Race refers to a label that is commonly ascribed to individuals in certain societies based on their affiliation with a group of people. Members of racial groups typically share common characteristics in physical appearance or phenotype, but more significantly, they share a common stature within a given society. Although not widely regarded as such, many societies are hierarchically arranged by race, with the sociopolitically dominant group being composed of Whites and other racial groups variously (and frequently interchangeably) arrayed at lower rungs. Convention suggests that racial classification is a reflection of an objective scheme about biogenetic differences among humans (the presumption of “natural race”); however, such a conclusion is irrefutably false. According to the American Anthropological Association, race is a social construction whose origins can be traced to an ideology that associates observable physical qualities of people that serve as markers of race, with presumptions about the person’s personality, morality, temperament, or “deservedness” of prized resources in a society. These resources include entry into political and judicial arenas, access to valued academic institutions, and opportunities to enter and be promoted in various occupational settings. That biogenetic differences are found in human groups appears to relate not to race, but rather to such factors as regional differences, group sensitivity to ultraviolet light, and resistance to disease.

Race is distinguished from ethnicity in that the former evolved out of a history of racial oppression. Determining which people constituted what racial group was influenced in part by ethnicity; yet the evolution of race appears to relate closely with the sociopolitical circumstances that surrounded the people in a society. Indeed, racial groups encompass people from different ethnicities. For example, in the United States, the White racial group category can include the multiple European ethnic groups that migrated to the country, just as the Asian/Pacific Islander American racial group includes people with ethnic origins in Cambodia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and the various inevitable admixtures. The other racial groups that have been constructed in the United States are African or Black American, Hispanic or Latino/a American, and Native/ Alaskan/Aleutian American. People from historically marginalized racial groups can form pan-ethnic (or pan-tribal) allegiances because of the oppression they have endured. People who are visibly descended from ethnic groups often come to associate themselves as White people and, as such, become associated with the benefactor of racial entitlements in that society.

Race as a phenomenon is linked to European conquest that stems from thousands of years ago, but it began to take on greater virulence about 400 years ago. It continues to influence people’s worldviews through a process of socialization. According to Diane Hughes and her colleagues, racial socialization occurs not only from direct teachings about issues of race that are conveyed by parents to children, but also through media, formal education, discourse that is considered acceptable according to societal norms, and politically resistant efforts, as in the establishment of learning settings that promote racial awareness and understanding. Over time, ideas can shift about who constitutes what race, as in far-gone delineations of Africans that included distinguishing those of “mixed” race (labeled mulattoes or octoroons) from those with more African appearance in skin color, nose shape, and texture of hair.

As an illustration of the questions regarding the suggestion that determinations of race are objective, hypodescent is a practice that originated in the earlier years of racial formation in the United States and is characterized by the automatic assignment of the children of racially different couples to a less privileged group. Another illustration of race as a social construction is the experience of a person being designated one racial group in one setting and another in another setting. Persons of mixed Black-White parentage with discernible African features most likely would be classified as Black or biracial in the United States but potentially as White in some Caribbean countries.

A more elaborate history of the origins of race follows.

Historical Context

Shared phenotypic qualities have historically been the basis for a distinction between racial groups, and those in power have used race as a justification to identify some groups as inferior and thus to justify their mistreatment of such groups. What developed in this construction of race was an ideology of differential human worth that could be linked to observable phenotypic features. Several scholars, including J. L. Graves, presented documented evidence of how White scientists attempted to prove such a connection using an assortment of “scientific” measures and tests. Certain intrinsic qualities, such as intellectual abilities, moral fiber, aesthetic tastes, personalities, and physical abilities were “proven” to be associated with racial group membership. Positive human qualities were associated with Europeans, who labeled themselves as racially White, whereas various non-White populations throughout the world were considered to possess negative qualities.

Notably, scholars describe the emergence of a new identity among Whites in North America that paralleled the evolving construction of race. Many Whites saw themselves as having superiority in worth and being the deserving heirs of the territories inhabited by non-Whites. They viewed the colonized and exploited as inferior and deserving of their fate. In the United States, an ideology of race became reproduced over time, catalyzed by forces such as shifts in the nation’s demography—shifts that resulted not only from increases in the population of enslaved Africans and immigrants but also from factors such as the preponderance of “mixed” racial parentages, fluctuations in the economy that were linked intricately to racial and ethnic competition in the labor force, and legal issues surrounding definitions of who constituted what race.

Also developing over time were responses to racial oppression by non-Whites. Depending on the extent of violence or, threat of violence, non-White racial groups often built alliances across ethnicities to form kinships, or, rather, networks of support and endurance. Yet another response by many oppressed racial groups was to align themselves with their White oppressors to decrease the severity of their conditions. As history has shown repeatedly that violence can breed further violence, we know from documented accounts that multiple conflicts have existed between racial groups, for example, between non-Whites and Whites during uprisings for liberation, and among similarly marginalized racial groups, as in Black cowboys’ participation in Native American massacres. The spawning of divisions within racial groups can be attributed in part to racial oppression, as well as to the confluence of other forces that pertain to unfair systems of stratification, like class exploitation and sexism.

From History to Contemporary Contexts

Racism is perpetuated when people are unable to resolve the dehumanization that underlies its existence. A crucial step in this resolution is the need for a wider acknowledgment of its existence and the understanding of the varied meanings that people attach to race. Evidence shows that people of all walks of life are hampered by the erroneous belief that racial groupings can be associated reliably with biogenetic variation or other differences in traits presumed to be immutable. For counseling professionals, it is especially troubling that behavioral scientists seemingly carry this belief when they examine racial issues. A base of knowledge that could inform mental health practitioners about the relevance of race to psychological functioning is compromised by a preponderance of research studies in which self-identified race is used to speculate about research outcomes. A more direct approach would be to investigate the meaning that people ascribe to race as related to these outcomes. J. E. Helms, M. Jerrigan, and M. Mascher recommend methodological strategies for studying race that can best inform mental health practice.

In the absence of forceful efforts to abrupt societal racism, there is the continued threat that racism’s reach will extend to various parts of the world. C. E. Thompson, J. A. Annan, S. S. Auma-Okumu, and A. Qureshi contend that the spread of racist ideology has had an impact on all episodes of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the past century and in current-day Sudan. The American Anthropological Association links the adoption of an ideology of race to the extermination of11 million “inferior” people in Nazi Germany.

Although some propose that an obliteration of “race” as a human label is necessary to this goal of the elimination of racism, most scholars seem to agree that this charge can be viewed as a manifestation of colorblindness, that is, the desire to ignore race for the expressed purpose of seeing people “merely as people.” The problem with color-blindness ideology is that it assumes that racism can be tackled easily by an insistence that the person is not noticing something that probably, for most people, is impossible not to notice. In other words, people who uphold an ideology of color-blindness assume that the perceptual erasure of race is possible; yet recent studies by J. Dovidio and his colleagues show that racial cues often spark implicit biases in Whites that contradict their nonracist, verbal messages. An erasure of labels, though a laudable aspiration in view of their association with a loathsome past, would also detract from non-Whites’ pride in the resiliency of their groups. Moreover, because racism is a construction that is multiply layered and given to imperceptibility, resolving its pathological manifestations would require systemic efforts and the engagement of the varied racial groups that comprise the society. Learning to acknowledge rather than deny the experiences of different racial groups can be seen as a healthy start to these strategies.

Relevant to the discussion on ways to resolve problems over, and confusions about, race is the proliferation of labels that better reflect the amalgamation of people across races and regions of the world. Terms like Afro-Cuban, biracial or multiracial, Black-Indian, and so forth, challenge ideas about the more commonly used racial categories that were indicated earlier. These labels, which are internally defined as opposed to other racial labels that were externally imposed, help identify people’s multiple heritages. They therefore complicate the notion of racial classification and could very well urge people to consider the taken-for-granted nature of established racial labels. With improved lines of research and further study on race and racism, science and theory can help better determine the extent to which the varied uses of these labels—whether for the purpose of asserting one’s desire to break free of racial labels, denoting one’s loyalty to certain or varied family members, building alliances with similarly labeled people, or a combination of these and/or other factors—can operate to extinguish racial pathologies.

Implications for Counseling

In promoting positive mental health, counselors and therapists conduct assessments of individuals, groups, and families to determine client needs and strengths and the obstacles that hinder such promotion. Incorporating an understanding of race, as well as an understanding of its meaning to the client, can be helpful to the counseling process and outcome. How does this occur with so little research to guide professionals? Racial identity theory is a conceptualization in which the cognitive and affective processes associated with people’s response to racism are viewed as patterned. Whites and people of color experience these patterns differently, yet they share some commonalities: People develop racial identity as they are increasingly exposed to racial stimuli, and when their abilities to cope with these stimuli are depleted, particularly with exposure to the contradictions in reality and their proneness to moral reasoning, they then are compelled to seek out newer, more complex ways to cope. Racial identity theory is a valuable template for thinking about and working through issues of race and racism in counseling. The theory can be used as a means to make assessments about a client, about the counselor-self relative to his or her understanding of racial issues in counseling, and as a road map for facilitating advanced development. Advanced racial identity development refers to characteristics about a client’s way of behaving and viewing the world that include risk-taking behaviors (to move the person to more enlightened perspectives about racism and other forms of oppression) and greater complexity in thinking about others and the self. Racial identity theory does not concern itself with racial labels, but it may elicit information about labels to achieve a rich understanding of how the individual perceives the self and others within the racism-hierarchical scheme.

There are many cues to determine how or if matters of race are relevant to counseling. C. E. Thompson and R. T. Carter recommend that practitioners help create a climate in which the client can assume that these matters are viewed as permissible in counseling and, therefore, can be relevant to counseling. Such deliberate engineering is important in view of the suppression that surrounds racial discourse. One way to create this climate is to briefly point out the racial designation the client indicated on an intake form, or simply ask him or her directly.

As noted earlier, racial socialization refers to a process of learning about racial issues. Racial identity theory more specifically examines how people come to view their worth relative to others in racialized societies. These appraisals of worth are influenced by stereotypes about racial groups, such as the stereotype of lazy Latinos/as or low-intelligent Black people. Stereotypes reduce the complexity of humans by conveying ideas about individuals based on their visible group affiliation. Stereotypes contain kernels of truth about people, yet the propensity of societal institutions to downplay and distort historical conditions of oppression, as well as continued experiences of racial discrimination in various spheres of public life, helps crystallize notions about “the way people are.” It is essential that the counselor be aware of the cognitive and affective processes that can distort his or her view about people and, especially, the view of certain groups as possessing less worth than others.

In trying to glean the meaning that clients make about race, counselors need to develop skills in inquiring about a topic that is considered fairly off-limits in polite society. Complicating matters, it is not uncommon for some people to express an indifference or rejection to race labeling, as in “I don’t refer to myself racially,” and showing some annoyance in the counselor raising issues of race during these interactions. White clients may express this racelessness as a means to express their indifference to race or deflect any embarrassment they might have about their affiliation with other Whites. Consistent with racial identity theory, responses to how clients react to racial cues will differ according to their understanding and degree of comfort with these stimuli.

The following two scenarios are presented to offer some glimpse of some of the meanings that people can ascribe to racism, notably the question: “What is your racial group?” On a preemptive note: How clients respond to racial stimuli offers useful information about the client’s worldview; however, it would be unwise to conclude anything based on very brief responses. Determining the relevance of race of a particular client requires systematic exploration. As illustrated below, racial discourse characterized by the counselor’s attempts to determine how race and racism have been incorporated into a client’s world-view also reveals knowledge of how the person currently understands him- or herself in general, and as a person socialized in a structurally unequal and unfair world. As people talk about racial matters, a skillful assessment can help glean positive and negative ideas about the self. Constructions of race are closely linked to constructions of others; consequently, when clients in therapy share their feelings of fragility and low self-worth, the counselor potentially has clues about how their clients might relate or see others by comparison. People who need to be seen as distinct from a different group may have carved out ideas about who they want to be affiliated with as well as which group they do not want to be affiliated with.

In the first illustration is a person whose race is ambiguous and who is asked by the counselor, “Racially, how do you identify yourself?” With the response “biracial,” the counselor notices that the client exhibits discomfort. These observations are marked by the client’s rapid eye-blinking and twists of her body. The counselor may take these nonverbal cues as indications of the client’s annoyance at being asked the question. For people who appear racially ambiguous, there is some wariness to such questions because of the sense that inquirers seem to need to know to settle their own intolerance for the ambiguity. The skilled therapist should take note of the detected physical reactions, perhaps even explain that this is a question he asks all of his clients and that he suspects that she is bothered by it because she’s been asked many times and perhaps by those for whom the intent is not entirely known but suspected. As the client listens, she may appear to become more relaxed as she infers that the counselor’s desire to know her race is different from the others she has encountered. Over time, the client explains that her parents, one of whom is Black and the other White, raised her in a loving home in which matters of racism were addressed openly. Her family also honored their different racial and ethnic heritages—Irish, African, Chinese, and Polish—and made special efforts to celebrate the rich heritage of her African ancestors because these ancestors, and others descended from them, are seen as the “undesirables” of American society. The counselor learns, still over the course of some time, that opportunities to interact with Black people have always been and continue to be plentiful, as with people from other backgrounds. As a result of her family, the client recognizes that deliberate efforts have to be made to relinquish negative ideas about her heritage as a marginalized member of society and that getting to know people from a range of backgrounds in ways that honor them as people is something that she constantly strives for, not only because of race but also because of how she has to come to know the host of forces that create divisions among humans in society.

Based on this information and the evolving relationship, the counselor is able to learn some important information about the client’s psychological makeup. He learns that there is open communication in the family about a very difficult subject as well as deliberate efforts to go about their lives that counter mainstream ideals. He also learns that the person exudes confidence in a manner that is unapologetic. Her relationship with diverse groups of people suggests that she can traverse many situations socially and that she seeks rather than avoids close relationships with people without the barrier of stereotyping or skillful avoidance accompanied by deft justifications. What one can surmise from this client is that she functions in psychologically healthy ways in many areas of her life. With someone so advanced in racial identity, Helms noted, the race of the counselor may not matter so much as when the client’s development is less advanced.

Consider this next example of a client, who appears White, and when asked about his race, quickly responds “Caucasian,” then proceeds to shifting the topic to the “real” issue at hand. He may harbor some questions about why the question was even asked but is so smooth with his indifference to race that the slightly annoyed mood barely registers. As sessions proceed, he makes certain subtle yet disjointed remarks about his admiration of Native American people whom he believes “have suffered so much.” He may even start dropping hints of his new relationships with Native Americans. His therapist is Native American, which is discerned by name, appearance, and dress in a town with a critical mass of Native Americans. The stimulus of race (i.e., the perceived race of the therapist) invokes the notion not only of difference but also of the disparities that exist between Whites and Native Americans within a society in terms of resources, living conditions, and so forth. Race also signals different experiences between groups, whereby non-Whites face everyday racism, exoticism, and discrimination, while Whites encounter privilege, often unrecognized. The client’s reference to “Caucasian” signals perhaps the notion that this term sounds official and less embarrassing than “White.” What the counselor learns, at least in a tentative manner, is that the client is open to making inroads with people whom he may have formerly been indifferent to or whom he has relegated as inferior to him. But those overtures are indirect and suggestive of a lack of maturity in racial identity development. He also may have a lack of meaningful social supports to make these connections more constructive. The client may be impelled to unresolved problems related to race because he is experiencing a positive relationship with his counselor and would like the counselor to approve of him. A more authentic relationship would yield not only more mature strategies for connecting with the counselor but also an ability of the client to discover a more genuine interest in Native American people. Stated another way, the client may be restricted to viewing the therapist and other Native American people as objects that are important in helping him diminish feelings of self-worth. In promoting psychological health, the counselor would need to better assess the extent to which the client’s objectification serves to feed a fictitious image of himself as good and help replace these strategies with those that reflect more genuine engagement in people in general.

Both illustrations reveal how racism establishes a yoked existence among individuals in society. In contrast to the interdependence that exists in creating functioning societies, racism and other unfair systems of stratification impose a twisted interdependence that thwarts the realization of these societies. According to Thompson and her colleagues, the yoke is experienced when people in racialized societies collude in belief systems about human superiority. Because of the lack of “working through” the generations-long challenges inherent in racial oppression, people invoke the yoke when they come to believe that human worth is achieved in ascending these constructed hierarchies. In some societies like Brazil, racial ascendancy can be characterized by the marriage of non-Whites to Whites or by the acquisition of wealth. Racial ascendancy can be tied to social class, ethnicity, gender, and skin color in many societies. But importantly, a striving for ascension through constructed hierarchies does little to dismantle the hierarchies. The individual ultimately responds in collusion with the distortions about humankind, thus reaffirming bias and distancing.

To break from the construction, people must recognize the need for equity, integrity, and other goals that would foster the creation of human family across stratified groups.

Counselors need to learn to disengage from the yoke and its varied proliferations. To do this, it is recommended that therapists gain an understanding of how race is dramatized locally and nationally and learn to work through it in their own lives and in the counseling process. Furthermore, and because racism is but one form of oppression in an unfortunately lengthy list of oppressive forces, counselors need to learn about the other forces that have an impact on people in conjunction with one another. In view of these forces, the focus of counseling and treatment plans should be not only to remove symptoms but also to foster more liberating worldviews in clients.


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