Racial categorization is a central construct within American society and, as such, has had an enduring impact on all levels of social relations. Given the hierarchical social structure within the United States, racism has emerged as a logical outcome of a society based on and structured around race. A growing appreciation of the social and psychological costs associated with racism has led to racism being viewed as an important area of inquiry and intervention for counselors and psychologists.
Racism, a term coined in the 1930s, is centered on the belief that persons can be separated into categories based on physical attributes. Racism is understood to have three fundamental components. First, it is rooted in the belief that perceived group differences can be attributed to fundamental differences in biology (stereotypes); second, racism involves the negative evaluations one has of another racial group relative to one’s own (prejudice); and third, racism reflects the unequal treatment of groups (discrimination). Fundamentally, racism involves the presumption that one race is superior over others in areas of aptitude, abilities, intelligence, physical prowess, and/or virtues, and it is exhibited through acts of discrimination and harassment.
Various types of racism include individual, institutional or structural, and cultural or ideological. Individual racism is characterized by one person’s treatment toward another based on race, for example, an employer not hiring a qualified individual or a sales clerk not helping a customer. Ideological racism is a perception or worldview that may formulate into a personal theory about individuals belonging to a particular race (e.g., the assumption that all African Americans have inferior intelligence or the assumed superiority of European art forms over other racial groups’ artistic expressions). Institutional or structural racism is located within political and economic systems and social institutions such as education and law enforcement. Institutional racism is thought to involve unfair distribution of resources and unequal participation in the above-mentioned systems based on racial categorization. Such discrimination can be seen in a financial institution’s practice of consistently providing loans at higher rates of interest to persons of color.
Racism in Historical Context
Racism as a social phenomenon and psychological reality is built entirely on the concept of race. A historical review of the word race indicates that from its inception, race has been associated with classification. The Latin derivative of the word race, razza, was first applied to the classification of animals into species. With the advent of European exploration and the convergence of economic, political, religious, and scientific forces in the colonialist age, the word race began to be applied to groups of people. This development culminated in the establishment of a racial hierarchy, with peoples of European origin forming the top of the hierarchy and people of African origin being at the base. It is easily understood then how certain groups of people began to be viewed as inherently inferior, a belief which the then scientific community supported by means of Social Darwinism and the Eugenics movement. Current thinking, largely led by anthropologists and supported by genetic research, indicates that race, as a biological construct, is in fact nonexistent. Genetic data consistently yields evidence of greater variability within so-called racial groups than across them. However, race as a social construct continues to hold much sway with unstated views of inferiority/ superiority being reinforced by the existence of significant social inequalities across racial lines.
A review of various socioeconomic indicators in contemporary U.S. society reveals that, proportionately, White Americans tend to accumulate the greatest amount of wealth and have more consistent access to educational opportunities and health care than do their non-White counterparts. In the corporate world, Whites disproportionately hold the greatest percentages of managerial and executive positions, and in the political arena, Whites have been singularly represented in the positions of president, vice president, and Speaker of the House of Representatives. Furthermore, racial disparities that exist in the areas of health and health care, as well as the disproportionately higher rates of incarceration among Blacks and Latinos/as, serve to reinforce stereotypical notions of the racial hierarchy as well as provide further evidence of the institutional and structural nature of racism. Many observers have concluded that even though race is in and of itself inherently meaningless, the significance that is attached to race has made it a real and enduring concept. Perhaps the most powerful and damaging aspect of race is simply the belief that physical differences are representative of differences in traits, abilities, and aptitude, a belief that provides the core ideological foundation for the persistence of racism.
An important correlate of racism is the notion of privilege, also referred to as unearned advantage or conferred dominance. Essentially privilege is viewed as the accruement of social power based on historical inequities. Given the history of race within the United States, the accepted understanding is that Whites currently are the racial group to whom concept of privilege most accurately applies. Before and during the time of slavery, Whites inherited certain privileges that were denied to non-White persons. These privileges included receiving an education, working for wages, having the right to vote, and having the right to own property. As a racial group, Whites continue to benefit from these types of “privileges.” It is this system of unearned advantages, irrespective of individual knowledge or intent, that forms the basis of institutional and structural racism. When this system is accompanied by a personal belief in the notion of racial superiority, individual racism is the result.
Psychological Models of Racism
Although racism is viewed primarily as a sociological phenomenon, it is also understood to have distinct psychological components.
Prejudice is viewed as a core aspect of individual racism and racial discrimination. G. E. Allport was one of the first scholars to offer a psychological model of prejudice. Allport viewed prejudice as an inflexible attitude, defined by generalizations based on inaccurate information, that could be directed toward a group or an individual of that group. Although evolutionary psychologists have suggested that prejudice is embedded in the genetic makeup of humans, social psychological theory proposes that prejudicial attitudes are habitual and learned, either through imitation of others or in the ways in which we construct our psychological reality. While initially thinking that prejudice was in fact a type of personality, Allport eventually introduced an integrated theoretical model of prejudice, which focused on the various causes of prejudice, including historical, sociocultural, situational, personality-type, phenomenological, and individual factors. In addition to concepts outlined in Allport’s model, social psychologists have also viewed prejudice to be embedded in the human need for self-justification, status, and power. People’s unfair treatment of others is justified if they assign derogative labels such as “inferior,” “unworthy,” “stupid,” or “subhuman” to others who are different from themselves. The notion of prejudice is thought to be a foundational element of the larger phenomenon of racism.
Current Psychological Models of Racism
Aversive Racism and Racial Microaggressions
S. Gaertner and J. Dovidio have described aversive racism as a subtle process whereby White Americans, while holding on to egalitarian beliefs, continue to feel discomfort and negative feelings in relation to people who are racially different. Given the positive developments in race relations over the past few decades (e.g., civil rights legislation), the notion of aversive racism is now viewed as having replaced the overt racism of the Jim Crow era. For Black Americans and other people of color, the Jim Crow era was marked by legalized racial segregation, consistent threat to their physical well-being, intimidation practices such as cross burning, and the ubiquitous loss of property and personal rights. Although these intentional and overt acts of hostility and discrimination are now disavowed, the more unintentional behaviors consistent with avoidance and minimization of racially different others continues to provide racism with a ubiquitous hold on American society.
A correlate of aversive racism is the phenomenon of racially based microaggressions—a term introduced by Chester Pierce. Racial microaggressions are thought to be the day-to-day demeaning and insulting messages directed toward people of color, both directly and indirectly. One type of microaggression is the experience of invisibility among African American men. The “invisibility syndrome,” as described by A. J. Franklin, is thought to be a phenomenon whereby, irrespective of accomplishments, Black men continue to be interacted with based on stereotypical notions of inferior intelligence, criminality, and danger. Hence, their individual self is lost to the stereotypical view of who they are, and a feeling of invisibility ensues. The consistent exposure to racial microaggressions is understood to have a detrimental effect on well-being.
Racism as a Type of Stressor
Racism has become appreciated as representing a significant aspect of psychological stress for people of color. R. Clark and colleagues and S. Harrell have provided important theoretical frameworks from which the individual impact of racism can be understood. Although primarily focusing on the African American experience, their frameworks have applicability for individuals from all racial groups who are exposed to racism within the United States. Both models view racism and its effects as an interaction between the individual and his or her environment. Accordingly, various forms of racism-related stress have been identified, namely, racism-related life events, vicarious racism experiences, daily racism microstressors, chronic contextual stress, collective experience of racism, and transgenerational transmission of group traumas. Racism-related stress, therefore, can be understood as a combination of episodic stress, daily hassles, and chronic strain. How an individual evaluates or perceives the experience of racism is considered to be a central determinant of the manner in which the individual will be impacted by the experience of racism. If an environmental stimulus is perceived as racism, an individual will employ various coping responses. The coping response in turn determines the physical or psychological outcome of the environmental stimulus, possibly leading to adverse psychological and physiological stress.
Racism as a Type of Mental Illness
There is debate as to whether White racism is a type of mental illness. James E. Dobbins and Judith H. Skillings have argued that the dynamics of White racism are similar to those dynamics seen among individuals who experience addictions. Accordingly, it is argued that individual racism includes a specific set of behaviors and symptoms, such as a reduced racial sensitivity marked by increasing tolerance of racist behavior, denial of the presence of racism (both individual and socially), withdrawal and isolation from people of color, persistent maladaptive behavior designed to maintain distance between self and the racial other, and persistence of maladaptive behaviors irrespective of consequences. As such, it is thought that racism can be arrested through interventions such as the restructuring of distorted cognitions, the use of self-help groups to engage in antiracist dialogue, and the implementation of a 12-step model with the goal being a change in ideas, attitudes, and behaviors.
Expanded Psychological Definitions of Racism
Psychologists have begun to call for an expanded understanding of the manner in which racism impacts people of color. Included in this call is a need to rethink the definition of racism. One approach is to parcel out aspects of racism in relation to racial discrimination (withholding) and racial harassment (acts of hostility). In making this distinction it is thought that the psychological and emotional impact of racism could be more efficiently explored. Additionally, preliminary evidence indicates that those individuals who report experiences consistent with racial harassment are more likely to report increased levels of psychological distress such as depression, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts. In relation to racism-related stress, researchers have commented on the significant differences in rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) between Whites and people of color. The offered explanation is that people of color, possibly due to chronic exposure to racism, might have a lower stress threshold when encountering traumatic events. Subsequently, it is argued that current understandings of traumatic stress might not capture the type of stress induced by consistent exposure to, and involvement with, racism. For people of color it is thought that generic or general life stress most likely includes aspects of stress that are inherently associated with living in a society structured on race and defined by racism.
Psychological Correlates of Race and Racism
Racism has long been viewed as having important psychological aspects. Early scholars such as Frantz Fanon spoke in terms of racism leading to alienation— alienation from self, from significant others, from one’s culture and history, and from self-determination and access to various forms of social power. In the 1950s A. Kardiner and L. Ovesey introduced the notion that a defining characteristic of the “Negro personality” was the belief in their inferiority. Kenneth and Mamie Clark provided some of the first empirical evidence of the harmful psychological impact of racism when their study showed that Black children displayed a preference for White dolls over Black dolls. The notion of racism as an intrapsychic process whereby the targets of racism accept the inferior view of their racial group and, by extension, an inferior view of themselves, is referred to as internalized racism. More recently, Shawn Utsey and Mark Bolden have suggested that acute reactions to racism might include racism-related trauma, racism-related fatigue, anticipatory racism reaction, race-related distress, racism-related frustration, and racism-related confusion. A growing body of research indicates that experiences of racism are linked to psychological distress, decreased quality of life, and specific physiological disorders such as hypertension. With regard to psychological distress, racism is associated with experiences of depression, anxiety, increased feelings of hostility, and higher levels of paranoia. Currently, the accepted understanding is that racism is generally associated with poorer health status and that the association is the strongest for mental health.
Finally, there is a growing appreciation of the manner in which racism functions at the psychological level within the dominant racial group. Research suggests that for Whites, the psychological correlates of racism include a distorted sense of self and personal accomplishments, an irrational sense of superiority, a fear of those who are racially different, and a predominant sense of guilt.
The construct of racial identity is an important psychological correlate of racism. Racial identity theorists such as William E. Cross, Jr. and Janet E. Helms have been at the forefront of increasing the understanding of race as a psychological variable as exhibited by racial identity statuses and attitudes. Racial identity is understood to be an aspect of personality that reflects an individual’s identity in relation to his or her racial group membership. Additionally, racial identity is believed to influence the manner in which an individual processes racial stimuli and experiences of racism and is understood to encompass affective, cognitive, and behavioral functions. Racial identity theory posits varied maturational statuses in relation to how an individual processes racial stimuli and therefore is an important construct to consider when exploring the individual impact of racism. The statuses that are viewed as more immature for people of color are pre-encounter and encounter and for Whites are contact, disintegration, and reintegration. Essentially, the immature racial identity statuses are defined by a denial of race and racism and confusion in relation to self as a racial being and racism as social reality. For Whites, the more mature statuses are re-integration, pseudo-independence, and autonomy while for people of color, the more mature statuses include immersion/ emersion, internalization, and integrative awareness. These statuses are defined by a recognition and appreciation of the presence of race and racism and the acceptance of self and others as racial beings. Research has indicated that more mature racial identity statuses tend to be associated with greater degrees of psychological well-being and that racial identity statuses have a direct impact on the perception and appraisal of race-related events. Finally, there is preliminary evidence for a potentially moderating role of racial identity in relation to racism-related stress and psychological functioning. Scholars have posited that the more mature racial identity status might act as a buffer, protecting individuals against the more harmful psychological effects of racism.
Socialization is understood to be a process by which individuals learn the beliefs, values, and behaviors that are considered to be normative within their specific reference groups—racial, ethnic, religious, and so forth. In relation to racism, racial socialization is viewed as an important element influencing how individuals both anticipate and respond to experiences of racism and discrimination. Given that people of color within the United States are raised in a negative and, at times, hostile environment, racial socialization practices are instrumental in facilitating a healthy self-concept. Through implicit and explicit messages, children are taught to value those beliefs, behaviors, and values that are specifically associated with their racial group membership. As with racial identity, racial socialization is considered to be an important construct in the development of resiliency and can also be viewed as potentially protective for individuals and groups who are consistently exposed to experiences of racism.
Racism and Mental Health Practice
The importance of racism in mental health practice is understood in relation to the nature of a client’s presenting concerns, the impact of race and racism on the quality of the therapeutic relationship, and factors associated with coping and resilience.
Perceived racism is the subjective experience of racism and discrimination. Symptoms that tend to be associated with paranoia (i.e., suspiciousness, feelings of ill will, beliefs in external control) are viewed as effects of perceived racism. However, in populations that have been consistently exposed to racism, perceived racism has been associated with a type of “cultural paranoia.” Contrasted to clinical paranoia, cultural paranoia is initiated by the experience of being a racial minority in a socially hostile environment. Within counseling and psychotherapeutic services, the notion of cultural paranoia is often labeled “cultural mistrust,” a distrust and attitudinal response that people of color might have toward the dominant majority, brought on by years of social and economic oppression as well as continued everyday experiences of perceived racism, prejudice, and/or discrimination. Cultural mistrust is demonstrated in the counseling relationship, especially between a racial minority client and dominant racial majority counselor. Trust on behalf of the client toward the counselor must be established for the counseling to be effective. The client must trust that the counselor has his or her best interests in mind during treatment. Importantly, a person of color who pursues counseling wants to be ensured that the counselor is also understanding of issues related to race and racism. Hesitance to engage in the counseling process due to the notion that the counselor lacks the understanding of how one’s culture plays a part in the presenting problem is often a result of cultural mistrust. Although the impact of racial similarity in counselor pairing has not yet been empirically settled, there is research to suggest racially similar dyads might have an important influence on the counseling process. For example, Black clients have been noted to report lower levels of rapport with White counselors and greater counseling satisfaction with racially similar counselors, a finding considered largely due to an increased perception of trust. More often than not, if trust is not established, there is risk for premature termination, lower amounts of self-disclosure, and increased negative attitudes about seeking help.
Using a culture-specific framework, James M. Jones developed a model that describes the manner in which peoples of African descent are able to cope with racism. Jones argues that racism is a cultural legacy that has been embedded in the psychological consciousness. Subsequently a person or group’s ability to cope with racial oppression is dependent on their psychological resiliency. He theorized that one’s coping strategy is heavily dependent on one’s racial identity and the subscription to the cultural foundation of one’s cultural African legacy. Jones’s model, TRIOS—which stands for time, rhythm, improvisation, orality, and spirituality—is thought to capture the cultural resources available to, and utilized by, Black Americans. Although prejudicial attitudes from the dominant group remain, the marginalized or minority group has gained the ability to cope with prejudice by detecting and protecting themselves from racism, eliminating self-defeating perceptions, and enhancing self-worth. Models such as these might shed light on how individuals and groups who experience racism consistently report high levels of subjective well-being and how they have developed resilience. For the mental health practitioner, an appreciation of cultural-specific coping styles, such as relying on religion and spirituality, culture-specific behaviors and rituals, is an essential requirement when working with populations who regularly experience discrimination. Finally the role of cultural enclaves (i.e., living in racially similar communities) has also been recognized as potentially providing a buffer against those negative psychological reactions experienced by individuals and groups when faced with racist incidents.
Implications of Racism for Counselor Practice
The phenomenon of racism impacts counselor practice on multiple levels. Counselors are involved in assisting individual perpetrators of racism in gaining a healthier sense of self and accordingly shifting away from dysfunctional ways of perceiving racial difference. Counselors also work with individuals or groups who have experienced racism in order to facilitate the employment of more effective coping patterns as well as the development of self-efficacy and personal power. On a more systemic level, counselors work to challenge racist structures that lead to differential rates of mental illness and disproportionate access to adequate health care. Counselors work to have increased racial representation among mental health professionals. Counselors work to legitimize practices of indigenous healing that might be questioned by the dominant racial majority as being unscientific. Finally, counselors and counseling psychologists seek to challenge dominant psychotherapeutic theories that view psychological functioning from an individualistic perspective, which could be less helpful to people of color who tend to value communal ways of being and incorporate spirituality as an essential aspect of well-being.
A recent development within counseling and counseling psychology has been the focus on social justice as a core aspect of who counselors are and what counselors do. Antiracism training is therefore a critical aspect of counselor training and preparation. Effective counselors recognize that they too are products of socialization experiences and cultural upbringing. Living in a society structured around race, counselors have also been influenced by various aspects of individual and structural racism. Counselors therefore seek to maintain an active awareness about the ways in which they participate and contribute to the maintenance of racism as a system of oppression. Antiracist attitudes and behaviors have been incorporated within the rubric of multicultural competence and therefore represent one of the baseline qualities needed for competent and effective counselor practice.
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