Understanding the African American Experience for Culturally Competent Counseling

By Christine Norman

Understanding the African American Experience for Culturally Competent Counseling

One of the goals of the therapeutic experiences is to guide the client to healing or optimal living by helping to uncover the conscious and subconscious barriers to desired outcomes. Skillful clinicians achieve these outcomes through insightful attunement; providing empathy, compassion, and understanding. These clinicians must also be keenly aware of factors that may be affecting the client behind the scenes. For this reason, clinicians attempt to gather detailed background information for accurate assessment. While being careful not to give the client feelings or memories that are not explicitly expressed in the counseling setting, it is often necessary to understand what could be impacting the client beyond his or her ability to express. When counseling African American clients, understanding how racial factors may consciously and subconsciously impact their lives and compound the difficulties presented is extremely critical. This paper will provide a glimpse into a few of these factors as well as research aimed at providing understanding and fostering heightened awareness.

Background Perspective and Context

As an African American woman interested in being a people-helper in the 21st century, I could no longer ignore the help that I needed for my own racial healing in our current world. I see so many headlines calling for the need to fight various types of injustices. However, it seems that the African American injustices are not as important as they should be. There are many who think that African Americans want to “play the race card,” choose to be extra sensitive to racial issues, or that we are simply angry people. Bill Maher, a Caucasian American comedian and talk show host who has been very vocal about African American injustice once said I don’t understand why black people aren’t angrier.

Many African Americans are continually taught not to be the victims of our stories in our homes and in our churches. Martin Luther King was a non-violent civil rights leader. We are taught to be loving. We are taught to behave in such a way not to embarrass our race. All of this is extremely exhausting and it can drive our true feelings and grief underground. Limiting the full range of emotions towards injustice can set the stage for lack of self-compassion, lack of compassion for others who struggle with the weight that these burdens should carry. Further, it can make for too much anger in over-correcting the narrative, and passivity and shame in those who run from it.

Blaming the victim is typically unacceptable. However, we often watch and listen as onlookers wonder what victims did to cause their murders so often that we have become numb. We watch as white criminals have school photos used in their news stories and the worst possible stories are sometimes dragged into the narrative. Grief and innocent-until-proven-guilty are often reserved as privilege. Black-on-black crime is a commonly accepted societal ill, yet African Americans are aware there is no such thing as white-on-white crime or any other race perpetrating crimes on their own race.

The African American church is often the place of refuge, therapy, and healing for many. However, church can be a place of comfort and confusion. We come to learn that God is the answer to our problems, and while that is true and brings tremendous comfort, the African American church can also be the place where the “super human” narrative continues. In the church it is often implied that those suffering with the struggle should have greater faith and look to heaven.  Some African Americans even leave the church because they refuse to believe that “White” Jesus can offer them anything more than the White slaveowners offered their ancestors. Additionally, visiting the multicultural churches can leave some African Americans feeling invisible. Invisible because those of us blessed to live middle and upper-middle classed lives are accepted in Christian love for our ability to fit in so well, be so educated, be so unlike the others and so many other unknowingly insensitive microaggressions, all the while wondering if we acted more like our heritage and assimilated less, would we still be accepted. Additionally, struggling with the fact that in these multicultural congregations the pastor speaks against many ills, and brushes over or totally avoids racism when he has an open forum and a captive audience.

While this background seems dark, heavy, and uncomfortable, I was reminded of how much I ignore so much of this just out of the sheer desire to avoid the discomfort. The background section of this paper was much longer than I intended and likely longer than the scope of the assignment though I shortened it and could easily go into so much more detail. I did not touch on personal stories of racism and discrimination. For most of my life I have chosen to look on the brighter side of things. I remind myself of the wonderful people outside of my race who fully see me and have the difficult dialog so that we better understand one another. However, this class reminded me of how the topic of race weighs on my African American soul. I wept so often when reading the course material because it triggered many memories I work hard to forget. I decided it would honor my pain if I shared these feelings in the hopes that it informs what could likely be underneath the surface for many like me, making our pain more profound as we attempt to live in the world as it is today.

Literature Review

There is an abundance of research available to any counselor who wishes to understand the many factors that could be prevalent in the African American experience. While it is important to understand that no race of people should be viewed monolithically, understanding what factors may be compounding their emotional and mental well-being is equally important. Additionally, exploring the results of this research can increase the compassion and understanding of a clinician working cross-culturally as it prepares them to be agents of healing in the racial division that is so pervasive in these times.

Residual Effects of Slavery

Many people question why African American history month is necessary. The notion of African American history, pride, or power can seem racist and separatist on the surface. However, this was never the purpose. African Americans have a disturbing and dark history in the United States. Slavery and its resulting aftermath are far from a distant memory, especially in many southern states. Crawford et al. (2003, as cited in Wilkins et al., 2013) explained the “impact of this historical trauma on African Americans has included lingering psychological and emotional injuries and has also led to the development of unique survival strategies” (p.14). Trauma and coping that can easily be traced as being handed down by generations on both sides of the equation. Some African Americans view white supremacists as an extension of slave owners and it could easily be argued that some white supremacists see African Americans as slaves, and as less than human. At the time the time of slavery, African Americans were viewed as chattel and it was written in our nations founding documents.  The Civil War was fought in part over conflicting opinions on whether slavery should be abolished. Confederate soldiers fought on the side that wanted to keep slavery and confederate flags still fly today and until very recently were flown on the grounds of government buildings. Confederate war heroes have monuments that are still erected.

After being freed from slavery, the laws were slow to be commensurate with what would have been needed to level the playing field. African Americans literally had to fight for basic human rights and separate never quite got around to being equal. Not to mention the lynching, discrimination, and other backlash that happened in retaliation to the African American’s desire to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The possible impact of this painful history on the psyche of African Americans deserves consideration. The residual effects of slavery are far reaching with impacts on how African Americans could possibly view themselves, others, their place in the world, their abilities, and even how they behave in relationships. However, clinicians should also see “the ways in which attributes of cleverness, adaptability, strength, and resilience are present in African American families despite oppressive societal conditions” (Pinderhughes 1990, as cited in Wilkins et al., 2013, p.25).

Race-Based Traumatic Stress

While trauma is typically associated with having or witnessing a threat to one’s life, it would not be a stretch to imagine that watching people in your race group face discrimination, injustice, and atrocities in the past and present could cause trauma. Perhaps if studied more broadly this trauma could be classified and more widely understood. Bryant-Davis et al. (2005, as cited in Bryant-Davis, 2007) defined race-based trauma as follows:

(a) an emotional injury that is motivated by hate or fear of a person or group of people as a result of their race; (b) a racially motivated stressor that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope; (c) a racially motivated, interpersonal severe stressor that causes bodily harm or threatens one’s life integrity; or (d) a severe interpersonal or institutional stressor motivated by racism that causes fear, helplessness, or horror. (p.136)

The DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) explained “trauma- and stressor-related disorders result from exposure to traumatic and stressful events” (p.265). Sanchez-Hucles (1999) highlighted the need for more research, and aptly suggested that clinicians have a “better understanding of racism in order to mitigate consequent emotional abusiveness and trauma for ethnic minorities” (p.71). Additionally, Gump (2010) recognized that very few theories account for the profound way in which social, political and cultural realities impact the development of the human psyche. It is quite likely that African American clients will have either experienced varying degrees of trauma or have knowledge of those who have.

Understanding the Effects on African American Children

Throughout the Social and Cultural Foundations course, the readings detailed how the men of various cultures displayed or possessed masculine pride and dignity. There are many cultures that have rites of passage for its men to mark and celebrate coming of age. There is a need to explore the impact of how African American children are treated and how microaggressions and discrimination shape their character structure. Many African American communities are plagued with broken families for generations and a host of relational ills while the impact of the comorbidity that could be the result of systemic racism is ignored. Many African American men have experienced or heard stories of other men being called “boy” by White peers. In the segregated south older men were forced to call even young White males sir out of respect for them. There are places where those sentiments remain unspoken today. It can and should be argued that these microaggressions could have huge impacts on esteem. Hotchkins (2016) studied the effects of microaggressions on African American males after finding the following:

High school educational environments find Black males experience systemic racial microaggressions in the form of discipline policies, academic tracking and hegemonic curriculum. Black males in high school are more likely than their White male peers to have high school truancies and be viewed as intentionally sinister. African American males are labeled by White teachers and administrators as deviant for issues like talking in class, dress code violations and being tardy. Deficit perceptions about African American students as held by White teachers and administrators serve as racial microaggressions within K–12 context. (p. 1)

However, these disparities were not found to be limited to males. Blake et al. (2017) discovered that darker skinned female students twice as likely to be suspended as white students (p. 126). The potentially lasting impact of treatment like this could easily compound undetected anger, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Counseling Implications

Clinicians agree and understand that attunement and empathy are critical to the therapeutic experience. Butler & Shillingford-Butler (2014, as cited in Burt, et al. 2016) explained “Overlooking critical aspects of a client such as race, culture, and perception of societal treatment is harmful and emotionally devastating to clients of color and can lead to feelings of invisibility and isolation” (p.1). I can attest to how significant this is because I have experienced it a few times. I choose my clinicians according to skills and credentials but  I never sought out an African American therapist for my own therapy. However, when my son was a victim of a random act of violence, I felt extremely alone with both my therapist at the time and the therapist that I tried to talk to through my employer. Neither therapist understood the impact of the fact that the state of our country’s racial climate heightened my concern for raising an African American male. Neither therapist understood the context for my fears. Neither understood the background of his mental state at the time. While even I thought at the time that if I explained, they would understand. However, without the background understanding of what it is like to be African American, they offered simplistic and over-simplified answers and their compassion lacked depth.

The research done by Burt, et al. resonated with me because I often felt invisible in my struggle and in my personhood from these experiences. Constantine (2007) cautioned clinicians that these times of experience often parallel the experiences of African American clients outside of therapeutic settings and could retraumatize the clients in a setting that is supposed to be safe and free from harm. Paniagua (2014) detailed exceptional instruction on how race should and should not be handled in the therapeutic experience. The therapist needs to understand a client’s racial makeup and how it could impact and inform the issues that he or she faces. However, this must be done delicately and considerately. Dana (2002) highlighted the fact that some avoid mental health services because they are “biased, incomplete, and deficient because similarities to European Americans have been emphasized whereas differences were largely ignored” (p.3). Clinicians should not lose sight of the fact that cross-cultural mental health service demands attention to these differences.

Implications for Working with Clients

I do not intend to counsel clients. However, I will be forever impacted by the study of counseling. I will forever advocate for churches, employers, families and individuals to give care and attention to mental health. I wrote this paper in the hopes of providing insight into the African American struggle with the sincere desire that it would inform how we are seen as clients and as a race of people. The scope of the paper only allowed me to scrape the surface of the atrocities that have been suffered and still occur.  However, what is needed most is awareness and empathy. There is no expectation that the therapist can change these realities for the client. Consequently, Paniagua (2014) recommended that therapists avoid giving the impression that the therapist should be considered “a protector of the race when discussing racial issues with the client” (p.14). Though these gestures can be well-intentioned, they can come off as disingenuous and awkward and can delay the bond that is desired in the counseling setting.  However, they can be agents of healing, even if it is done indirectly. Just as microaggressions can continue the racial trauma, compassionate and unbiased treatment can be the mismatching experience that brings healing. Many African Americans recognize the tremendous strength that it takes to grow and prosper in a system designed to oppress and stifle growth. Above all else healing requires recognizing what caused the brokenness. Healing requires awareness. Healing requires seeing. Seeing everyone the same is not equality. Equality is seeing and appreciating everyone as they are.

*Feel free to contact me at christine.norman@eagles.cui.edu.


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