding behind the curtains of shame or stigma associated with mental illnesses.

 

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Marcie Watkins is an associate licensed professional counselor, a doctoral student and co-owner of Solutions4Success. Contact Marcie at Solutions4success@att.net.

Jetaun Bailey is a licensed professional counselor, certified school counselor and evaluator. Contact Jetaun at BaileyJetaun@hotmail.com.

Bryan Gere is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a certified rehabilitation counselor. Contact Bryan at Bryangere23@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.

The unique challenges that face immigrant clients from Africa

By Stephen Kiuri Gitonga May 10, 2021

Immigrants to the United States have one goal in common: to attain the American dream. For many, this dream means leading a life with fewer struggles than they experienced in their countries of origin. Africa is the second-largest continent in the world, stretching from Senegal to Somali (west to east) and Tunisia to South Africa (north to south). It has 54 countries and a population of approximately 1.3 billion people. There are about 3,000 African tribes, each of which speaks its own language or dialect.

The most widely spoken languages in Africa include English, Arabic, Swahili, French, Portuguese, Akan, Hausa, Zulu, Amharic and Oromo. It can be easy for counselors in the United States to assume that one Black client is like the other Black client, when in fact one might have been born and brought up in the U.S. and the other might be a first-generation immigrant from Africa. Such an assumption would be disadvantageous to clients from Africa because their varied and diverse experiences would be ignored. If these experiences contribute to the client’s presenting problem and yet are disregarded or overlooked by the counselor, then treatment of the presenting problem would be challenging or even elusive. 

It is important for counselors to take stock of the unique challenges that afflict immigrants from Africa and could complicate their lives in the United States. Mental health counselors are encouraged to pay special attention when working with this population to address the presenting mental health problems and other issues unique to these clients that, if left unaddressed, could have a negative impact on their well-being.

Culture shock

Relocating from Africa to the United States is likely to be a culture shock for the immigrant client. In fact, many immigrants from Africa experience culture shock even before they travel to their new country. 

The process of securing a visa to travel to the U.S. is a daunting experience that takes months — and sometimes years — to complete. Applicants physically go to the U.S. Embassy offices in their countries or regions to attend interviews and complete official paperwork related to their travel. At these offices, they are likely to see armed white police officers in full gear, complete with duty belts, guns, sunglasses and other items dangling from the belts. Applicants may feel intimidated by the sight of these officers, having previously been accustomed to seeing Black police officers carrying gear that is less threatening. 

The interview determining potential receipt of a travel visa can go either way, and applicants are aware that if they are denied, they will not necessarily learn why they were not issued visas. Issuance of a visa is the prerogative of the immigration office. There is no provision for explanations in cases of denial, although candidates can submit new applications for consideration in the future. 

Once African immigrants actually travel to the U.S., they are likely to experience culture shock in multiple ways. Depending on such factors as their previous experience with international travel, their country of origin and the port of entry to the U.S., new immigrants may be shocked by the size of the cities, highways, forests, rivers and lakes, and the sheer amount of food that gets served on a plate. They also observe that cars generally carry fewer occupants than they are used to and that there are more people driving up and down the streets than people walking or using public transportation. Immigrants from Africa also quickly realize that they are a minority race in the United States — a stark contrast to their majority status in their country of origin.

Another cultural experience that may be shocking for the new immigrant from Africa is the sole use of English to communicate. Code-switching, which is common among people who are bilingual, is not possible when English is the only language in use. Other things they learn or observe include the high cost of living, differences in dressing, the prevalence of low-context interpersonal interactions, driving on the right side of the road, a love for sports that are unique to Americans, people who are homeless, panhandlers on the streets, and the menace of opioids, to name but a few. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced another complication to the cultural experiences of immigrants from Africa. In line with their social nature, these individuals support one another whenever a member falls sick by visiting and helping with child care, cooking and other household chores. COVID-19 safety guidelines do not allow people to congregate, especially around someone diagnosed with the disease. While the COVID-19 pandemic was peaking, it was common for people to be buried in communal graves. From an African context, it is uncommon for a person to die and for the bereaved family to be unable to complete all the rituals associated with funerals. It may take time for immigrants from Africa to come to terms with these tragic experiences.

Past and present trauma

Depending on their country of origin, some immigrants from Africa may have preexisting posttraumatic stress disorder or other disorders that have gone untreated from such events as war, physical abuse, sexual abuse, accidents, displacement, political violence, intertribal clashes or terrorism. There is ongoing instability in such countries as Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and the Central African Republic, with many casualties every year. In Nigeria, there is ongoing violence instigated by the terrorist organization Boko Haram. 

Survivors of these instabilities may end up immigrating to the U.S. as refugees or enter the country under another status. Their traumatic experiences in their countries of origin, compounded by new traumatic experiences in the new country to which they have immigrated, can be challenging to treat. Many of these individuals may be unaware that they even have a treatable condition. 

Loneliness

Research points to the seriousness of loneliness to one’s mental health. People immigrating to the U.S. may suffer prolonged periods of loneliness before they form meaningful relationships within their host communities. Loneliness can be compounded by cases of rejection, discrimination, isolation, stereotyping, microaggression and so on in their new communities.

They are often unable to communicate on a regular basis with family members back in their country of origin because communication by mail can take a long time and international phone calls are expensive. Loneliness, coupled with other problems, can lead to depression or degenerate to suicidal ideation for this population. 

Language

Only a small minority of immigrants from Africa report English to be their first language. Most of them have learned other languages before English. Student immigrants from non-English-speaking countries encounter fewer problems because they are usually enrolled in English classes during the first semester of their respective programs. Others who were fluent in English in their country of origin are often surprised at how different American English is from other English dialects and accents. 

Fluency in language is important for self-expression and self-esteem. Immigrants who struggle with the English language might have a harder time adjusting to their new life in the U.S. Another disappointment they typically experience is inability to code-switch — i.e., switch from one language to another — like they were used to doing before their relocation. This is because most of the members of the majority culture with whom they now interact speak only in English. 

New identities

Immigrants from Africa are faced with changing their identities in multiple ways upon arrival in the U.S. For example, in their country of origin, there may have been certain activities and roles such as child care, cooking, driving, mowing the lawn, financial management and so on that were classified by gender. In the U.S., these responsibilities are more commonly shared between men and women. 

If African immigrants were wealthy back in their home country, they likely had employed the services of a live-in houseworker to help with such chores as child care, cleaning, laundry and cooking. These chores must now be shared between the couple irrespective of their gender. Assignment of these responsibilities is often a major source of discord among couples who have emigrated from Africa. That is because in many cultures in Africa, it is the responsibility of the woman to cook, clean, do laundry and take care of the children, irrespective of her other daily roles and responsibilities. Once the couple has immigrated to the U.S., it is often difficult for their families back in their country of origin to understand this new setup of shared responsibility. Families in the country of origin will often comment that the immigrants have lost their cultural identity.

Loss

Immigrants from Africa experience multiple losses as they settle in their new country. Examples of losses include identity, wealth, social status, family bonds, language, cultural traditions, freedom, innocence, traditional food, life goals, favorable climate and familiarity. Depending on the impact of these and other losses, immigrants from Africa may need mental health help to cope. 

It has been particularly challenging for African immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with the resultant losses. They are used to living a social life in which they congregate for no apparent reason. During the pandemic, they have largely lost this aspect of their culture because of restrictions on in-person socializing. Likewise, when fellow community members are hospitalized, they cannot be visited. When people die from COVID-19, there is added pain due to restrictions on viewing the deceased or completing traditional funeral rites. Additionally, at the height of the pandemic, people who died from COVID-19 were buried in mass graves, while others were cremated. These are not common practices among many cultures from Africa.

Family relationships

There is a common tradition in Africa alluding to the fact that it takes a village to raise a child. Extended family members, relatives and neighbors are all expected to be involved in the well-being and development of growing children. Immigrant couples do not typically have the luxury of the village caring for their children in the U.S., whose dominant culture is individualistic rather than collectivistic. If these parents are busy at work, college or with other commitments, they take their children to day care for a fee because they are no longer surrounded by close family members or friends who would have cared for their children. This can become a major source of family relationship problems for immigrants from Africa, particularly when these fathers must change their traditional attitudes and beliefs to share responsibility for child care. 

Parenting is another source of strained relationships among African immigrant families. This is in part because the village is now absent, and the couple is left to care for their children with little outside help. In addition, parenting styles in the U.S. are different from parenting styles in Africa. African parents’ cultural practice of disciplining a child may be construed as child physical abuse in the U.S., potentially landing these parents in trouble with the law.

In Africa, the cost of raising a child is low in comparison with the U.S. For this reason, immigrant couples may decide to have fewer children or not have children at all. There are also differences between the first generation and second generation of immigrants from Africa. Second-generation children have greater exposure to the mainstream majority culture and are more likely to be influenced by it. Attempts by the parents to teach the second generation the value of maintaining their culture is often met with resistance, and this can strain family relationships.    

The American dream

The common belief among aspiring immigrants from Africa is that the American dream is easily attainable. Some interpret the dream to be good education, wealth, good health, affordable health insurance and stable income. 

While some immigrants do attain the American dream, others struggle. For the latter, the lack of attainment may become a source of self-pity, shame and guilt, particularly because their family back in their country of origin may not understand that not everyone in the U.S. is wealthy. Some begin to question why they immigrated and may consider immigrating back to their countries of origin. Problems could then arise if communication within the family is not effective.

Racism

The Black Lives Matter movement has unearthed social ills that have plagued the United States for many years. As a marginalized population, immigrants from Africa may be the targets and victims of discrimination, racism, bigotry, hatred, microaggression and other social ills often propagated by institutions that are supposed to protect them. 

Now that these ills have been widely exposed, there is a possibility that they will become added sources of anxiety and associated mental health issues. Questions may arise for these immigrants regarding how safe it is to continue living in a country where they are openly not wanted. Family and friends in their country of origin may begin to have similar questions and feelings and urge them to return home.

Education

When immigrants from Africa enter the U.S. on an F-1 student visa, they are expected to maintain their student status and follow the strict guidelines from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services until they complete their studies. Some of the stipulations include maintaining full-time student status by taking the required number of courses per semester and maintaining passing grades. They are not allowed to seek employment without authorization. Such authorization, when granted, permits them to work for 20 hours per week on campus. 

The cost of higher education for international students is high. Many students are not able to afford tuition to complete their studies and may end up dropping out of school. When that happens, they lose their student visa status and begin the cat-and-mouse game of evading U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for violating their immigration status. 

Students who complete their studies are granted the opportunity to apply for a change of status to become U.S. permanent residents, especially if they have completed graduate studies in high-demand programs such as software engineering, nursing, medicine, computer science and so on. The process takes time, but it is the safer route that most students follow to ensure their continued stay in the country and their eventual attainment of the American dream. Before that happens, they live in constant fear of being deported.

Acculturation

Over time, continued interaction between immigrants from Africa and the majority population in the U.S. results in acculturation. Immigrants pick and choose aspects of the majority culture to adopt and aspects of their respective cultures to retain. In a symbiotic and ideal relationship, the majority culture picks aspects of the immigrant population to adopt as well. It is important that counselors working with immigrant clients from Africa encourage them to maintain aspects of their culture that are meaningful to them, lest they lose their identity completely.

Another source of family conflict may happen when children abandon some of their family’s cultural aspects in favor of aspects of the majority culture. This occurs during the preteen and adolescent years when they are developing their identities, often influenced by the majority culture. It becomes a problem if their parents are not in favor of the adopted tenets of the majority culture. 

Drug and alcohol use

Alcohol in most African contexts is used to serve social and traditional purposes. With the mainly communal lifestyles, people look out for one another to avert misuse in a “brother’s keeper” sort of way. But these close relationships are largely or completely absent in African immigrants’ new country of residence. Here, they do not have close friends or family members to keep an eye out for them or with whom they can share their problems. 

Without education and awareness of mental health counseling, some immigrants from Africa turn to self-medication with alcohol, drugs or both. Addiction is now a serious problem afflicting African immigrants, and it is good practice to assess for drug and alcohol use, even if this is not the presenting issue brought to counseling. Left unchecked, drug and alcohol dependence could easily degenerate into a generational problem that afflicts current and future generations.

Treatment guidance

Professional counselors should consider the following items when working with clients who are
African immigrants.

> Assessment: Effective treatment begins with a thorough assessment. In addition to the issues brought to counseling, it is important for mental health counselors to assess for other issues that are not so obvious. For immigrant clients from Africa, counseling may still be a new concept. They might not be comfortable sharing their problems with strangers. Hence the need for counselors to select assessment instruments and procedures that are less intrusive. 

> Rapport: Research points to the significance of developing therapeutic rapport with clients early in the counseling process. It is also necessary to maintain this relationship throughout the counseling process. It will likely require additional effort to build and maintain a trusting relationship when working with immigrant clients from Africa because counseling may be a new concept for them. In addition, it may be necessary to educate these clients on what mental health counseling is all about and their roles and responsibilities in the counseling process. 

> Cultural sensitivity: Mental health counselors are cultural beings, and they bring their culture to the counseling relationship. It is vital for counselors to be constantly aware of their culture, including the biases, beliefs and stereotypes that they hold about immigrant clients from Africa. It is also imperative that counselors refrain from imposing their culture on these clients. 

It is beneficial for counselors to learn about the unique culture of their immigrant clients from Africa by setting time aside for cultural immersion and attending ethnicity-specific cultural activities from time to time. They will then use ethnicity-specific and evidence-based interventions to work with these clients. 

> Self-care and wellness: Mental health counseling can drain our emotions and energy. Therefore, mental health counselors should engage in a self-care regimen, maintaining regular self-care activities and schedules, to reenergize. Likewise, it may be helpful to educate our clients who are immigrants from Africa on how to engage in self-care and identify wellness strategies for their improved mental health and enhanced overall health.

 

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Stephen Kiuri Gitonga is an assistant professor in the clinical mental health counseling program at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor licensed to practice in Idaho, Kentucky, Utah and Pennsylvania. Contact him at skg200@lockhaven.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, visit 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.