Visible Racial/Ethnic Groups

Visible racial/ethnic groups is a euphemism for racial/ethnic classification in the counseling profession when discussing American racial/ethnic groups that are non-Caucasian or not of European descent. This terminology, coined by Janet E. Helms and Donelda A. Cook, for African, Latino/a, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Native/Indigenous Americans, is an alternative to the term racial/ethnic minority groups. Identifying visible racial/ethnic groups as “minorities” in research and counseling implicitly compares these groups to Caucasians/European Americans as the standard, thereby disempowering them. Additionally, the term minorities connotes subordinate social status. The use of the terms minority for visible racial/ethnic groups and majority for Caucasian/European Americans reinforces the existing racial power differences in societal relations in the United States.

The term visible racial/ethnic groups signifies two aspects of American racial socialization of peoples of African, Asian, Latin, and Indigenous North American descent. The first aspect focuses on common cultural characteristics, norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors that stem from cultures of origin and are transmitted across generations. For example, cultures of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Indigenous North America typically stress the importance of the collective society, emphasizing interdependence and connectedness. Secondly, the term visible racial/ethnic groups recognizes the ways in which the aforementioned groups have been subject to unequal social, economic, legal, and political power in American society, based on visible racial characteristics, such as skin color, facial features, and native language.

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Implications of Racial/Ethnic Labels

Professional Mandate

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Fifth Edition, calls for the appropriate identification of research participants and clientele by specifying major demographic characteristics such as sex, age, and race/ethnicity. Language for racial/ethnic designations changes over time, and members of designated racial/ethnic groups perceive some terms negatively. It is recommended that racial/ethnic designations reflect the preferred nomenclature of the groups discussed. It is important to use terminology that empowers racial/ethnic groups in their collective social identities, as well as in their psychological well-being.

Historical Evolution of Racial/Ethnic Labeling

During the early 20th century, psychological research (i.e., intelligence research) and counseling practice recognized racial differences by comparing Caucasians with non-Caucasians (typically Black Americans) and interpreting any differences between groups against Caucasians as the standard or normative group. Thus, non-Caucasian groups were labeled deviant or deficient when found to differ from Caucasians as research participants and as counseling clientele.

As the representation of visible racial/ethnic group counselors and psychologists increased in the 1960s, they began to confront the deficit models of diversity in the profession, moving toward affirming diversity in racial/cultural identity. That is, research and practice began to examine cultural characteristics of African, Asian, Latin, and Indigenous Americans, to develop normative standards common to each racial/ethnic group. Research of within-group differences rather than between-group differences was promoted. The positive aspects of each racial/cultural group were affirmed by within-racial-group research.

In the 1970s, the social and psychological influences of racial oppression on members of visible racial/ethnic groups came to the forefront in counseling research and practice. The influence of racial socialization on the counseling process examined White counselor-Black client relationships and expectations for counseling. William Cross’s theory of psychological Nigrescence introduced the role of oppression as a critical factor in shaping the stages of Black racial identity, emphasizing the impact of Blacks’ encounters with the White normative standard in the development of Blacks’ sense of their social and psychological identities. In the 1980s and 1990s racial identity theory in research and practice was expanded to all racial/ethnic groups. Racial identity theories are concerned with how individuals abandon the effects of oppression (as either oppressed or the oppressor) and develop respectful and equitable attitudes toward their own racial group and other racial groups.

Research in the 21st century recognizes race/ ethnicity in the United States as a social construction rather than a biological entity, with racial/ethnic designations reflecting how society perceives individuals and how individuals come to perceive themselves due to racial socialization. Racial classifications are not precise measures: Self-designations of race or racial designations by others (i.e., researchers, counselors) are based on societally defined categories and societal racial positive and negative stereotypes.

The term visible racial/ethnic groups is an attempt to recognize the differential societal status of the socio-racial classifications for Blacks/African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Latinos/as, and Native/Indigenous Americans. This terminology also retains the cultural heritage transmissions of the respective ethnic groups.


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  4. Cross, W. (1978). The Thomas and Cross models of psychological Nigrescence: A review. Journal of Black Psychology, 5, 13-31.
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