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Themes of Cultural Influence
During my career, I have continued to reflect on how culture influences human existence. In general, there are three themes which I have explored. These are (a) self-hatred, (b) cultural differences, and (c) historical hostility. I would like to share with you briefly some ideas relating to these interacting cultural themes to elucidate their implications for counseling.
Retrospectively, I realize how much I have been influenced by writers such as Heine (1950), Karon (1958), Kardiner and Ovesey (1962), and Erikson (1964). I was especially impressed by Kardiner and Ovesey's book, The Mark of Oppression, because they showed how culture, which usually functions as a support system, can in fact turn against us in almost the fashion that our autoimmune system turns against our bodies in maladies such as rheumatoid arthritis and AIDS. This has happened repeatedly to African Americans who, although significant contributors to American life, are often demeaned by a White dominant culture that subliminally reinforces their inferiority. When White Americans reject Blacks for whatever reasons, Blacks are apt to reject themselves for the same adduced reasons; they cannot help but internalize an impoverished self-concept repeatedly drummed into their psyche. The phenomenon is described by Kardiner and Ovesey (1962) as the mark of oppression. In the 1960s and early 1970s, I described the self-hatred pervasive in the African American community (Vontress, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1971a, 1971b). The hatred of one's self is usually unconscious and well camouflaged, especially to the individuals who are afflicted by it. In general, people who do not love themselves do little to improve themselves. Thus, the most challenging problem is trying to get people to love themselves when the national culture constantly sends out the subtle message that they are not worthy of love--which undermines even the most impassioned therapeutic positive regard. It is no wonder that young African Americans often give up trying to "make something" of themselves at an early age.
Cultural differences and their impact on psychotherapeutic intervention constitute another theme that permeates my contribution to the counseling literature. In this area, I have been influenced by Ruth Benedict (1934), Allison Davis (1948), E. Franklin Frazier (1948), Ralph Heine (1950), and Andrew Hacker (1992). Any group of people who are denied equal access to the community of another group of people will in due time become culturally different from the rejecting community. These differences are apt to constitute barriers in the counseling relationship, especially when one group is perceived to be inferior to the other. Elsewhere, I have discussed these barriers (Vontress, 1969a, 1971a, 1971b, 1974, 1986). Some of them are negative transference and countertransference, resistance, reluctance of the client to self-disclosure, and a variety of implicit and explicit communication problems often present when people from different cultural backgrounds try to share themselves affectively and cognitively with one another. Since each transmits though a culture-specific filter, messages often become garbled and incomprehensible to the other.
Historical hostility is a theme that has fascinated me for a long time (Vontress, 1971a). Carl Jung's concept of the collective unconscious suggested the idea to me. The famous psychologist maintained that humans are not only products of their personal histories but also of the heritage of the human species. Psychological traces of previous generations, which he named archetypes, motivate, shape, and influence the development of those who are yet to come into the world.
Cultural counterparts of similar ideas are also posited by anthropologists and sociologists. Books and articles that discuss the impact of cultural heritage on human behavior are abundant. For example, we often hear the expression "Judeo-Christian" to convey the notion of a way of life peculiar to Jews and Christians that dates back several centuries. It seems tenable to conclude that individuals unified by powerful emotional experiences and similarities also transmit from one generation to another behavioral predispositions and responses peculiar to the collectivities--in effect, culture-specific archetypes.
Historical hostility differs from anger, rage, and other episodic situational negative responses in that it is embedded in the cultural unconscious as an archetype that usually lies dormant, unless activated by an unexpected emotional jolt. For example, in 1968, on the afternoon that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, I was en route in a taxi from the Detroit airport to downtown Detroit when a program of quiet music on the car radio was interrupted by an excited announcer who reported that Dr. King had been killed. At that moment, the taxi driver, a big African American man, pulled off the freeway and came to a sudden halt. With his head on the steering wheel, he sobbed uncontrollably. Finally, he regained his composure and asked me my destination again. Racing through the early evening darkness with his horn blowing, he pulled up in front of my hotel, shook my hand, wished me luck, refused to accept a fare, and sped off into the unknown. In my hotel room that night, I sat up late watching the television coverage of cities burning across the country.
This and countless other events in recent history tend to reveal a cultural bond between people who have endured shared injustices down through several generations at the hands of a perceived common oppressor whose unjust actions can provoke their collective rage. Historical hostility can be seen in many parts of the world where groups of people have been oppressed or exploited over several generations by an identifiable oppressor. I could cite Black South Africans, Palestinians, Jews, American Indians, and people of the former Yugoslavia.
In counseling, we may be better able to understand and communicate more effectively with culturally different clients by considering whether historical hostility is operative in the psychotherapeutic encounter, rather than using concepts such as negative transference, resistance, or reluctance to self-disclose to explain why cross-cultural counseling does not produce the desired results. It is important to reduce cultural barriers in the helping relationship before diagnosing and treating the presenting problem. In several of my writings, I have discussed the cultural misunderstandings that often manifest when African American clients interact with culturally different counselors. (See, for example, Vontress, 1971a, 1971b, 1995). I have also called attention to the historical hostility that may reside in African American counselors (Vontress, 1972).
There is a real danger of countertransference when minority counselors expect their minority clients to feel the same way that they do about the national racial situation. Such an expectation may be antitherapeutic, because each minority individual, although a product of the same American culture, has learned to cope with their minority status differently (Vontress, 1971b, 1986).
- Vontress, Clemmont; A personal retrospective on cross-cultural counseling; Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development; Jul 1996; Vol. 24, Issue 3.
Reflection Exercise #4
The preceding section contained information
about themes of cultural influence. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
According to Vontress, what three themes reflect on how culture influences human existence? To select and enter your answer go to .