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White therapists who exhibit enculturated values of superiority over blacks are often unaware of it. These therapists manifest their feelings of superiority in therapy, in case conferences, and in supervision. They tend to make statements about their surprise at the complexity of the personality of a black welfare mother, or at the range of social interests and skills possessed by a black colleague. They may attempt to create a false convergence by expressing a value or behavior that is not truly part of their repertoire in an attempt to connect on a personal level. For example, a therapist may use slang words or phrases because the therapist has assumed that the black client has a limited range of emotions and verbal skills around which to relate to the therapist.
A white therapist may also exhibit superiority through paternalistic attitudes and behaviors by, for example, assuming that the black client is unable to learn to negotiate systems and the therapist must do it for him or her. A counselor who negotiated with the school around a black childs behavior and never included the mother, explaining that the mother felt overwhelmed and was unable to communicate effectively with the school or with her son, was being a good master and was unaware of it. He assumed that this mother could not learn to negotiate with systems or to advocate for her family, even though for 12 years she had negotiated with work settings and with social service agencies to obtain support and services.
A third way in which superiority is manifested is in some of the expectations that therapists have of their clients. For example, the white therapist may expect compliance and acceptance on the part of the black client and interpret the clients challenge as a problem of the client rather than as an indication of the clients ability to think about his or her therapy and the clients investment in the therapeutic process. On the other hand, the therapist may experience fear. The challenge of the black client may bring forth enculturated attitudes that blacks are dangerous.
In contrast, white therapists may also be sensitive to the dangers of replaying the master/slave relationship in the therapy setting. By acknowledging the history of white/black relations in this culture and by understanding that they are not immune to their cultures impact, they are able to learn from their black clients about themselves and about others. Moreover, they are able to use their socialized feelings as only one of the bases from which they assist the client in constructing an understanding of their self/world relations.
Like white therapists, black clients vary as to their belief in the superiority of one race over another, and their perspectives also significantly contribute to the nature of the therapeutic relationship. The black client who feels that whites are superior to blacks may enter therapy expecting to be helped or cured because the therapist is white and, therefore, take a passive stance. In contrast, clients who feel that blacks are superior to whites may not readily share their hostility, anger, or dissatisfaction with having a white therapist. They may choose to withdraw or to participate in a perfunctory way, which inadvertently results in their abdication of responsibility for their lives and a replay of the imbalance of power to which they may be reacting.
This nonevaluative trust or distrust on the part of clients puts therapists in a position of power and yet impedes them in their task of assisting clients to transcend such limited notions of themselves. In these situations, exploring the racial psychohistory of clients and therapists plus discussing the race differences of the dyad, with its strengths and limitations, seem particularly essential. For these clients, examining their enculturated limitations so that they can begin to transcend them in the therapeutic context is vital to improving the quality of their lives.
Pertaining to Culture
For these therapists, convergence of standards and values with respect to self/world relationships and psychosocial realities is expected. There is some truth to this assumption. Nevertheless, it is limiting in that it ignores the various cultural and ethnic legacies of blacks and whites.
There are therapists who do recognize cultural differences in American racial groups. Among them are some white therapists and black clients who view those cultural differences as severing any possibility of forming relationships or of understanding the other persons world view. To them the idea of differences obstructs growth rather than providing a context for exploring each others humanness and approaching differences from an EVM perspective. To others, differences can be transcended. It is this latter expectation that provides a basis for working together in a therapeutic context to share their respective perspectives in a way that provides therapeutic gains for the client.
Pertaining to Coping Skills
A major barrier to overcoming these insensitivities is maintaining distance between themselves and thus remaining unaware of their different life experiences. This distance between therapist and client, which is most harmful therapeutically in its ignoring of the clients humanness, is manifested in several ways. It can be observed in the desire of therapists who work with black clients for prescriptions for understanding black culture. These therapists tend to appreciate workshops that delineate how blacks differ from whites, and that offer in a cookbook fashion how to diagnose and treat black clients fairly and effectively. These individuals do not want to feel the mess of racial tension or deal with their bigotry and/or lack of knowledge. Furthermore, in understanding how to treat blacks, these therapists are not willing to struggle with the nuances of the ranges of social competencies that are needed to live effectively as a black person in America. To do so would require that they tackle their racial psychohistory, their white identity, and their prejudices. For them, those tasks feel unnecessary or irrelevant.
Second, the issue of humanness also arises in the philosophies and assumptions that some white therapists have about what it means to be black in America and about how blacks should cope with and approach their social status. A common one, the thick-skinned assumption, is based on the premise that in the process of living in America black people should, as a part of their development, form a tough emotional exterior, one that has been numbed to the more covert acts of racism. No one would question that all human beings struggle with unkindness, discriminatory behavior, and insensitivity from others. However, the thick-skinned assumption permits the therapist to avoid experiencing the clients reality and the emotional wounds (or joys) that are by-products of that reality. The therapist is denying the clients range of emotion, feeling, and humanness. Another assumption, that of assimilation, is based on the premise that for blacks to be okay, they need to adopt white cultural norms and coping styles. These two assumptions often lead to therapeutic relationships riddled with conflict or marked by premature termination.
There are, of course, therapists who are genuine in their desire to get to know how the black person sees himself or herself culturally and psychosocially. They acknowledge the clients humanness by acknowledging the clients ability to know and to communicate who he or she is to the therapist. These therapists need not be knowledgeable of black culture, but willing to expose their lack of knowledge about the shared values, philosophy, legacies, rituals, and relationship patterns of many blacks, and to use the information provided by their clients to achieve the agreed-upon therapeutic outcome. In a somewhat similar fashion, black clients who are willing to take the risk of exposing their biases and limited knowledge about white culture can work with white therapists and gain therapeutically in doing so.
Pertaining to Self/World Relationships
Pertaining to Personal Power and Control
Therapist/White Client Dyad: Expectations Pertaining to Racial
The issue of inferiority/superiority remains a vehicle through which racial identity awareness is manifested. If black therapists have not successfully come to terms with their reality, then they will continue to struggle with inferiority issues. These therapists may look to their white clients for affirmation of their acceptance as part of the white norm and as an accepted participant of the majority culture. For these therapists, issues of convergence may have additional significance in that they represent affirmation of their understanding of the ecology of whiteness. On the other hand, these therapists run the risk of having their fears of inferiority affirmed when they confront divergence or conflict in therapy. As a result of their need for validation from the client, they abdicate their role and responsibilities as expert and give it to the white client, who is there seeking assistance from the therapist. These therapists may also expect to be perceived as less competent than a white therapist, never fully trust the clients acceptance of their expertise, and become impotent at fully examining the dynamics presented in the therapeutic ecosystem.
Another expectation is that of the perpetual test, in which the therapist expects to have to prove himself or herself repeatedly to be competent. If this expectation goes unnoticed by the therapist, then the therapist may become angry with the client and act out that anger in the therapy relationship. Also, if the therapist feels that this is a typical consequence of black/white interactions and that this expectation is the norm, then the therapist limits the degree to which trust will be established in the dyad.
Pertaining to Culture
Racial identity issues. Each of these expectations is to some extent a function of the degree to which the therapist and the client have worked through their racial identity issues and have grappled with enculturated values stemming from the master/slave legacy. A key issue in these expectations is the degree to which both the client and the therapist perceive their respective cultures as compatible. It is also important for the therapist to be aware of how he or she and the client react to outward signs of cultural identity (e.g., the therapist wearing braids, type of music played in the waiting area, style of interaction, and office decor). Culture is experienced on many levels, and it may be that the client can accept cultural differences if they are not part of the therapeutic ecosystem but find them difficult to accept when they are visible.
Pertaining to Self/World Relationships
Pertaining to Coping Skills and Range of Personal Power and Control
We have used the black/white dyadic combinations to highlight the intricacies of racial membership and psychotherapeutic process. There are other racial groups and unique issues that arise, but we have chosen the black/white dyad as an exemplar for several reasons. First, it is a dyad that epitomizes, in the master/slave relationship, the role of history in shaping the ecology and world view of individuals ascribed one status versus another.
Second, the black/white relationship exemplifies the nature of the struggle to achieve balance or equality in relationships for a number of groups. It highlights and parallels the various struggles about diversity in a number of dyads, including those involving gender as well as cross-ethnic and other cross-racial pairings.
Finally, black/white relations provide the broadest available empirical base from which to analyze the issues involved. Conceptually, this racial dyad has provided a framework to entertain how we think about differences. For example, it was in the context of black/white differences that the concern about using whites as a normative sample arose. Consequently, at this juncture, other racial groups have a precedent upon which to advocate for a multiracial and cultural framework. It has now been fairly well established that white America is not the standard for assessing the behavior of other groups. Nevertheless, it continues to be the norm whose nature defines psychotherapy and the participants in it, unless we provide more compelling alternatives.
summary, race in addition to, but separate from, ethnicity plays a significant
role in the formulation of our ecology and psychosocial competence. It defines
our sense of ourselves as well as our status on the power hierarchy, brings with
it a set of coping skills, and fosters a particular world view. These factors
are part of the therapeutic process.
Roberts, S. O., Ho, A. K., Kteily, N., & Gelman, S. A. (2021). Beyond
Black and White: Conceptualizing and essentializing Black–White identity. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. Advance online publication.