White Racial Identity Attitudes and the Ego Defense Mechanisms Used by White Counselor Trainees in Racially Provocative Counseling Situations. (Research)

Article excerpt

Only recently have scholars in the area of multicultural counseling recognized the limited scope of counselor training programs in preparing White counselor trainees to work with clients from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds (Helms & Cook, 1999; Richardson & Molinaro, 1996; Sue, Ivey, & Pedersen, 1996; Thompson & Carter, 1997). Traditionally, programs focused on developing a knowledge base of cultural nuances, increasing awareness of the unique issues affecting clients from racial/ethnic groups, teaching specific multicultural counseling skills and competencies, and fostering nonracist attitudes toward racial/ethnic minority clients (see Ponterotto, Fuertes, & Chen, 2000, for a summary). Yet, since 1994, researchers have increasingly affirmed the importance of racial identity attitudes in the development of multicultural competencies in White counselor trainees (Grieger & Ponterotto, 1995; Neville et al., 1996; Ottavi, Pope-Davis, & Dings, 1994; Pack-Brown, 1999; Rowe, Behrens, & Leach, 1995).

According to Helms (1995), for White counselor trainees to develop a nonracist White identity, they must accept their "Whiteness" and acknowledge those ways in which they collude with and benefit from racism. Noticeably absent from the plethora of White racial identity studies, however, is an empirical examination of the psychological defense mechanisms erected by Whites to manage the anxiety related to confronting their Whiteness. The purpose of the current study was to explore the relationships between White racial identity attitudes in White counselor trainees and the psychological defense mechanisms they use to manage their anxiety in racially provocative counseling and supervision situations.

Lewis and Junyk (1997) noted that the classical psychoanalytic construct of defense mechanisms has been modified and extended by theorists in many schools of thought in modern psychology, from psychoanalysis to social-personality psychology to emotion theory. Lewis and Junyk highlighted elements common to a number of approaches, namely that anxiety provides the occasion for defenses and that defenses are thoughts and behaviors intended to prevent or curtail painful emotional states. Critical to the examination of White racial identity and defense mechanisms is Lewis and Junyk's description of the maladaptive nature of defense. First, they asserted that defenses emerge in contexts, often with minimal provocation, and they impair personal functioning. In addition, defenses reduce or even deny access to social rewards, thereby negatively influencing relationships. Furthermore, defense mechanisms become entrenched as evidenced by their resiliency and reemergence after alternative strategies are learned to reduce anxiety and emotional pain.


White racial identity theory posits that racial attitudes toward self, for individuals who classify themselves as "White," develop in relation to their attitudes toward Blacks (Helms, 1990). Helms (1995) identified five ego statuses [formerly stages; see Helms, 1990) to describe the development of White racial identity attitudes: (a) Contact, (b) Disintegration, (c) Reintegration, (d) Pseudo-Independence, and (e) Autonomy. In the Contact ego status, race and racism are denied and the individual is generally unaware of how he or she benefits from systemic racism. Disintegration is characterized by inner conflict and anxiety related to the awareness that Blacks are not treated the same as Whites. The Reintegration status occurs as the individual seeks to regain psychological equilibrium by affirming his or her sense of White racial superiority over Blacks. In Pseudo-Independence, the role that Whites have in perpetuating racism is acknowledged, and the individual seeks to alter his or her own racist attitudes or behavior. Finally, Autonomy is achieved when the individual recognizes his or her race as a valued part of his or her identity without a need to feel superior to other races. …


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