Counseling African Americans

Sue and Sue’s Chapter 14 Counseling African Americans spends a great deal of effort exploring cultural particulars and corresponding clinical implications while working with African Americans; factors such as family dynamics, educational orientation, spirituality, and the pressures and stress of racism and marginalization. This offered me perspective through a lens much broader than my own somewhat narrow, predominantly white, and fairly privileged way of relating to the world. Before understanding culturally appropriate interventions, one must have an understanding of the cultural context or the cultural word of an individual.

For me, this first means that differences must be noted, either literally in relationship with the African American client or simply as a clinical observation I make on my own. Of course the difference in the two will depend on the client, context, and general relevancy in the moment. In my own experience, noting racial difference aloud with a client has been most helpful in that it gives permission for the potentially “taboo” topic of race and differences to be considered, brought into the space at a later time, and even into the forefront of consciousness.

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Apart from the explicit therapeutic relationship, noting difference is a personal reminder that I am no expert on anyone’s experience but my own, I may make mistakes (and probably will), I should steer clear of assumptions, it’s ok to be curious, and to do my homework. Once a general understanding of differences is established, then one can begin to consider appropriate therapeutic interventions. Let’s take the issue of racism and discrimination; the byproduct of these atrocities oftentimes manifests as defense and survival mechanisms in Black Americans.

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Which can lead to a general mistrust or as it’s stated (by Sue and Sue) a “healthy cultural paranoia”, as a way of coping. This mistrust can be of individuals, entire races of people, the government, social service providers… With this in mind, it’s important to determine what the client’s feelings and understandings about therapy are. To touch base and explain what kind of therapy I engage in, how it can be helpful to them, and what can be expected of our time together. Hopefully this will help to assuage uneasy feelings of fear of the unknown or mistrust, as well as set up a foundation for a healthy therapeutic alliance.

Although Sue and Sue’s Afrocentric perspective can be helpful it can also simultaneously be viewed as reductive. It’s important not to discount individual differences by universalizing traits of African Americans. Self cannot be defined as a unitary concept evolving from a single defining variable, such as race or gender (Williams, 1999). For instance, not all women are nurturing, caring, and relational. Similarly, not all African Americans possess an African ethos of communalism or spirituality. Race, class, sexual orientation, and gender are all complex interactive components that make up the self.

To approach a client through the lens of only one of these variables, means potentially silencing a central component of their identity. Additionally, it is also necessary to consider an internal state without regard to the social demands of each variable. Collectively, these considerations can aide to a more holistic view when working with African American clients. Part Two After spending a year in practicum at the SF county jail, I feel as though I’ve had a fairly decent introduction to working with African American females.

When I began practicum I had had very little training in diversity or cross-cultural counseling. Turns out that a year in the jail was one large training in diversity and cross-cultural counseling! Now I’m able to pin my personal experience against the readings and gauge my success as a culturally competent therapist. When assessing my strengths, I find that I possess a keen and tremendously empathic understanding of how the stress of racism, sexism, and oppression can manifest in African American women. Oftentimes the byproduct of this stress is what brings the individual to jail.

As a clinician, I can confidently say that I am able to enter the therapeutic relationship with a greater capacity for empathy because of this understanding and build a strong alliance as an ally as well as a therapist. I’m not afraid to make mistakes and have no attachment to being “right”; these qualities will only support me as a clinician. In addition, my upfront demeanor and willingness to self-disclose have had a remarkable impact on the therapeutic relationship. My empathy is strongly with women and their plight of identifying and addressing all the “isms” that stand between them and equality, wholeness, and health.

Frequently, those “isms” are at the hands of men and I certainly have a bias towards this, and towards men in general. It’s no accident that I spent an entire year of practicum working solely with women; although it wasn’t a conscious choice, I believe on some level I chose not to work with men. I have incredible biases towards men as perpetrators and oppressors and men and their privilege, African American men as well as Caucasian. These biases keep me terrified at the thought of working with male clients. I imagine heaps and heaps of countertransference between male clients and myself; countertransference that is full of pain and rage.

I’m not sure that I have much to offer men inside the therapeutic space. I don’t believe this to be my “final answer”, I just know that I have some work to do around my relationship with men before I make the leap of working with them in such sacred space. Essentially, it all comes down to two core qualities- and they are humility and flexibility; humility in all that I think I know and the flexibility to shift or discard that knowledge. My experience of working with, knowing, and reading about African American culture, difference, and oppression may or may not serve me as a therapist at any given moment.

What works for and makes sense in the context of Client A, may not be so for Client B, and vise versa. Although it is crucial to have fundamental knowledge of the legacy of oppression against African American people and to consider factors such as interdependence, collectivism, and emotional vitality as presumed long- standing black personality traits, I must also be able to draw connections between those factors and the individual experience- much like the womanist techniques mentioned in Carmen Braun Williams’ article African American Women, Afrocentrism and Feminism: Implications for Therapy.

As a therapist, I am responsible for guiding and supporting the client in making the shift from object to subject; transferring ownership of self from one whose self is externally determined to one who is self- determining (Freire, 1990). And practice practice practice, with an open heart, ears, and mind. References Braun Williams, C. (1999). African American women, afrocentrism and feminism: Implications for therapy. Women & Therapy, Vol. 22(4) 1999. Freire, P. (1990). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. Sue, D. & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice, Chapter 14.

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Counseling African Americans. (2016, Dec 17). Retrieved from

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