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Asian Americans and Racial Identity: Dealing with Racism and Snowballs.

Helms's People of Color racial identity model (1995) is utilized as the theoretical basis for a case conceptualization involving a fictional Asian American male client, coping with racism. Counseling strategies are explored in light of the influence of racial identity statuses and cultural variables on the counseling process.

As demographic shifts challenge the applicability and accuracy of a racial paradigm that has focused on White Americans and African Americans (Okihiro, 1994; Omi, 1993), the need for counseling theorists and practitioners to re-examine their understanding of race and racial dynamics is clear. In particular, the status of the Asian-American community as one of the fastest growing racial groups in the country (Ong & Hee, 1993) underscores a growing need for an awareness of the significance of race and racism for this community. Both historical and contemporary evidence (Chan, 1991; Takaki, 1989; U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1992) indicate that racism has been a persistent and significant theme in the life experiences of Asians in America. Thus, in recognition of the role of historical and sociopolitical factors in counseling (Helms & Cook, 1999; Sue & Sue, 1999), a brief overview of the racial experiences of Asian Americans may be helpful for counselors in contextualizing the experiences of Mr. X. While space limitations prohibit a more detailed discussion of the topic, counselors may want to consider additional readings (e.g., Chan, 1991; Fong, 1998; Min, 1995; Takaki, 1989) on the sociohistorical experiences of Asian Americans to further their counseling competency (American Mental Health Counselors Association, 2001) with this community.

Contrary to the successes implied by the Model Minority Myth, various authors (Alvarez, 1996; Chan, 1991; Kohatsu, 1993; Young & Takeuchi, 1998) have noted that Asian Americans have been the object of individual, institutional, and cultural racism (Jones, 1972). Historically, the many diverse ethnic groups within the Asian-American community have experienced strikingly similar incidents of anti-Asian violence, including: the 1885 anti-Chinese riots in Rock Springs, Wyoming; the armed expulsion of South Asian laborers from Live Oak, California in 1908; and the 1930 anti-Pilipino riots in Watsonville, California. Currently, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (1997) has documented that, in a manner consistent with their historical treatment, Asian Americans continue to be the targets of racially motivated verbal harassment, property vandalism, theft, physical assaults, and in some cases, homicide. Moreover, various authors (American Psychological Association, 1998; Tuan, 1998; U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1992) have observed that a persistent theme fueling anti-Asian violence is the perception of Asian Americans as foreigners who present an economic, academic, social, and/or cultural threat to a White majority. On an institutional level, events such as the forced internment of Japanese Americans in 1942 as well as the passage of anti-Asian exclusionary legislation (e.g., Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882, Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907, and the Immigration Act of 1917 to restrict Japanese and South Asian immigration, respectively) are grim reminders of governmental collusion in perpetuating anti-Asian racism. Nevertheless, despite such clear evidence of anti-Asian racism, Young and Takeuchi (1998) concluded that "more is known about the details of racism against Asian Americans within the sociohistorical context of the United States ... than about the psychological impact of racism on Asian-American individuals" (p. 428).

To the extent that Asian Americans do grapple with racial issues, then logic suggests that race and racism may have mental health implications for this community. Nevertheless, counseling theorists and researchers have yet to investigate the topic in any systematic manner (Alvarez, 1996; Kohatsu, 1993). With few exceptions (e.g., Kohatsu, 1993; Nagata, 1989, 1998; Yeh, 1997), the psychological literature has focused primarily on prevalence rates of mental illness, utilization rates for mental health services, and counselor preferences. (Sue & Morishima, 1982; Uba, 1994), with surprisingly minimal attention to race and racism. Indeed, Helms and Cook (1999) have observed that studies on Asian Americans have typically addressed issues of culture and/or ethnicity, while neglecting issues of race and/or racism. As a result, seemingly critical questions about the psychological impact of race and racism on Asian Americans have been difficult to answer. For instance, how do Asian Americans develop racial consciousness? What can a counselor do to facilitate this process? How is it that some Asian Americans find their racial identity to be salient whereas others do not? What role does culture play in the development of an Asian-American racial identity?

To assist counselors in understanding how Asian Americans internalize and respond to race and racism, an overview of racial identity theory (Helms, 1995) may be helpful for the current case conceptualization. However, counselors should note that the choice of racial identity as the theoretical basis for the current case highlights the need to clarify the conceptual distinctions between models of racial identity versus ethnic identity, particularly in the case of Asian Americans. Both Helms and Cook (1999) and Sodowsky, Kwan, and Pannu (1995) have argued that racial identity models emphasize the manner in which individuals respond to and internalize their reactions to sociopolitical conditions of oppression, whereas ethnic identity models emphasize the degree to which individuals retain and identify with the values, norms, languages, and beliefs of a particular social group(s). Additionally, Espiritu (1992) has suggested that the concept of Asian-American racial identity refers to a panethnic sense of identification inclusive of all the various Asian ethnic groups, whereas ethnic identity may be more appropriate for describing a sense of identification with a particular Asian ethnic group (e.g., Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, etc.).

Given that racial identity models "explain individuals' intrapsychic and interpersonal reactions to societal racism" (Helms & Cook, 1999, p. 81) and that the presenting issues in the current case clearly involve instances of racism, the use of racial identity theory in conceptualizing the case of Mr. X seems particularly appropriate. Consequently, the first section of this article introduces Helms's (1995) People of Color Racial Identity model as a framework for case conceptualization and counseling interventions in working with Mr. X. Relatedly, the second section of the article examines Helms's racial identity interaction process model (1995) as a framework for understanding how racial identity may influence the counseling process. Lastly, the final section of the current article addresses the counseling implications specific to the case of Mr. X from a racial identity perspective.


According to Helms and Cook (1999), racial identity models attempt to explain the ways in which individuals overcome the influence of socially imposed racism to ultimately develop a healthy conception of themselves within a racial context. Originally developed to describe the racial identity development of African Americans (Cross, 1971; Thomas, 1971), the theory was expanded by various theorists (Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1983; Helms, 1995) to address the racial experiences of People of Color (i.e., Asian, African, Latino/Latina, and Native-American individuals) living in the United States. Although each of these communities have distinct histories, they also share the common experience of being nondominant racial groups in a racially oppressive society. Theoretically, Helms (1995) has speculated that, as a result of these similar racial experiences, People of Color may have similar intrapsychic and interpersonal reactions to the racism they experience in society. Given that Asian Americans have dearly been the object of individual, institutional, and cultural racism (Chan, 1991; U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1992), Helms's People of Color racial identity model may provide a framework for understanding the way in which Asian Americans can overcome internalized racism and develop a positive racial group identity.

In her model, Helms (1995) proposed five ego statuses which are used by individuals of color to develop a healthy racial identity:

* Conformity, characterized by a trivialization of race as well as a denigration of Asian Americans and an idealization of Whites and White culture

* Dissonance, defined by a sense of confusion or ambivalence about race

* Immersion-Emersion, characterized by a dualistic racial worldview involving an idealization of Asian Americans and Asian culture and a denigration of Whites and White culture

* Internalization, defined by a selective re-appraisal of Asian and white Americans and their respective cultures

* Integrative Awareness, which involves the development of a personally meaningful definition of race and the integration of this identity with other aspects of self such as gender, sexual orientation, and class.

Theoretically, each status of identity is characterized by qualitatively unique affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to race and racism.

To assist counselors in applying racial identity theory, Alvarez (in press) has suggested that Sanford's (1966) concept of challenge and support may be particularly useful. That is, it may be helpful for counselors to consider the types of interventions, comments, and exercises that might be developmentally appropriate for a client at a given status of identity. Presumably at each racial identity status, counselors can validate the emotions, cognitions, and behaviors unique to a particular status, while also challenging clients to re-evaluate their existing racial schemas in order to facilitate the development of more mature statuses of identity. By both challenging and supporting clients, counselors can help successfully facilitate the client's development of a positive, self-affirming racial identity.


For Asian Americans operating from a Conformity status of identity, exposure to events, opinions, or interactions that highlight the relevance of race may be challenging. In particular, experiences that underscore racial conflict such as harassment or discrimination can be in direct conflict with an individual's belief in a colorblind society. Moreover, insofar as race has little or no salience for an individual, it may be challenging for individuals to learn that, despite their assimilation to White norms, they are still viewed as Asian American by Whites. A more positive challenge might include their first experiences observing or interacting with other Asian Americans who are actively advocating for racial issues, in general, and Asian-American issues, in particular. Although these types of experiences differ, the underlying challenge common to each of them is that they all inform individuals operating from Conformity that race matters (if not to them, then at the very least, to those around them).

To balance the challenges of the Conformity status, counselors may also need to consider how to provide support for Asian Americans operating from a colorblind racial perspective. In order to do so, counselors must first recognize the psychological distress and loss that may be involved in challenging any individual's idealized view of a world where neither racism nor racial conflicts exist (Alvarez, in press). These individuals may benefit from validation and empathy for their underlying hope in a socially just world in which there is racial equality. Relatedly, it may be helpful for counselors to appreciate that a colorblind racial worldview may be a coping mechanism that helps Asian Americans to survive within a dominant White culture. Particularly for Asian Americans living in areas with relatively few Asians or Asian Americans, a colorblind belief system and the adoption of White cultural norms may be an effective form of adaptation. For some Asian Americans, the absence of other Asian Americans may simply limit the opportunities for exposure to and identification with their racial and ethnic groups. Hence, an initial intervention may involve an introduction to events or activities in which Asians and Asian culture are positively portrayed. To the extent that race has negative connotations for Asian Americans operating from a Conformity schema, these types of experiences can be developmentally appropriate in both their low risk and their emphasis on the positive characteristics of race and culture.


Individuals usually move into Dissonance as events or interactions challenge their view of a colorblind society to the point that racial denial is no longer functional. Dissonance-inducing events may include harassment, racial discrimination, as well as less provocative events such as participating in a course on Asian-American or Ethnic Studies (Alvarez & Liu, in press; Alvarez & Yeh, 1999). In response to these events, individuals may be challenged by their re-evaluation and questioning of the racial experiences and lessons in their lives. Experiences and relationships with friends, family, teachers, and coaches, once viewed as racially neutral, may be reappraised with a newfound awareness of the implicit and explicit messages about the value and worth of identifying oneself as Asian American (Alvarez, in press). In light of this re-examination, it is important that counselors create a safe environment that allows clients to re-evaluate their experiences involving race. Moreover, counselors may be instrumental in normalizing the confusion, anxiety, and the ambivalence that arises from their client's newfound awareness of race. Relatedly, given the gradual loss of their colorblind schemas, clients may require support for the sense of disillusionment that accompanies the loss of their idealized beliefs/hope in a racially equal world.


Given the strength of an individual's Immersion-Emersion convictions, individuals may be particularly challenged by interactions or individuals that contradict the cognitive rigidity of a belief system predicated on an idealization of all that is Asian and denigration of all that is White (Alvarez, in press). These may include hostility towards and difficulty understanding other Asian Americans who lack a sense of commitment to racial issues as well as mistrust of Whites who support Asian-American political and cultural advocacy. In addition, these individuals may become frustrated with the pace of the social and political changes they may be trying to create, especially if it involves cooperating with the same institutions they are trying to reform. In effect, individuals operating from an Immersion-Emersion status of identity may have little patience or tolerance for individuals and institutions with racial and political views that differ from their own beliefs.

To provide support for clients using the Immersion-Emersion schemas, counselors must acknowledge and validate the intensity of emotions (for example, anger, resentment) that consume people when they are confronted with an awareness of the historical and current sociopolitical oppression within this society. Indeed, counselors can be instrumental in assisting individuals to channel this emotional intensity into constructive advocacy efforts that promote some form of individual or institutional change within the systems to which they object. For example they may strive to change curriculum, educate others on race and culture, or in other ways promote social change. However, as these individuals become more politically active, their activism may affect their academic and work performance as well as distance them from their peers, family, teachers and administrators who may perceive their passion for their racial and political views as being overly hostile and radical. Thus, counselors may need to help Asian Americans operating from Immersion-Emersion to understand and cope with the interpersonal, familial, academic, and occupational consequences of their political and racial commitments.


A central challenge of this identity status may result from an individual's willingness to question what it means to be Asian American and the perception that such a reappraisal may be indicative of a loss of one's identity and convictions as an Asian-American activist. Subsequently, they may lose the support of their activist friends of color as they question how to express their commitment to the Asian-American community in a way that is personally meaningful. During this time, counselors can help individuals cope and possibly resolve these challenges by helping clients maintain their autonomy and resist the pressure they may encounter to conform to an activist agenda that is not personally fulfilling (Alvarez, in press). In essence, clients may benefit from affirming their need to develop a sense of racial autonomy, while maintaining a balance between personal and group definitions of what it means to be an Asian American.

Integrative Awareness

When individuals begin to operate from Integrative Awareness, they are often challenged in exploring other aspects of their identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical abilities) as they move away from defining themselves solely in the context of race. This exploration can be further complicated by society's tendency to categorize individuals in simplistic and unidimensional terms which makes it more difficult for individuals to define and maintain an integrated identity. Furthermore, the integration of their identities can be especially challenging when different reference group identities have conflicting sociopolitical statuses. For example, an Asian-American man may have difficulty integrating his racial identity as a person of color, which is partially defined by his oppressed status, and his identity as a man, which places him in a position of privilege. Thus, to support students as they begin to define a multi-dimensional identity, counselors can encourage clients to explore the value of other aspects of themselves in addition to race (Alvarez, in press). Perhaps as an initial step--exposure through books, film, lectures, and so forth to Asian-American role models who have been able to integrate race with multiple aspects of their identity--may be developmentally appropriate.


In using racial identity for case conceptualizations, Helms has convincingly argued against the use of racial identity models as a framework for categorizing individuals into specific statuses of identity. In addressing how racial identity statuses might be expressed, Helms and Cook (1999) theorized that "most individuals develop more than one status, and if multiple statuses exist, then they can ... each influence a person's reactions to racial stimuli" (p. 93). That is, individuals' responses to race and racial issues will most likely reflect a combination of racial identity statuses, rather than any one single status. Hence, Helms has suggested that a racial identity profile which accounts for multiple racial identity statuses may provide practitioners with a more accurate case conceptualization of their clients. For such a profile to be accurate, practitioners may need multiple samples, over time, of a client's affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses towards race. Consequently, with regards to the case of Mr. X, limitations in the information provided will restrict the current conceptualization to what Helms has described as the client's dominant racial identity statuses (i.e., those statuses that exert the strongest influence on a client's racial worldviews).

In the case of Mr. X., both Conformity and Dissonance appear to be the two dominant racial identity statuses that influence his responses to the racial stimuli in the history provided. The racial minimization in Mr. X's racial worldviews are indicative of Conformity schemas. As noted in the case history, Mr. X "said that he did not think about race and ethnicity issues much when it comes to friends and relationships." His declaration of his belief that "we are all equal and skin color should not make any difference in anything" further underscores his colorblind racial schemas. Also consistent with a Conformity racial worldview is Mr. X's use of denial and cognitive distortion as his primary defenses in coping with race-related incidents. For instance, in responding to the professor who ignored him in class, Mr. X stated that "I still want to think that it is due to who I am and don't want to believe that it has anything to do with my race." Even when confronted with the blatant racial epithets of the snowball incident, Mr. X responded by ignoring the perpetrators and continuing to walk away "as if he heard nothing." In essence, the distinguishing feature of Mr. X's Conformity beliefs are reflected in his trivialization of race and the lack of salience that race has for him.

Insofar as Dissonance is triggered by a catalyst or the cumulative effects of events that begin to disrupt the client's colorblind racial views, it may be helpful to identify the Dissonance-inducing events in Mr. X's case history. Events such as moving from the racial heterogeneity of California to the homogeneity of the Midwest as well as the incidents involving the professor in the classroom, the waiter at the restaurant, and the three White men throwing snowballs may all be Dissonance-inducing catalysts. Relatedly, Mr. X's relationship with Sol may also be Dissonance-inducing insofar as Sol's awareness of racial dynamics and racism further exposes Mr. X to the significance of race. Considering that Mr. X relies on denial to cope with racial issues, Sol's anger as well as the act of labeling and identifying incidents as being "racist" may be a key catalyst for Mr. X's awareness of racism. In effect, each of these events communicates to Mr. X that despite his efforts at racial minimization, race can be a factor in receiving differential treatment and more significantly, his visible racial features can be a salient stimulus to which others may respond. Characteristic of the Dissonance status, the cumulative effect of these events appears to have elicited a high degree of emotional distress and cognitive confusion in Mr. X as his reliance on racial minimization becomes increasingly less effective in defending against the recurring racial themes of the events in his life. As he reports to the counselor, "I choked and could no longer swallow my tears ... I feel confused and don't know why."


Given the emotional charge that may surround discussions regarding race, the ability to anticipate and understand the counseling process will be critical for counselors. To facilitate this understanding, Helms developed a racial identity interaction process model (1995), which is based on the premise that the counseling process reflects an interaction between the dominant racial identity statuses of both the counselor and the client. Helms and Cook (1999) state that the "counselor's expression of her or his underlying racial identity statuses influences his or her reaction to the client, and the client's underlying statuses, in turn, influence his or her reactions to the counselor" (p. 180). Theoretically, the interaction between both the counselor's and the client's racial identity statuses may produce three qualitatively distinct relationships: (a) parallel, (b) regressive, and (c) progressive.

According to Helms, parallel relationships occur when the counselor and the client operate primarily from the same status of racial identity. As a result, parallel dyads are characterized by harmony and minimal conflict as a result of the similarity in their racial worldviews. In contrast, regressive relationships occur when the client operates from a more mature status of racial identity than the counselor. To the extent that counselors exert their power in the relationship by imposing their racial views onto the client, then conflict may arise in counseling as the client rebels against the racial immaturity of the counselor. For instance, a counselor operating from a Conformity schema may frustrate a more racially mature client by minimizing the racial significance of events in the client's life. Conversely, progressive relationships in counseling occur when counselors are operating from a more sophisticated status of identity than the client. Although Helms points out that the counseling process in these relationships may be challenging and emotionally evocative for both the client and the counselor, she also argues that progressive relationships have the highest potential to facilitate racial identity maturation in the client. Presumably, due to this level of racial identity maturity, the counselor has the potential to facilitate the client's racial identity development in a constructive manner. Lastly, Helms also described a crossed relationship that may be a subtype of either progressive or regressive relationships, depending on the racial identity status of the counselor. Helms theorized that a crossed relationship occurs when the counselor and the client operate from diametrically opposing statuses of racial identity.

In line with a professional ethos that places a premium on self-awareness (Sue & Sue, 1999), Helms's interaction process model dearly reinforces the need for counselors to recognize their own status of racial identity development. Relatedly, the racial identity maturity of counselors may also be reflected in their awareness of their own biases, assumptions, and knowledge about a client's culture and sociopolitical history (American Mental Health Counselors Association, 2001; Helms & Cook, 1999). In the case of Mr. X, the counseling process may be enhanced insofar as counselors are cognizant of their own assumptions and knowledge about Asian-American history, Asian-American stereotypes, and Asian cultural values, particularly regarding self-disclosure, communication, and attitudes towards help seeking. Indeed, according to the interaction process model of racial identity, the counselor's dominant racial identity status may be critical in facilitating or inhibiting both the counseling process as well as the client's racial identity maturation. Consequently, applying the interaction process model to the case of Mr. X may be instructive in helping counselors to understand and anticipate the potential influence of racial identity development on counseling dynamics.

For instance, as an example of a regressive relationship, a counselor operating from a Conformity racial identity status may inhibit Mr. X's identity maturation by trivializing the racial significance of his experiences. In contrast, a counselor operating from a Dissonance status of identity would be more likely to empathize with Mr. X's newly found awareness of race. However, the parallel qualities of such a relationship might also yield a highly anxious and avoidant counseling dynamic insofar as both individuals might regard race as an uncomfortable topic. As an example of a crossed (progressive) relationship, a counselor who operates primarily from an Immersion-Emersion schema might be too racially assertive for a client such as Mr. X who is only beginning to develop a fragile awareness of race and racial issues. For Mr. X, such a counselor might be perceived as overly hostile as well as intimidating in imposing what may be regarded as a strident activist stance. Hence, Mr. X would most likely benefit from a progressive relationship with a counselor who can empathize with the confusion elicited by the disruption of his previously held racial schemas while simultaneously, yet gradually, facilitating an awareness of the racial significance of recent events in his environment. In effect, Helms's racial identity interaction process model suggests that the counseling process will be enhanced insofar as counselors have matured in their own racial identity development and are able to operate from relatively sophisticated statuses of racial identity.


While the emphasis of the current case conceptualization has focused on issues of race and racism, the extensive literature on Asian cultural values (Lee, 1997; Sue & Morishima, 1982; Uba, 1994) suggests that counselors must conceptualize the case of Mr. X within the context of cultural variables that may mediate both the counseling process and his racial identity maturation. In light of behavioral indicators that suggest that Mr. X strongly identifies with his ethnic group such as partner and social group of the same ethnicity, language retention, and identification with his family (Kwan, 2000), an initial goal of counseling may be to assess the extent to which Mr. X identifies with Asian cultural values, particularly those that may influence the counseling process (i.e., help-seeking attitudes, displays of emotions, and self-disclosure).

In working with Mr. X, critical factors to consider in the beginning phase of counseling will be the client's motivation and conceptualization of his problem. A key indicator of Mr. X's motivation lies in the fact that he sought counseling at the suggestion of his classmates and advisor rather than seeking help of his own accord. To the extent that Mr. X adheres to Asian cultural values that place a premium on deference and respect for authority (Lee, 1997; Tsui, 1997), it is possible that Mr. X's reason for seeking counseling is to comply with his advisor's suggestion. Consequently, if Mr. X's attendance in counseling is simply a function of compliance with his professor's wishes, then this externalized motivation may affect his participation in counseling.

Additionally, the counseling process with Mr. X can be further complicated by the degree to which his views on help seeking and self-disclosure are culturally consistent with an Asian value system (Lee, 1997). To the extent that Mr. X endorses a cultural value that reserves self-disclosure for those significant individuals in his life (i.e., family, clergy), then this belief system may further inhibit his motivation to seek counseling. While discussions about racism can be a difficult topic for any client, such difficulties may be further compounded by the possibility that Mr. X perceives his participation in counseling and his self-disclosures to a stranger, as a breach of cultural norms. Thus, it may be critical for counselors to address issues of confidentiality while helping Mr. X to understand the role of self-disclosure in the counseling process and how such disclosure may be of benefit to him.

Much as self-disclosure can be discouraged in Asian American culture, public displays of emotion may also be regarded as a violation of cultural norms (Lee, 1997; Mokuau, 1991). For some Asian Americans, the public exhibition of emotions may be regarded as an indication of a person's weakness and lack of self-control. This negative perception of emotions may inhibit clients from expressing their emotions both verbally and nonverbally because of their hesitance or their lack of experience with the language of emotions. In particular, the pressure to hide one's emotional self may increase for Asian-American men to the extent that their masculinity is dependent upon their ability to maintain a sense of stoicism and control. Hence, it is possible that Mr. X may be unwilling to express his feelings surrounding the racial events he has just experienced. Alternatively, if he is willing to discuss the emotional impact of these events, he may simply lack the permission and/or the emotional language to do so. Thus, in light of Mr. X's heightened emotional distress and confusion at intake, an immediate intervention for the counselor may be to validate and normalize the sense of confusion that Mr. X is currently experiencing as well as help him to recognize that his emotional distress is a valid concern that merits further discussion in counseling. Relatedly, the counselor may need to assist Mr. X in understanding the therapeutic value of expressing his emotions and in developing the emotional language with which to express himself.

Moreover, insofar as Mr. X does operate from a Conformity status of racial identity and continues to use denial and rationalization as his primary defenses against racism, it seems likely that Mr. X will continue to trivialize or distort both the precipitating event (i.e., snowball incident) and the need to seek counseling. It is conceivable that he could dismiss both his current emotional distress and his participation in counseling as an overreaction of someone who was hypersensitive. Hence, it may be critical for the counselor to assess how Mr. X interprets his current distress. To the extent that he continues to rely on denial as a defense mechanism, it may be difficult for Mr. X to acknowledge or recognize the racial significance of his current distress. Consequently, to engage a client operating from a Conformity/Dissonance status of identity, counselors may need to focus on those aspects of the presenting issue that the client can most easily recognize and accept as a valid concern (i.e., emotional distress in the case of Mr. X).

Conversely, the racial significance of events may be a more challenging topic to address with clients operating from a Conformity/Dissonance status of racial identity. Although racial themes are clearly evident in the incidents that Mr. X describes, counselors may need to be cautious about the timing and the manner in which they address the racial aspects of such Dissonance-inducing incidents. Too early a focus on race and racism may be emotionally overwhelming for a client who typically ignores the salience of race in his world. Similarly, for the counselor to label the incidents as "racist" might be equally premature and might be perceived as an imposition of the counselor's racial beliefs. For instance, a comment from the counselor such as, "Dealing with racism can be overwhelming" may be presumptive because it is unclear whether or not Mr. X recognizes the racist elements of these incidents. Rather, it may be more informative as well as less intimidating to ask open-ended questions that help clarify Mr. X's interpretation of events. For example, a question such as "How do you make sense of these events?" will be more likely to provide a counselor with insights into Mr. X's racial identity schemas, while minimizing the degree of challenge directed at this client. Consequently, an initial challenge for the counselor will be to decide how to raise the issue of race in a timely and appropriate manner. If Mr. X initiates a discussion on race, it may be a relatively simple task for the counselor to explore his racial beliefs. However, assuming that Mr. X continues to deny the racial elements in these events, then the responsibility to raise the issue may fall to the counselor (assuming that the counselor operates from a relatively mature status of identity). One possible scenario may be to raise the issue of race by initiating a discussion regarding Sol's reactions and racial beliefs with respect to the events. For example, a counselor might pose a comment such as "Sol seems to believe that race is a big factor in all of these events. What do you think of Sol's ideas?" In essence, such a comment extrapolates from the information volunteered by Mr. X, as it also begins to shift the focus to an exploration of Mr. X's beliefs and reactions to race and racism.

To the extent that the client is open to such an exploration, it may be helpful to explore the client's racial socialization experiences to better understand his existing racial schemas. Areas for exploration that a counselor may want to consider include Mr. X's prior experiences with racism, prior methods for coping with racism, the manner in which he was socialized to think about race and ethnicity (particularly by significant family members, peers, teachers, etc.), and those aspects of race and ethnicity that he finds particularly difficult and challenging. Presumably, a more comprehensive understanding of Mr. X's existing racial schemas and the manner in which such schemas developed may better enable a counselor to tailor developmentally appropriate interventions for the client. For instance, to the extent that Mr. X has been socialized to consider racism to be a taboo topic, it may be particularly therapeutic for the counselor to provide Mr. X with a safe environment to discuss racism openly. Similarly, insofar as Mr. X has been taught that cognitive willpower and academic achievement are the only defenses against racism, he might benefit from an exploration of alternative coping strategies, particularly in dealing with the emotional aftermath of racist events. Thus, while the overarching developmental task for clients operating from Conformity and Dissonance clearly involves the ability to recognize the salience of race and the presence of racism in their environment, a more immediate concern for counselors will be to assist their clients in coping with the confusion and anxiety associated with their newly emerging racial consciousness.


In light of the growing racial prominence of the Asian-American community, the application of racial identity theory (Helms, 1995) to the case of Mr. X is particularly timely. As indicated by ample historical and anecdotal evidence of the significance of race and racism within this community (Chan, 1991; Takaki, 1989), it is clear that the case of Mr. X is far from atypical. Nevertheless, counseling, as a profession, has been slow to recognize racism as a valid psychosocial stressor for Asian Americans. Yet if counselors expect to be culturally competent, it is imperative that they "understand that socioeconomic and political factors significantly impact the psychosocial, political, and economic development of ethnic and culturally diverse populations" (American Psychological Association, 1993, p. 45). To that end, perhaps racial identity theory may provide a framework for advancing the cultural competency of counselors working within the Asian American community.


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Alvin N. Alvarez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and coordinator of the College Counseling Program, Department of Counseling, and Erin F. Kimura is a graduate student in the Department of Counseling. Both are at the San Francisco State University, CA. Email:
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Author:Kimura, Erin F.
Publication:Journal of Mental Health Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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