Overcoming Biases to Effectively Serve African American College Students: A Call to the Profession
Duncan, Lonnie E., College Student Journal
This article reexamines the help-seeking behavior of African American college students with a focus on possible counselor biases as well as biases in the settings in which counselors work. These issues are discussed as possible contributing factors to the underutilization of counseling by African American college students. Strategies to overcoming these biases are discussed as well as implications for the counseling profession.
Over the past three decades there has been a great deal of attention devoted to multicultural counseling issues and how to deliver services to racial/ethnic minorities. Counselors have been informed of ways to adapt services to better meet the needs of African American students for over 20 years (Griffith, 1978), yet how much adaptation of services has actually occurred? To what degree are counselors' comfortable in working with African American students and adapting their own practices to ensure client retention? Data demonstrating that African American students still underutilize counseling services and have less positive experiences in counseling than their peers of other races, despite increases in psycho educational programming geared toward African American college students, suggests that it is time for counselors to put into action the recommendations across several decades, including the recently adopted statements regarding multicultural competency by the ACA and APA (Hargrove & Sedlacek, 1997).
Cardemil and Battle (2003) write:
"It is likely that most clinical psychologists have acquired an intellectual appreciation of the salience of race and ethnicity in the therapeutic context and are motivated to be sensitive to these issues in their own practice. However, for many psychologists, a general appreciation regarding the importance of race and ethnicity does not equate to a clear understanding of whether, when, and how to bring up these issues in the actual practice of clinical work." (p. 278). Hence, the purpose of this article is to re-examine the help seeking behavior of African American college students, highlight professional barriers to working with African American college students and provide strategies to overcome biases when working with African American college students.
Despite the gains and hard fought battles to improve the environment for African American college students on predominantly white campuses, there is a substantial body of research indicating that African American college students in general are still having a difficult time adjusting to the sometimes hostile environment on predominantly White campuses (Allen, 1991; Fleming, 1984; Schwitzer, Ancis, Griffin, 1998; Willie, 2003). African American college students enrolled at these colleges and universities have higher attrition rates, lower graduation rates and grade point averages, and attend graduate school at a much lower rate than their White counterparts (Allen, 1991; Duncan, 2003; Fleming, 1984; U.S. Department of Education, 2003; Schwitzer, Ancis, Griffin, &Thomas, 1999). Notwithstanding statistics that indicate, on average, African American college students are not doing well; research suggests that African American college students with higher levels of psychological functioning and a positive sense of mental wellness are far more likely to experience greater levels of success and performance, irrespective of the environment in which they are operating (Gloria, Hird, & Navarro, 2001).
African American college student help seeking behavior
Research that has focused on the relationship between race and help seeking has found that White students utilize counseling and other forms of psychological services more often than African American college students (Bosch & Cimbolic, 1994). Barbarin (1996) identified three main areas of research that were relevant to the underutilization of psychotherapy by African Americans. In this article, these three areas have been utilized as a framework to review the research relevant to African American college student's usage of counseling services and include: (1) cultural factors and values of African American students, (2) treatment settings, and (3) counselors. The remainder of this section will explore these three important areas.
Cultural factors and values of African American college students
The research on factors that influence African American college students' comfort in seeking help and/or their experiences with counseling have focused on racial identity, cultural mistrust and counselor preference. Generally studies that have examined racial identity have found that African American college students who were in the Immersion/Emersion stage of racial identity preferred counselors of the same race (Austin, Carter, & Vaux, 1990; Delphin & Rollock 1995; Duncan, 1996; Gloria, Hird, & Navarro, 2001; Parham & Helms, 1981; Ponterotto, Alexander & Hinkston, 1988). Additionally, African American students who were mistrustful were more likely to terminate prematurely from therapy, had a lower and more negative expectation of their counseling encounters with White counselors, perceived Black counselors as more cross culturally competent, and perceived White counselors as a less credible source of help than their less mistrusting peers (Terrell & Terrell, 1981; Fyffe, 2000; Poston, Craine, & Atkinson, 1991; Watkins, Terrell, Miller, & Terrell, 1989).
Researchers have also noted that although there are similarities between African Americans and White Americans, there are different emphasizes put on certain values. White counselors working with African American clients must be aware of these dissimilarities. For example, Pinderhughes (1989) reported that White Americans place greater emphasis on independence, achievement, material assets, planning, youth, and power. African Americans put greater emphasis on sharing, obedience to authority, spirituality, and respect for elders and heritage. Brashears (2000), citing several studies, reported that African Americans were arguably the most religious group in the world. Ellison and Gray (1990), found that religious participation was positively related to subjective well being in African Americans. Research has also shown that almost 75% of African Americans report reading religious materials at least several times a month (Bean, Perry, & Bedell, 2002). This may suggest that the use of religious writings or metaphors may be useful in joining with African American clients. Wiley (2000) suggest that similarity in spiritual traditions may be more important than racial preferences for some African American clients, particularly for those who have a strong religious identity.
Research that has examined the role that the treatment setting has had on African American college students' usage of mental health services is limited. The majority of this research is imbedded in studies that examined other factors related to African American students' underutilization of counseling. Nevertheless, there are some important findings related to treatment setting. College counseling centers that have at least one African American counselor see four times as many African American college student as those that do not (Bosch & Cimbolic, 1994). Researchers have speculated that the presence of an African American counselor creates a perception that the White counselors are okay and that they may have favorable attitudes toward other African Americans. Findings have also suggested that culturally appropriate magazines, cultural artifacts, and newspapers that reflect African American interests within the treatment setting influence African American's perception of the counseling center and other treatment centers (Sanchez-Hucles, 2000). Additionally, issues of privacy (e.g., location, frequency of interruptions, etc.) has been identified as possibly the most important variable related to treatment settings (Brems, 2001).
Counselor's attitudes and values are one of the essential components of successful outcomes in therapy. Rightfully, the counselor in the counseling dyad has received attention. Among the counselor factors that influence the counseling process and may lead to early termination of treatment by African American students include: (a) value differences between White and African American clients, (b) racial identity of the counselor, and (c) counselor's competence to work with African American clients. As already mentioned, when counselors do not appreciate the value differences between White and African American clients this may lead to frequent misunderstandings and early termination. Racial identity of the counselor is an important factor to consider when looking at African American students participation in the counseling process. If one considers that racial identity is a process of awareness of one's race and the influence that this has on the counseling process, then the lack of awareness of one's racial identity can have a negative influence on the counseling process, particularly in cross-racial counseling dyads (Helms, 1984). Much of the literature hypothesizes that multicultural competence, as well as overall counseling competence, of white counselors can be improved through an increase in their self-awareness (Richardson & Molinaro, 1996). It is through this process that White counselors will be better prepared to work effectively with African American clients (Richardson & Molinaro, 1996).
Discussion and Implications For Counseling
Although standards have been developed by both the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) requiring that counselors and psychologist be aware of their clients as well as their own cultural influences in the counseling process (APA, 2002; CACREP, 2001), the quest for multicultural competence for many remains elusive. At the core of becoming culturally competent is the central task of overcoming personal biases and organizational biases that hinder our work with African American college students. Our personal biases may lead to inappropriately looking at differences as deviant and may contribute to problems connecting with African American clients. Our personal biases can be further exacerbated in organizational environments where issues of working with African American clients are either ignored or minimally addressed. These dynamics potentially can create a service environment where there is no opportunity to increase cultural competence in working with African American clients. Considerations of ways to overcome organizational as well as personal biases are of vital importance to counselors who work with African American college students.
Overcoming Bias in the Counselor Work Place
Although much of the literature has focused on counselors overcoming personal racial and cultural biases, the discussion in the profession needs to start in the places where counselors work. Nybell and Gray (2004) stated that describing cultural dynamics of helping without attention to the work environments in which helping occurs is insufficient. The counseling profession and counseling centers must develop models of change in which multiculturally competent organizations develop and maintain their effectiveness. Cross, Bazron, Dennis, and Isaacs (1989) and Sue (2001) note a continuum of organizational cultural competence from culturally destructive to culturally proficient. At the lowest level, a culturally destructive agency maintains a set of attitudes, practices, or policies that promote the superiority of the dominant culture and attempt to lessen or destroy cultures considered different. At the midlevel, a culturally open agency maintains attitudes, practices, and policies, that are receptive to the improvement of cultural services. This occurs through the hiring of diverse staff, cultural sensitivity training and appointment of minorities to positions of power. At the highest level of cultural proficiency, an agency maintains a set of attitudes, practices, and policies that are sensitive to diversity and promote cultural relations among diverse groups. To achieve a minimal level of organizational competence the staff and leadership should reflect the racial diversity of the client population. In addition, important questions about the distribution of power in the counseling settings require exploration. In particular, who benefits from the current arrangements? Who is involved in the decision making process on matters of policy? Who has regular access to and influence over these processes? How are minority counselors and client groups represented in such decision-making? More importantly, counseling center directors must be willing to engage racial and cultural issues and acknowledge and address conflict between counseling center goals with the need to be more culturally responsive to African American college students (Nybell & Gray, 2004). Additionally, as Sue (2001) stated, any organizational multicultural initiative must contain an antiracism component in order to be successful. Furthermore, counselors and psychologist need to understand how organizational policies and procedures affect themselves and their clients. This level of organizational multicultural competence requires a strong commitment and dedication on the part of all levels of the college community including: counseling center staff, counseling center leadership, and the leadership of the college or university to move the center forward to the leading edge of culturally responsive services.
Overcoming Counselor Bias
Most counselors are aware of the need to be culturally competent. In fact, gaining the necessary skills to work effectively with racial minority clients has been identified as important to counselor education (Brems, 2001). A major component of gaining cultural sensitivity is through self-exploration and personal openness. Theoretically, the process of self-exploration and experience will include acquiring new skills and the adaptation of existing skills. However, research has shown that this process does not necessarily lead to the ability to work effectively with racial or ethnic clients (Constatine & Ladnay, 2000).
Dean (2001) believes that professionals should approach clients from a position of not knowing. In this view the client is the expert and the counselor seeks knowledge and attempts to understand what life is like for the client. The goal of obtaining competence is replaced with the perspective of gaining knowledge of a phenomenon that is evolving and changing. From this standpoint, counselors need to be more introspective and do more perspective taking. How might I look at the world differently or respond to this situation if I were Black? How do my family and my personal experience shape my cultural and political beliefs? To what extent have I been assuming that my values or the values of the majority culture are correct and normative for all individuals? (Sanchez-Hucles, 2000). Dean's perspective seems to be essential in reminding counselors of the importance of continually seeking to understand the client's life from the client's viewpoint, especially in the context of working with culturally different clients.
In building knowledge and understanding counselors also need to rely on core counseling skills and attitudes that are considered good clinical practice (Brems, 2001). Parham (2002) suggested that in addition to core counseling skills, counselors should develop increased awareness, knowledge and skills in working with African Americans. For example, he mentioned that therapists should have a sense of his or her own spirit and be in touch with his or her own spirituality, have knowledge of the limitations of traditional approaches to therapy, and have the ability to administer and interpret culturally appropriate assessment instruments. Parham's (2002) book on Counseling persons of African descent is an excellent reference for counselors working with African American clients.
Counselors who work with African Americans must be able to engage in difficult dialogues on issues of race, discrimination, gender, religion and other areas of difference. Talking about these issues shows a willingness to engage African American clients and may promote a trusting environment that would serve as a precursor to good treatment outcomes. (Cardemil & Battle, 2003; Sanchez-Hucles, 2000). The timing of these discussions is the key to how effective these encounters will be. Prematurely engaging in these conversations or engaging in these discussions without the proper context may lead to an abrupt end to treatment or the session. Because of the impossibility of being an expert on all matters related to issues of working with African American students, there is a strong possibility that counselors will make mistakes in judgment or say something that may be perceived as being racist or insensitive. When this happens counselors should immediately apologize, talk with the client, gain clarification, and ensure that the mistake is not repeated (Sanchez, Hucles, 2000). Taking this position will model good communication and problem solving skills.
There is a tendency in the counseling profession to hide behind treatment specialties and other counseling related projects that may be unrelated to the specific needs of African American clients. For example, counselors may say that they are an expert in eating disorders or depression and tend to talk about depressed clients irrespective of cultural or racial differences. Additionally, there is a tendency for counseling center staff to defer responsibility to African American staff members when African American students seek services. Clearly, however, all counselors have an ethical and professional obligation to provide effective services for African American clients. Counselors need to take personal responsibility, and not wait for the profession as a whole to address this important need.
There are many ways that individual counselors can take steps towards increasing their personal competence. For example, reading more about African American issues, getting involved with the African American community on college campuses, being mentored by counselors who are skilled in working with African American clients, attending workshops, reading materials on White and Black identity models, taking courses on African American issues at area colleges or universities, and conducting focus groups to improve services for African American college students. The interested reader is referred to Parham (2002) and Bradley and Sanders (2003) for more details as well as other strategies in working effectively with African American clients.
Individual counselors must realize that having a good relationship with an African American colleague is no substitute for gaining practical experience working with African Americans. Counselor's multicultural experience must be informal and formal, immediate and continuous. Counselor's experiences should be geared toward gaining first hand experience with the chance to develop empathy for that particular African American experience. (Marsh, 2004).
In therapy we implore our clients to look at themselves and to make changes in some areas of their life in hopes that it will help them to lead healthier lives and make more appropriate decisions. The counseling profession should take its own advice. African American college students continue to experience the vestiges of racism and inequality on predominantly White campuses while the counseling profession continues along the path of business as usual. This ultimately excludes any meaningful dialogue about strategies and interventions that may alleviate some of the problems faced by African American college students. As counselors we must go beyond recognizing that we work with colleagues and clients that come from different backgrounds than ourselves. We must expand our understanding and experiences with African American clients and become lifelong learners of race and culture. There is a need for a comprehensive report on the status of the profession and how it prepares counselors to meet the needs of racial and ethnic minorities. Sue and Sue (1999) state, "If the mental health profession is to receive acceptance from racial/ethnic minority groups, it must demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, its good faith and ability to contribute to the betterment of a group's quality of life."
Sanchez-Hucles (2000) stated:
"Our best defense to handling ruptures to rapport is a good offense. Our most effective offense is to be respectful and culturally competent. If we can convey that we have spent time and energy learning about the lives of African Americans, many of our clients will give us some leeway to learn about their unique needs, interest and sensitivities." (p1).
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LONNIE E. DUNCAN
Western Michigan University…
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Publication information: Article title: Overcoming Biases to Effectively Serve African American College Students: A Call to the Profession. Contributors: Duncan, Lonnie E. - Author. Journal title: College Student Journal. Volume: 39. Issue: 4 Publication date: December 2005. Page number: 702+. © 2009 Project Innovation (Alabama). COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.