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Empowering African-American adolescent females.

In the past two decades, there has been a small but rowing body of literature pertaining to the issues and counseling needs of African-American adolescent females (e.g., Boyd-Franklin, 1991; Harris, 1992; Muller, 2000). This increase of literature is due, in part, to the growing numbers of African-American females experiencing depression (White, 1990), eating disorders (Lester & Petrie, 1998), and suicide (Gibbs, 1988). Furthermore, African-American adolescent females are contending with typical developmental tasks in the context of a society that has historically devalued and portrayed African-American women either as poor, welfare-dependent, working-class women, or as mothers of illegitimate, impoverished, and delinquent children (Coultas, 1989; hooks, 1981). These negative societal images and stereotypes have adversely affected the self-esteem and, consequently; the academic and emotional development of young African-American females (Neal & Wilson, 1989). For this reason, African-American adolescent females are prime candidates for counseling in schools.

The purpose of this article is three-fold: (a) to review issues that can be considered when counseling African-American adolescent females; (b) to discuss counseling implications based on those issues; and (c) through the use of a case example, to illustrate a school counselor successfully assisting and empowering a member of this adolescent group.

Counseling Issues

This section discusses relevant issues to consider when counseling African-American adolescent females. These issues were selected based on our experiences as African-American females and on the literature pertaining to the mental health of African-American women. By no means are these the only issues that African-American adolescent females experience or present in counseling. However, school counselors might consider these highlighted general issues when conceptualizing cases involving these adolescents.

The phrase African-American adolescent females is used in this article to describe adolescent females who identify themselves as Black or African American. Since these adolescents are not a homogeneous group, the reader is advised to use the information presented in this article as one of many resources to understand the complexities of growth and development an African-American female experiences.

Racism, Sexism, and Classism

According to Almquist (1995), African-American women have the distinction of being the only group that was enslaved and brought to the United States to "work, produce, and to reproduce" (p. 577). Numerous social scientists and researchers have written about the continued dual oppression that Black women face because of racism and sexism (e.g., Beale, 1970; Giddings, 1984; Greene, 1992; Harley & Terborg-Penn, 1997; Murray, 1970; Reid, 1988). Others (e.g., Blumberg, 1991; hooks, 1993) have addressed the triple oppression based on race, gender, and class with which African-American women contend because of the disproportionate number of them who are economically disadvantaged.

The effects of dual and triple oppression are significant when conceptualizing the problems and concerns of African-American adolescent females. For instance, a school counselor might ask a 15-year-old African-American female with a 3.75 grade point average why she has not applied to college. The student might respond by stating, "Why should I? My family can't afford to pay for it, and they won't accept me anyway because I'm Black!" This student's response reflects feelings of hopelessness as a result of her family's financial as well as racial background. Or, another example might be a 12-year-old African-American female student who expresses discontent in school because she believes that she is not capable. When asked why she feels this way, she responds, "I'm not a Black boy, so I can't be a "star athlete" and I'm not White, so I can't be a "star student!" These perceptions linked to gender, race, and socioeconomic status can ultimately lead to feelings of powerlessness among African-American female adolescents (Fordham, 1993).

Body Image and Physical Attractiveness

The American ideals of beauty (e.g., blond hair, blue eyes, thin) as defined by White American males have been noted in the literature as having a damaging effect on Black women's sense of self (e.g., Okazawa-Rey, Robinson, & Ward, 1987; Perkins, 1996; Reid, 1988; Smith, Gurlew, & Lundgren, 1991). Hooks (1993), in the following passage, captured images of "black femaleness":
 ... the dearth of affirming images of black femaleness in art, magazines,
 movies, and television reflects not only the racist white world's way of
 seeing us, but the way we see ourselves. It is no mystery to most black
 women that we have internalized racist / sexist notions of beauty that lead
 many of us to think we are ugly. (p. 84)


Examples of African-American women's struggles with physical attractiveness are found in African-American literature. For instance, Sinclair's 1994 African-American novel, Coffee Will Make You Blacker, is replete with examples of how African-American women despair over their skin color, hair texture, and body features. The main character, Stevie, reflected on her mother's hopes for her:
 Mama says she wishes I'd gotten more of Daddy's lighter color and
 especially his curly hair. She says she prayed that if I were a girl, I'd
 have good hair that didn't need to be straightened. Mama says one reason
 she married Daddy was cause she was looking out for her children. She says
 it was almost unheard of for a colored man to marry a woman who was darker
 than him. Mama was lucky she's glad I don't have a wide nose and big lips.
 (p. 8)


Unfortunately, a woman's physical attractiveness can be a significant factor in her life. Female physical attractiveness has been linked to such factors as mate selection (Hollender & Schafer, 1981), preferential treatment (Lynn & Simons, 2000), and job selection (Watkins & Johnston, 2000). For African-American females, physical attractiveness has been a source of great stress and many have been deeply scarred by negative reactions to African physical features (Fordham, 1993). Even more damaging is the degrading manner in which African-American females are treated by other African Americans who have internalized society's messages about African-American physical features and female attractiveness (Gainor, 1992; Powell, 1982). An African-American father who openly wishes his young daughter had lighter skin or an African-American teacher who favors lighter-skinned African-American adolescent females with naturally "straight" hair are instances in which negative perceptions of physical features can have a long-lasting affect on the self-concept of young African-American females.

Ethnic Identity Development

Identity formation, as seen by Erikson (1968), is the primary developmental task of the adolescent years. Although all adolescents struggle -with identity issues, not all adolescents think about themselves in racial or ethnic terms. Phinney (1990) proposed a model of ethnic identity based on Marcia's (1966) four identity statuses, which are determined by the presence or absence of exploration and commitment. Phinney's model characterizes the variation in the ethnic identity search process as follows: (a) diffuse, a state in which there has been little exploration or active consideration of ethnicity, and no psychological commitment to any ethnic group; (b) foreclosed, a state in which a commitment has been made to a particular ethnic group's beliefs, values, and/or customs, without actively searching or exploring one's ethnic heritage or ethnicity; (c) moratorium, a state of active exploration of one's ethnicity in which no commitment has yet been made; and (d) achieved, a state of strong personal commitment to a particular ethnic identity following a period of high exploration or crisis.

Phinney (1990), like Marcia (1966), proposed that an individual needs a period of ethnic exploration in order to secure an achieved ethnic identity. Tatum (1997) suggested that it is this need for ethnic exploration that causes African-American students, particularly African-American female adolescents, to frequently socialize with each other in school. In an exploratory study of the experience of identity in late-adolescent African-American females, Shorter-Gooden and Washington (1996) found that ethnic identity was the most salient aspect of this population's self-definition. Other research has indicated that there is a relationship between ethnic identity and African-American females' self-esteem (Phinney, Cantu, & Kurtz, 1997), ethnic socialization (Marshall, 1995), and selection of friends (Hamm, 2000).

Development of Trust

The willingness of a client to trust a counselor has long been considered an important aspect of the counseling relationship (Rogers, 1942). A number of investigators have even indicated that mistrust plays a significant role in the counseling process involving Black clients and White counselors (Terrell & Terrell, 1984; Thompson, Neville, Weathers, Poston, & Atkinson, 1990; Watkins & Terrell, 1988). African-American clients' mistrust of White counselors has been linked to the prejudicial and discriminatory practices of White Americans towards African Americans (Grief & Cobbs, 1968; Thompson, Worthington, & Atkinson, 1994). The term cultural paranoia has been used to describe this type of African-American mistrust (e.g., Ridley, 1984).

When counseling African-American adolescent females, school counselors should consider mistrust as a possible barrier to counseling. Terrell and Terrell (1981) purported that many Black students distrust White school personnel because of past prejudicial contact with White teachers and White individuals outside of the school. For instance, an African-American student, regardless of how he or she performs academically, may perceive a White teacher to be biased against him or her based on his or her race. This perception may also extend to White counselors. Therefore, school counselors, particularly White counselors, need to be cognizant of mistrust as a possible variable in the counseling process and, as a result, place emphasis on developing trust and rapport with African-American adolescent females.

Religion and Spirituality

Religion and spirituality have historically played important roles in the lives of many African Americans, particularly African-American females (Chatters, Taylor, & Lincoln, 1999; Constantine, Lewis, Conner, & Sanchez, 2000; Nobles, 1991). For many African Americans, religion and spirituality are embedded deeply in their day-to-day activities and rituals (Constantine et al., 2000). For instance, studies (e.g., Taylor, Chatters, Jayakody, & Levin, 1996) over the past 10 years have reported that a majority of African Americans are affiliated with a religious denomination and, more specifically, African Americans have reported higher levels of attendance at religious services than Whites have. Interestingly, Broman (1996) found that African-American women are more likely than others to use prayer in response to interpersonal, physical, and emotional problems.

Considering the general importance of religious and spiritual beliefs in the lives of many African-American families, African-American adolescent females' behavior may be affected and shaped by these beliefs. For instance, an African-American female student may talk of prayer as a means of coping with her concerns, or she may be more focused on activities related to her church rather than those related to school.

Implications for School Counseling

As the previous counseling issues illustrate, African-American adolescent females may present a challenge for many school counselors. We believe that school counselors can play a pivotal role in empowering African-American adolescent females' sense of self. This section addresses several implications for school counselors when working with these adolescents.

Since many African-American adolescent females may have experienced rejection, disapproval, and / or prejudice in and outside the school setting, they may approach counseling with a great deal of anxiety, distrust, and apprehension. School counselors can minimize these emotions by demystifying the counseling process and focusing on developing a trusting relationship with these young females. By briefly and simply describing the counseling process before initiating it, the school counselor provides the young African-American female student the opportunity to ask questions about "what counselors do" and to identify the limitations of counseling. Counselors might also meet with these students in informal settings (e.g., cafeteria, school courtyard, playground, hall), which are less intimidating and are perceived as "neutral" territory. Gibbs (1990) even suggested that initially African-American youths are more concerned about the counselor's interpersonal skills than the counselor's counseling skills. Gibbs, therefore, recommended that it is imperative for counselors to develop rapport with African-American adolescents so that trust is gained for future counseling.

One area in which school counselors can empower African-American female adolescents is assisting the adolescents to develop an attitude that reinforces their willingness to take responsibility for changes that need to be made in their life or schooling. According to Edwards and Polite (1992), this attitude positions African Americans to have a sense of control over their environment, which is often perceived as racist and hostile. This attitude also enhances the potential of African-American female adolescents' to achieve in the context of a society that has historically devalued their reference groups (e.g., women, African Americans).Young African-American females who take personal responsibility rarely talk of luck or chance but have the attitude that expresses, "If I want it, I have to go for it, work for it."

In order to instill this attitude of taking personal responsibility for one's success, school counselors can assist African-American female adolescents in developing procedural or goal sequences that lead to planned action. Although school counselors and other school professionals assist all students in developing goals, African-American adolescent females seem to benefit from this intervention because of the seemingly overwhelming barriers they face due to their race and gender. To begin this process, school counselors might ask young African-American females, "What do you want to be doing in 5 years? 10 years? 25 years? How do you plan to achieve your goal in 10 years?" By developing goals, organizing a plan to achieve the goal, implementing the plan, and then evaluating the outcome of the plan, an African-American female adolescent has a useful approach to achieving success in not only her schoolwork but also her personal life.

School counselors can also empower African-American female adolescents by helping them manage the impact of others' negative perceptions. While many African-American adolescent females may not dwell on their racial, gender, or economic status, coping with others' faulty perceptions based on stereotypes is an ongoing and difficult task that will likely impact the adolescents' lives (Boyd-Franklin & Franklin, 2000). The goal then is for these youths to avoid letting others' negative perceptions block their achievements. This, according to Edwards and Polite (1992), is a difficult but necessary task that requires African Americans to possess a "heightened sense of consciousness, a finely tuned sense of control, an ability to assess a situation, make critical judgments, and take appropriate action" (p. 249).

Assisting African-American female adolescents in managing the impact of others' negative faulty perceptions can be done by using case scenarios depicting problems involving racism, sexism, and/or classism as catalysts for discussions. During these discussions, it is important for school counselors to take a "nonexpert" role so that the adolescents feel comfortable expressing their feelings. Counselors can ask questions that provide the adolescents with an opportunity to not only articulate their feelings about racism but also brainstorm new ways of challenging and managing racist encounters. Examples of questions might include "What do you feel as you read/listen to this scenario?" "What is your first reaction to the scenario?" "What might happen next after your reaction?" and "How might others deal with this situation?"

As stated previously, living in a society that devalues one's race and gender can be a devastating and challenging experience that impacts one's self-esteem and self-concept. For this reason, instilling self-acceptance is a critical aspect of empowering African-American adolescent females. School counselors can assist this population to in developing self-acceptance by reminding the youths of their inner as well as outer beauty and the significant aspects of their African-American heritage. School counselors might invite African-American women from the community or community organizations (e.g., churches) to serve as mentors or "buddies" for African-American adolescent females struggling with self-acceptance.

School counselors might also encourage these students to research their ethnic heritage by reading selected literature, attending cultural exhibits, and interacting with "experts" on African-American history / culture. Developing groups for African-American females has been supported in the literature as one way in which to encourage ethnic identity exploration (Gainor, 1992; Muller, 2000).

And, lastly; incorporating spirituality and religion into the counseling process can be an important consideration when counseling African-American female adolescents. Recognizing the importance of religion and spirituality in the lives of these adolescents enables school counselors to more fully appreciate indigenous support resources (e.g., deacons, ministers, pastors) in the adolescents' communities. School counselors may invite the support individuals to be part of open counseling groups, or the counselors may develop professional alliances with these persons to consult on specific cases, within the mandates of confidentiality. Counselors who recognize and encourage the disclosure of religious and spiritual beliefs in counseling may provide their African-American female clients with an important source of empowerment.

Case Example

Determining the appropriate counseling intervention for an African-American female adolescent requires the school counselor to consider many of the issues previously discussed. The following case example is presented to illustrate an effective and empowering counseling intervention used with a 13-year-old African-American female student.

Angela is a student at Western Middle School (fictional name), which is located in a predominately White suburb of a large city. Two years earlier, Angela's family had moved to the suburbs from a predominately Black community in Chicago. The relocation was quite difficult for Angela. She missed her friends and was unaccustomed to being a numerical "minority" among fellow students.

After a few months at Western, Angela's grades (which had been all A's and B's) declined, and she complained of having difficulty developing friendships. In addition to her academic and friendship concerns, Angela accused her teachers of being racist and discriminatory. She also reported that many students called her "racial names" and that she felt like an "outsider." Before long, Angela became involved in several confrontations with students and teachers. Teachers, consequently, perceived Angela to be a "problem student."

Initially, the school counselor requested that Angela meet with her for a short "get-to-know-you" conference. During the conference, the school counselor spent a significant amount of time listening and empathizing with Angela's concerns. Because it was apparent from Angela's body language (e.g., crossed arms, lack of eye contact, frowning, sitting in a chair far away from the counselor) that she was not comfortable, the counselor focused primarily on Angela's interests and hobbies.

Over the next month, Angela met with the school counselor informally. She shared her perceptions that many of Western's teachers and students were prejudiced and racist. Although the counselor was unsure of the accuracy of Angela's accusations, the counselor validated and listened to her concerns. In order to better understand the racial incidents, the counselor asked Angela to describe and then role play the incidents. When processing the role plays, the counselor did not take on an "expert" role. Instead, she allowed Angela to discuss her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Following these conversations with Angela, the school counselor met with the principal to discuss her concerns about the possible racial insensitivity among faculty and students. Based on informal meetings with ethnic minority students and parents regarding the school's climate, the principal initiated a series of professional development workshops on cultural sensitivity for the school's faculty.

As Angela's trust in the counselor grew, Angela agreed to set goals and discuss strategies for getting better grades and feeling more comfortable at school. The school counselor asked Angela to develop at least one goal related to academics and one related to making friends or feeling more comfortable at school. Angela's first goal was to increase her semester grades by one letter grade. Her second goal was to attend a school-sponsored dance. As Angela and the counselor discussed her goals, it became apparent that Angela linked her inability to feel more comfortable at school to her race/ethnicity. She disclosed that she felt alienated from the other girls because of her physical features (e.g., dark skin, full lips, and short curly hair). The counselor engaged Angela in activities that required her to assess society's unfair definitions of beauty. They reviewed magazines for hidden messages about beauty and how different cultures define beauty. The school counselor also made sure to highlight Angela's positive personality and academic characteristics so that physical attributes were not the sole focus of defining beauty. It is important to note that the counselor had read literature pertaining to the social and emotional development of African-American females to further her understanding of Angela's experiences (see Appendix for listing of books about African-American women).

After several meetings with the school counselor, Angela opened up about her anxieties about being Black at Western and her fears of not being accepted. The counselor used empathy, encouragement, reflection of feelings, and clarifying to empower Angela to be more self-accepting. By the end of the year, Angela had two best friends and her grades increased dramatically. Although she was still a bit uncomfortable with many of her teachers, she reported that school was "O.K!"

Conclusions

As the case example illustrates, school counselors who understand the distinct issues and challenges associated with being African American and female in America constitute a potent force for making educational and social empowerment for African-American adolescent females a reality. In his work on African-American young males, Lee (1992) suggested that counselors should have "a solid Black cultural knowledge base to address the educational challenges facing Black males" (p. 16). We believe the same is true for African-American female adolescents. In order for school counselors to serve these female adolescents effectively; the counselors must be attuned to the social realities of the youths' environments as well as to the stereotypes and faulty perceptions about African-American women held by many (Greene, 1994).

Adhering to the recommendations outlined in this article will likely empower African-American female adolescents; however, school counselors must not stop with these recommendations. The process of becoming more sensitive to the needs and issues of these youths is ongoing. We believe that concerned school counselors should also participate in professional development activities that promote cultural responsiveness with African-American female adolescents. Examples of such activities that provide opportunities to enhance school counselors' work with this population include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Examine one's own attitudes, stereotypes, and biases regarding African Americans and, in particular, African-American females.

2. Read relevant literature pertaining to African-American culture, particularly that of African-American females (see the Appendix).

3. Develop a professional support network with African-American female counseling professionals.

4. Participate in professional development activities (e.g., workshops, conference sessions) that specifically address issues related to African American females, particularly young African-American females.

School counselors must be aware that young African-American females are faced with the difficult task of resisting negative stereotypes about African-American women. Therefore, school counselors who understand this task, along with the challenges that confront African-American women because of their race, gender, and, oftentimes, socioeconomic background, are better equipped to empower and assist young African-American females in acquiring optimum development.

Appendix

Selected Literature Related to African-American Females

Angelou, M. (1970). I know why the caged bird sings. New York: Bantam.

Angelou, M. (1974). Gather together in my name. New York: Random House.

Angelou, M. (1977). Singing and swinging and getting merry like Christmas. New York: Bantam Books.

Angelou, M. (1981). The heart of a woman. New York: Random House.

Angelou, M. (1986). All God's children need traveling shoes. New York: Random House.

Bambara, T. C. (1970). The black woman. New York: Random House.

Benjamin, L. (1991). The black elite: Facing the color line in the twilight of the twentieth century. Chicago: Nelson- Hall.

Boyd-Franklin, N. (1989). Black families in therapy: A multisystems approach. New York: Guilford.

Cole, J. B. (1993). Conversations: Straight talk with America's sister president. New York: Doubleday.

Davis, A. (1983). Women, race, and class. New York: Vintage Books.

Gibbs, J. T., & Huang, L. N. (1989). Children of color: Psychological interventions with minority youth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hooks, b. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press.

Hurston, Z. N. (1991). Their eyes were watching God. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press.

Morrison, T. (1972). The bluest eye. New York: Washington Square Press.

Naylor, G. (1983). The women of Brewster place. New York: Penguin.

Rudwick, B. M. (1971). Black matriarchy: Myth or reality? Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Russell, K., Wilson, M., & Hall, R. (1992). The color complex: The politics of skin color among African Americans. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic

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Cheryl C. Holcomb-McCoy, Ph.D., is an assistant professor, Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, University of Maryland at College Park. Cheryl Moore-Thomas, Ph.D., is an assistant professor, Department of Education, Loyola College in Maryland, Baltimore.
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