Womanist Spirituality as a Response to the Racism-Sexism Double Bind in African American Women

Article excerpt

Many African American women begin counseling stigmatized by race and gender and may be targets of additional discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, class, age, and other social variables. In this article, the authors discuss "womanist" spirituality as a means for African American women to cope with racism, sexism, and multiple social stigmas,


Despite valuable contributions to the literature, multicultural counseling approaches have tended to analyze cultural variables such as race and gender in isolation from one another rather than as overlapping. This compartmentalization of race and gender into separate categories limits understanding of people with multiple stigmatized identities (Constantine, 2002; Croteau, Talbot, Lance, & Evans, 2002; Harley, Jolivette, McCormick, & Tice, 2002; Moradi & Subich, 2003; C. B. Williams, 2005). For many African American women, both race and gender are central aspects of identity. Because African American women are immersed in a social and psychological climate that, despite increased attention to equity and social justice, continues to stigmatize both race and gender, understanding the interaction between the two variables is critical to effective counseling.

Recently, authors of counseling literature have begun to address the problems with fragmented examinations of cultural identity (Constantine, 2002; Croteau et al., 2002; Harley et al., 2002). However, there is a paucity of literature addressing treatment implications for African American women who embrace multiple cultural identities. In this article, we discuss "womanist" spirituality as an approach to counseling African American women struggling to balance the competing demands of multiple cultural communities and propose strategies that integrate multiple cultural variables into a coherent sense of self. We begin by presenting a synopsis of early Afrocentric and feminist thought and the concepts that foreshadowed current treatment dilemmas.

Assets and Liabilities of Afrocentrism and Feminism

Afrocentric theorists propose that cultural values such as spirituality, communalism, fluid time orientation, emotional expressiveness, harmony with nature, and interdependence characterize African American people (Mbiti, 1990; Nobles, 1991; J. L. White, 1984) and that embracing these values mitigates the psychological effects of racism. Similarly, feminist theorists claim that emotional relatedness, empathy, and nurturance characterize women's ways of being, knowing, caregiving, and moral decision making and are sources of emotional strength (Alcoff, 1988; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Chodorow, 1978; Gilligan, 1982; J. V. Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991; Miller, 1986).

Afrocentrism and feminism emerged as alternatives to Eurocentric, masculinist counseling ideology. Therefore, it is ironic that these theories themselves fail to integrate diversity (C. B. Williams, 2005). Feminist descriptions of women embody socialized characteristics associated with educated White women rather than all women (Barnett & Rivers, 2004; Bohan, 1993; Comas-Diaz & Greene, 1994; Landrine, 1995; Pollitt, 1992; Reid, 1993; West & Zimmerman, 1991). Similarly, Afrocentric theory centers on African American male experience with little attention to gender differences (e.g., Asante, 1987, 1992; Nobles, 1991; J. L. White 1984). This paradox is relevant for counseling African American women in a number of ways, including the tendency to (a) "essentialize," or claim as inherent, certain socialized cultural variables and (b) "privilege" certain social traits over others by presenting them in dualistic, oppositional terms (C. B. Williams, 2005).

A fundamental problem with such essentialist constructions is their failure to account for social context (Gergen, 1985, 1991; hooks, 1992; Nicholson, 1990; E. F. White, 1990) or, for that matter, contradictory evidence. …