Counseling African American
All humans are situated in an historical as well as a cultural process. Any
understanding of African American men is predicated on an understanding of African
American history and culture. This means that counseling approaches must be based on an
understanding of and sensitivity to the personal history of African Americans. Young
African American men in contemporary society face many challenges that may have an impact
on their development. Manhood historically has not been a birthright for the African
Given the forces that impinge on the development of African American men, it is
imperative that committed counselors help them develop attitudes and behaviors that help
them function at optimal psycho-social levels in a demanding world. African American men
run into great difficulty as they grow older and become stronger. The chief problem is
that they are nurtured in a hostile and non-supportive environment. The environment often
includes poverty, criminal justice, unemployment, inequitable educational opportunities,
and negative media images.
A males gender identity- his masculinity- has been and continues to be volatile.
It has to be earned and proved on a day-to-day basis. A man cant just be masculine,
he must constantly prove it. The socially prescribed male behaviors require
men to work against the fulfillment of certain needs and to be competitive, aggressive,
and to evaluate their life successes in terms of external satisfaction. Every man is
caught in this no-win bind: if he lives out societys prescribed role requirements
his basic human needs are unfulfilled. On the other hand, if these human needs are
satisfied there is a chance that he may be judged, or may judge himself, not to be a real
Being emotionally inexpressive is a vital part of the very nature of
manliness. Balswick (1982) calls it male inexpressiveness and
defines an inexpressive male as one who does not verbally express his feelings,
either because he has no feelings or because he has been socialized not to. Skovolt
(1978) defines the phenomenon as restrictive emotionality since men appear to
have difficulty expressing feelings openly, giving up emotional control and being
vulnerable to self, others, and new experiences.
Many men, socialized to ignore feelings and become out of touch with their bodies, do
not recognize internal stress, strain, and symptoms of sickness. If men are aware of these
inner distress signals, they refuse to accept these signs of poor health, thus opening
themselves up for cancer, strokes, breakdowns, heart attacks, and even suicide. The notion
that sex role expectations are at least equally as strong for men as they are for women
and that men experience similar pressures to conform their behavior to these expectations
has led some to suggest that counseling may also function to reinforce a traditional role
Strongly related to the issue of Black masculinity are the problems encountered on the
path to manhood. Few Americans are unaware of the presence of young African American men
and they are generally regarded as a source of tension in the social structure.
Therapist need to be aware of their own biases. African Americans may be especially
wary of the motives of authority figures and thus may test relationships before allowing
themselves to develop trusting and intimate bonds with a therapist. The negative portrayal
of African American men as absent from families and remiss as providers have left many
practitioners devoid of basic knowledge or effective intervention strategies applicable to
The recognition of African American males as resources for sustaining the well-being of
Black families can enhance the development of effective therapeutic intervention.
Practitioners with a stereotypical view of African American males will fail to utilize
their strengths jeopardize the effectiveness of the intervention. This stereotypical
framework could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor client follow-up, premature
termination, and failure to achieve treatment goals.
Women therapist struggle with balancing the power of their professional position with
womens more traditional roles of nurturer and caretaker. When women therapists are
asked to generate a quick list of adjectives that describe male clients as they choose
manipulative, hostile, intellectualizing, passive, distant, rigid, dominating, childlike,
and generally uninterested in change.
Women have been taught to take cake of men without asking them to face their own
vulnerability. Women therapist have also tended to ignore the sexual component of therapy
with men. They often dont find it clinically vital to explore male clients
fantasies and feelings towards them. The male clients seduction or attraction can
mean different things, since sexuality is a socially approved mechanism by which many men
express not only lust, but care, dependency, connection, sadness, and anger.
Additionally, nothing intimidates most women therapist more than their male
clients anger. Some men try to control therapy by yelling, storming out of sessions,
refusing to speak, or aggressively engage in intellectual argument. The female clinician
must learn to confront without being critical and to set limits without being punitive.
The first task for the male therapist is to become more clear about their own values.
Therapist, in particular male therapist, have been exposed to the traditional notions of
male identity, role, and behavior. It could happen, then, that a male therapist may find
it perplexing, and even threatening, when one of his male clients espouses nontraditional
attitudes or behaviors. Restrictive emotionality also can plaque the male therapist.
The male therapist may be more likely to resort to corrective action rather than
sharing the affective experiences of the client. Oftentimes the issue of homophobia- fear
of close relationships with others of the same sex-can intensify issues of
self-disclosures, intimacy, and trust. Homophobia encourages men to remain distant and
view each other as competitors rather than as possible friends.
The male sex-role requires that men be independent, strong, self-reliant, competitive,
achievement-oriented, powerful, adventurous, and emotionally restrained. These
characteristics both take a toll on mens physical and mental health, and make it
difficult for men to seek and utilize psychological services. The traditional male role is
a self-denying and stoic-heroic combination of characteristics. It appears that men seek
therapy only as a last resort, when their lives are in very serious trouble or absolutely
Even in crises most men will not seek therapy of their own volition, but at the
insistence of someone else-either a wife or partner, a physician, a clergy-person, or an
employer. Therapy can cause a great deal of anxiety since most men have developed
cognitive schema which lead them to believe that exploring their sense of self can lead
only to humiliation and rejection, especially if this exploration is done with other men.
The results of this gender-type processing make it almost impossible for most men to find
traditional therapeutic setting understandable, comfortable, or effective.
Once a man does choose to enter therapy, it is imperative that the therapeutic approach
employed respond to his needs, his personality, and the behavioral expression of his
gender schema. The therapeutic environment is tilted against men in that traditionally
feminine values define the ideal client: the ability to tolerate feelings and
put them into words, access to emotions, the capacity to talk about vulnerabilities and
wounds, and to turn to others for help in their resolution.
Men come into therapy with a mix of reluctance, resistance, and hope. They may have
little idea of whats wrong in their life, except that theyve lost their jobs,
drink to much, or cant make their relationships work. Seeking therapy is in itself
humiliating for men. It is public admission that they couldnt do it by themselves,
that they are hurting and unhappy. Coming for treatment runs counter to the male ideal of
competence and performance. Shame is also central to what leaves men feeling bad about
Historically, African American males have often been betrayed. African American men are
not likely to share personal vulnerabilities. This tendency is not only a gender-related
characteristic, but it is a racial characteristic, given the psychohistory of betrayal in
the lives of African American men. Most African American men see no need for therapy.
Their struggles with self doubt, vulnerability, relationships, or inability to cope with
life events do not necessarily lead them to seek out mental health services.
Therapy is perceived as compromising manliness and machismo.
African American male socialization teaches that men should be able to solve their own
problems and that one should never drop his defenses with white people or risk his
personal safety. The institution of slavery undermined African American mens sense
of trust, power, and control in many ways. Treatment for African American men must not
only embrace the impact of racism and the contemporary concerns of African American people
but also reflect aspects of African heritage, cognitive styles and psychological defenses.
All African Americans, regardless of educational achievements and socioeconomic, have to
some degree been traumatized by pervasive racism.
1. Take steps to develop trust which is the crucial first step in treating African
American men. Premature interpretations of the clients problems may be perceived as
professional arrogance, disrespect, or even an unfortunate display of magical
2. Recognize the presence of real socioeconomic barriers to the well-being and the
performance of the provider role, as well as acknowledge and enhance individual efforts to
overcome these barriers.
3. Assist African American male clients must be given a way to become informed about
his true history and culture.
4. Provided role models and the information about how they have succeeded and not
simply that they did make it.
5. Assist African American male clients understand the variety of ways in which
strength can be expressed and that he is not limited to traditional or macho pursuit such
6. Assist African American male clients understand how he can develop a healthy
relationship with African American women.
7. Have clients become more aware of the challenges facing African American males
internationally, nationally, and locally.
8. Critically explore clients image of African American men.
9. Regularly stress the notion of talking about responsibility, strength, character,
giving, caring, sharing, and masculinity.
10. Assist clients in developing a sense of brotherhood with other African American
males while helping them increase their network of male friends.
11. Explore therapeutic relationship regarding levels of intimacy and attraction.
12. Recognizing therapeutic battles as attempts to connect.
13. Talk about shame.
14. Recognize the role of shame.
15. Identifying with men - reassuring the client of both his feelings and his normalcy
as a man.
16. Talk about love.
1. Increased awareness of the challenges associated with being African American and
male and the notion of masculinity from a Black perspective.
2. Increased awareness that a positive African American man develops, protects, and
cares for his body/physical health.
3. Increased awareness that a positive African American man develops and uses his mind
to its fullest capacity by fostering the development of attitudes and skills for optimal
4. Increased awareness that a positive African American man has an indomitable spirit
by fostering an understanding the major life roles and responsibilities of the African
5. Increased tolerance of emotional pain and hurt.
6. Increased ability to access and share feelings.
7. An increased sense of responsibility towards maintaining and enhancing ones
1. Make an agency wide commitment to better serve African American men.
2. Encourage staff to participate in professional development activities that increase
their awareness and empathy for African American men and issues they face.
3. Increase the number of African American male professionals on staff.
4. Develop support and therapy groups for African American males.
5. Increase staffs presence on campus via general programmatic outreach activities.
6. Develop programs that focus on the interactions and relationships between African
American men and women.
7. Develop programs that foster the development of skills that enhance self-esteem and
self-worth (i.e. leadership training retreat, communication skills training workshops,
8. Develop program activities that speaks directly to issues affecting African American
9. Develop liaison relationships with campus organizations with significant male
membership (i.e. fraternity, student government).
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