Cultural mistrust is an adaptive attitudinal stance in which a person of color is suspicious and guarded toward European Americans, particularly European American authority figures. It is adaptive in that if one accepts the contention that the current social paradigm is inherently racist, then a person of color cannot assume that a European American person has his or her best interests at heart. This attitudinal stance was first described in William Grier and Price Cobbs’s classic book, Black Rage. Grier and Cobbs called this survivalistic stance cultural paranoia. Many writers later changed the term to cultural mistrust in an effort to emphasize that it is an adaptive strategy rather than a form of psychopathology.
Cultural Mistrust Research
A review and meta-analysis by Arthur Whaley indicates that there is a significant correlation between cultural mistrust in African Americans and their attitudes and behaviors related to mental health services use. However, the effect size for cultural mistrust was not significantly different for counseling and psychotherapy studies as compared with other types of studies, suggesting that the mental health context was neither more nor less threatening than other social situations. Younger African Americans tended to exhibit more cultural mistrust attitudes than did older African Americans.
Whaley argues that cultural mistrust is an important psychological construct for the diagnosis and treatment of African Americans. This construct, therefore, must be acknowledged by clinicians as a legitimate method of coping with racism and discrimination. In this context, discussing racism with clients, even those with severe mental illness, would be a relevant part of treatment.
Cultural Mistrust and Counseling
A European American counselor confronting the racial and ethnic differences between the counselor and an African American client in the initial session does not, in and of itself, offset the cultural mistrust that some Black individuals have of Whites in general. Conceptualization of the client problem consistent with the client’s belief system, methods of resolution compatible with the client’s culture, and counseling goals consistent with that of the client are necessary to build credibility with culturally diverse clients. When an African American client who has high cultural mistrust is assigned to a European American counselor, the client may expect the counselor to be less accepting, trustworthy, and less of an expert. Clients who do not belong to the same racial or ethnic group as their counselor and who have cultural mistrust toward their counselor may terminate counseling at a high rate. Cultural paranoia also may prevent some African American clients from self-disclosing to European American therapists.
According to Whaley, African Americans with severe mental illness who report high levels of cultural mistrust are more likely to have more negative attitudes toward White clinicians. They favor clinicians from their own racial group, although they may believe that European American clinicians receive better training. Reginald Alston and Tyronn Bell suggested that cultural mistrust may influence the way in which African Americans with disabilities approach rehabilitation counseling. Existence of cultural mistrust in a mild form could be healthy and adaptive for African Americans to sharpen their social wits and enhance their survival. However, a study by Bell and Terence Tracey indicated that among African American students, mistrust of European Americans is not always psychologically healthy. A moderate amount of trust of Whites is related to perceptions of personal well-being. It also is important to note that aspects of cultural mistrust can be mistaken for unhealthy paranoia.
- Terrell, F., & Terrell, S. L. (1981). An inventory to measure cultural mistrust among Blacks. Western Journal of Black Studies, 5, 180-184.
- Whaley, A. L. (2001). Cultural mistrust and mental health services for African Americans: A review and metaanalysis. The Counseling Psychologist, 29, 513-531.