Therapist/Black Client Dyad:
Expectations Related to Racial Identity
key variable in a discussion of expectations pertaining to racial identity is
superiority. The values and attitudes that emanate from the superiority belief
in American society support a cultural norm in which there is a lower opinion
of blacks and a level of hostility and unacceptance of them as peers. Moreover,
these values and attitudes provide challenges for whites and blacks who seek to
respect diversity and enhance self-awareness.
therapists who exhibit enculturated values of superiority over blacks are often
unaware of it. These therapists manifest their feelings of superiority in therapy,
in case conferences, and in supervision. They tend to make statements about their
surprise at the complexity of the personality of a black welfare mother, or at
the range of social interests and skills possessed by a black colleague. They
may attempt to create a false convergence by expressing a value or behavior that
is not truly part of their repertoire in an attempt to connect on a personal level.
For example, a therapist may use slang words or phrases because the therapist
has assumed that the black client has a limited range of emotions and verbal skills
around which to relate to the therapist.
white therapist may also exhibit superiority through paternalistic attitudes and
behaviors by, for example, assuming that the black client is unable to learn to
negotiate systems and the therapist must do it for him or her. A counselor who
negotiated with the school around a black childs behavior and never included
the mother, explaining that the mother felt overwhelmed and was unable to communicate
effectively with the school or with her son, was being a good master
and was unaware of it. He assumed that this mother could not learn to negotiate
with systems or to advocate for her family, even though for 12 years she had negotiated
with work settings and with social service agencies to obtain support and services.
third way in which superiority is manifested is in some of the expectations that
therapists have of their clients. For example, the white therapist may expect
compliance and acceptance on the part of the black client and interpret the clients
challenge as a problem of the client rather than as an indication of the clients
ability to think about his or her therapy and the clients investment in
the therapeutic process. On the other hand, the therapist may experience fear.
The challenge of the black client may bring forth enculturated attitudes that
blacks are dangerous.
contrast, white therapists may also be sensitive to the dangers of replaying the
master/slave relationship in the therapy setting. By acknowledging the history
of white/black relations in this culture and by understanding that they are not
immune to their cultures impact, they are able to learn from their black
clients about themselves and about others. Moreover, they are able to use their
socialized feelings as only one of the bases from which they assist the client
in constructing an understanding of their self/world relations.
white therapists, black clients vary as to their belief in the superiority of
one race over another, and their perspectives also significantly contribute to
the nature of the therapeutic relationship. The black client who feels that whites
are superior to blacks may enter therapy expecting to be helped or cured
because the therapist is white and, therefore, take a passive stance. In contrast,
clients who feel that blacks are superior to whites may not readily share their
hostility, anger, or dissatisfaction with having a white therapist. They may choose
to withdraw or to participate in a perfunctory way, which inadvertently results
in their abdication of responsibility for their lives and a replay of the imbalance
of power to which they may be reacting.
nonevaluative trust or distrust on the part of clients puts therapists in a position
of power and yet impedes them in their task of assisting clients to transcend
such limited notions of themselves. In these situations, exploring the racial
psychohistory of clients and therapists plus discussing the race differences of
the dyad, with its strengths and limitations, seem particularly essential. For
these clients, examining their enculturated limitations so that they can begin
to transcend them in the therapeutic context is vital to improving the quality
of their lives.
Pertaining to Culture
Most therapists recognize that individuals from different
places have different customs, traditions, and ways of relating; they may, however,
have difficulty discerning cultural differences among individuals born in their
own country. Thus, white therapists may find it difficult to discern in what ways
African traditions have been preserved in American language, food, and dress.
They do not distinguish cultural differences from socioeconomic differences and
what are considered to be genetic differences inherent in the makeup of black
people. Culture is seen as being the same for both blacks and whites, and differences
are seen as stemming from economic differences and different historical statuses.
these therapists, convergence of standards and values with respect to self/world
relationships and psychosocial realities is expected. There is some truth to this
assumption. Nevertheless, it is limiting in that it ignores the various cultural
and ethnic legacies of blacks and whites.
are therapists who do recognize cultural differences in American racial groups.
Among them are some white therapists and black clients who view those cultural
differences as severing any possibility of forming relationships or of understanding
the other persons world view. To them the idea of differences obstructs
growth rather than providing a context for exploring each others humanness
and approaching differences from an EVM perspective. To others, differences can
be transcended. It is this latter expectation that provides a basis for working
together in a therapeutic context to share their respective perspectives in a
way that provides therapeutic gains for the client.
Pertaining to Coping Skills
Within a master/slave context, a white therapist
who has little awareness of his or her racial self and of cultural differences
can be expected to have great difficulty viewing an unfamiliar coping strategy
of a black client as adaptive or creative. Instead, such an unfamiliar coping
strategy is more likely to be viewed as pathological. Likewise, a black client
who has little insight pertaining to his or her racial self and little appreciation
of cultural differences may have great difficulty understanding why coping strategies
developed from only the white therapists perspective make any sense, and
whether these strategies are working or not.
major barrier to overcoming these insensitivities is maintaining distance between
themselves and thus remaining unaware of their different life experiences. This
distance between therapist and client, which is most harmful therapeutically in
its ignoring of the clients humanness, is manifested in several ways. It
can be observed in the desire of therapists who work with black clients for prescriptions
for understanding black culture. These therapists tend to appreciate workshops
that delineate how blacks differ from whites, and that offer in a cookbook fashion
how to diagnose and treat black clients fairly and effectively. These individuals
do not want to feel the mess of racial tension or deal with their
bigotry and/or lack of knowledge. Furthermore, in understanding how to treat blacks,
these therapists are not willing to struggle with the nuances of the ranges of
social competencies that are needed to live effectively as a black person in America.
To do so would require that they tackle their racial psychohistory, their white
identity, and their prejudices. For them, those tasks feel unnecessary or irrelevant.
the issue of humanness also arises in the philosophies and assumptions that some
white therapists have about what it means to be black in America and about how
blacks should cope with and approach their social status. A common one, the thick-skinned
assumption, is based on the premise that in the process of living in America black
people should, as a part of their development, form a tough emotional exterior,
one that has been numbed to the more covert acts of racism. No one would question
that all human beings struggle with unkindness, discriminatory behavior, and insensitivity
from others. However, the thick-skinned assumption permits the therapist to avoid
experiencing the clients reality and the emotional wounds (or joys) that
are by-products of that reality. The therapist is denying the clients range
of emotion, feeling, and humanness. Another assumption, that of assimilation,
is based on the premise that for blacks to be okay, they need to adopt
white cultural norms and coping styles. These two assumptions often lead to therapeutic
relationships riddled with conflict or marked by premature termination.
are, of course, therapists who are genuine in their desire to get to know how
the black person sees himself or herself culturally and psychosocially. They acknowledge
the clients humanness by acknowledging the clients ability to know
and to communicate who he or she is to the therapist. These therapists need not
be knowledgeable of black culture, but willing to expose their lack of knowledge
about the shared values, philosophy, legacies, rituals, and relationship patterns
of many blacks, and to use the information provided by their clients to achieve
the agreed-upon therapeutic outcome. In a somewhat similar fashion, black clients
who are willing to take the risk of exposing their biases and limited knowledge
about white culture can work with white therapists and gain therapeutically in
Pertaining to Self/World Relationships
For this dyad, the manner in which
the therapist and client perceive their own and each others relationships
to the world and the people around them is crucial to the formation and maintenance
of the relationship. Given their historical legacies and ethnic roots, each has
an organizing framework that involves a set of expectations about trusting or
being wary of others, particularly others who are on the other side of the black/white
racial barrier. They also have expectations about the extent to which the friendliness
or hostility of the environment is individually or collectively oriented. For
example, from the clients perspective and world view, it may be quite reasonable
to feel a sense of responsibility toward black classmates when responding to questions
posed in class, in spite of the stress this perspective brings, because of the
feeling that the trustworthiness of the environment is going to be the same for
all blacks. However, it may seem very unreasonable from the perspective of the
white therapist for anyone to view himself or herself as a representative and
agent of others. Each of these perspectives about self/world relations is legitimate,
and each has its costs as well as its benefits. The degree to which the therapist
and the client can work together depends in part on the degree to which they can
together explore each ones sense of what perspectives are most congruent
with the clients world view and realities.
Pertaining to Personal Power and Control
The expectations pertaining to
personal power and control are difficult to distinguish from those pertaining
to superiority and humanness. The white therapists and black clients
perspectives on superiority and acceptance of the other persons humanness
shape their visions. They will see the range of personal power and control that
they have over their lives and that they expect to influence each others
lives in the context of those visions. Moreover, their expectations shape their
ability to see and recognize the multiple systems that influence how each other
experiences autonomy and control. They will be able to work together more effectively
if they can break through those limiting barriers.
Therapist/White Client Dyad:
Expectations Pertaining to Racial
The members of this dyad face many of the same issues
faced by the white therapist/black client dyad, but their roles are reversed.
The person who held the historical role as master and the most powerful is the
person in need of help and is the least powerful one. For both members to work
effectively with one another, they must address this historical role reversal.
issue of inferiority/superiority remains a vehicle through which racial identity
awareness is manifested. If black therapists have not successfully come to terms
with their reality, then they will continue to struggle with inferiority issues.
These therapists may look to their white clients for affirmation of their acceptance
as part of the white norm and as an accepted participant of the majority culture.
For these therapists, issues of convergence may have additional significance in
that they represent affirmation of their understanding of the ecology of whiteness.
On the other hand, these therapists run the risk of having their fears of inferiority
affirmed when they confront divergence or conflict in therapy. As a result of
their need for validation from the client, they abdicate their role and responsibilities
as expert and give it to the white client, who is there seeking assistance from
the therapist. These therapists may also expect to be perceived as less competent
than a white therapist, never fully trust the clients acceptance of their
expertise, and become impotent at fully examining the dynamics presented in the
expectation is that of the perpetual test, in which the therapist expects to have
to prove himself or herself repeatedly to be competent. If this expectation goes
unnoticed by the therapist, then the therapist may become angry with the client
and act out that anger in the therapy relationship. Also, if the therapist feels
that this is a typical consequence of black/white interactions and that this expectation
is the norm, then the therapist limits the degree to which trust will be established
in the dyad.
Pertaining to Culture
Both the therapist and client may enter this dyad
with expectations that both affirm and challenge. The expectations of affirmation
are of two types. Both the therapist and client may expect to have their knowledge
about the other persons group affirmed through processes of convergence
and divergence. That is, they expect to confirm both cultural similarities and
differences in relation to each other. They may also expect conflicts due to their
cultural differences to interfere with their ability to form a relationship and
work effectively with each other.
identity issues. Each of these expectations is to some extent a function of the
degree to which the therapist and the client have worked through their racial
identity issues and have grappled with enculturated values stemming from the master/slave
legacy. A key issue in these expectations is the degree to which both the client
and the therapist perceive their respective cultures as compatible. It is also
important for the therapist to be aware of how he or she and the client react
to outward signs of cultural identity (e.g., the therapist wearing braids, type
of music played in the waiting area, style of interaction, and office decor).
Culture is experienced on many levels, and it may be that the client can accept
cultural differences if they are not part of the therapeutic ecosystem but find
them difficult to accept when they are visible.
Pertaining to Self/World Relationships
The issues related to self/world
relationships for this dyad are similar to those of the white therapist/black
client dyad. In this pairing though, it is the black therapist who needs to be
particularly sensitive to the differences in expectations about the trustworthiness
of the world and of blacks as experienced by his or her white clients. The therapist,
given his or her world view and perspective, can help clients to modify their
perspectives about themselves in the world. In turn, the therapist can learn from
the client a different pattern of expectations about interpersonal relations.
Pertaining to Coping Skills and Range of Personal Power and Control
blacks and whites in this country have struggled to develop relationships among
themselves that are not bound by the shackles of the master/slave relationship
paradigm. That struggle arises in a particular form in a black therapist/white
client relationship. To develop such a relationship, both parties must move beyond
their social and historical legacies to an area of convergence that defines their
humanness, their power, and their patterns of coping in other terms. The therapist
must move beyond his or her enculturated expectation that the white clients
relationship to him or her is to exploit or oppress him or her in some fashion.
The client must move beyond his enculturated value of superiority. Otherwise,
the possibility of their working together in a therapeutic relationship is quite
have highlighted the importance of race, separate from ethnicity, in discussing
psychotherapy relationships. The point is that racial membership provides a separate
and unique piece of information about who we are, how we are seen by others, and
our position in society. This information interacts with our ethnicity and personal
life history to create our psychosocial perspective and way of viewing the world.
have used the black/white dyadic combinations to highlight the intricacies of
racial membership and psychotherapeutic process. There are other racial groups
and unique issues that arise, but we have chosen the black/white dyad as an exemplar
for several reasons. First, it is a dyad that epitomizes, in the master/slave
relationship, the role of history in shaping the ecology and world view of individuals
ascribed one status versus another.
the black/white relationship exemplifies the nature of the struggle to achieve
balance or equality in relationships for a number of groups. It highlights and
parallels the various struggles about diversity in a number of dyads, including
those involving gender as well as cross-ethnic and other cross-racial pairings.
black/white relations provide the broadest available empirical base from which
to analyze the issues involved. Conceptually, this racial dyad has provided a
framework to entertain how we think about differences. For example, it was in
the context of black/white differences that the concern about using whites as
a normative sample arose. Consequently, at this juncture, other racial groups
have a precedent upon which to advocate for a multiracial and cultural framework.
It has now been fairly well established that white America is not the standard
for assessing the behavior of other groups. Nevertheless, it continues to be the
norm whose nature defines psychotherapy and the participants in it, unless we
provide more compelling alternatives.
summary, race in addition to, but separate from, ethnicity plays a significant
role in the formulation of our ecology and psychosocial competence. It defines
our sense of ourselves as well as our status on the power hierarchy, brings with
it a set of coping skills, and fosters a particular world view. These factors
are part of the therapeutic process.
- Tyler, Forrest B. PhD, Brome, Deborah Ridley, and Williams, Janice E. Ethnic Validity, Ecology, and Psychotherapy. Plenum Press, New York, 2001.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information on
black/white therapist-client power dynamics. Write three case study examples regarding
how you might use the content of this section of the Manual in your practice.
What behavior on the part of clients puts therapists in a position
of power and yet impedes the therapist in his or her task of assisting clients
to transcend their limited notions of themselves? To select and enter your answer go to .