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Counseling African American adolescents: the impact of race, culture, and middle class status.

A substantial body of literature addresses the concerns of African American youngsters who experience social distress, academic difficulties, poverty, despair, and violence. This article focuses on issues of particular relevance to school counselors working with middle-class, African American youngsters whose lives may have little relationship to the above-mentioned stressors. The article begins with an overview of African American socioeconomic status, continues with a discussion of the complex interaction between race and class, addresses culturally competent counseling practice, explores African American cultural values, examines racial identity issues, considers intra-racial stressors, and addresses implications for counseling of middle-class African American adolescents. The authors present a case study to examine each of these issues.


A large corpus of literature documenting the social and educational experiences of African American adolescents usually focuses on economic despair, poverty, poor health, crime, violence, and inadequate education. Such portrayals often lead to inaccurate generalizations that fail to address the interaction of race and middle-class status for African American youngsters (Ford, 1997). Although middle-class status insulates African American youngsters from certain exigencies associated with Black life, these adolescents often confront challenging social circumstances that, without appropriate support and intervention, could potentially jeopardize their healthy social and emotional adjustment.

In this article, the authors explore the complex interaction among race, culture, and social class, its impact on middle-class African American adolescents, and culturally responsive counseling. Although many issues addressed in this article reflect issues all African American adolescents confront, the nuances of race, culture, and class often operate differentially for middle-class African Americans. Simply put, middle-class status can serve as a protective mechanism against poverty, dilapidated housing, inferior education, and malnutrition, yet it does not shield young people from the manacles of racism and discrimination (hooks, 2000). So while some African American youngsters may have advantages based on their social class, they may still endure forms of racial oppression as well as inter- and intra-racial strife.

The article opens with definitions of culturally responsive counseling and middle-class status, continues with a discussion of African American cultural values, explores identity issues and intra-racial stressors, and provides culturally responsive recommendations for working effectively with middle-class African American adolescents. We present a case study to examine each of these issues. The terms African American and Black are used interchangeably.


Culture is often viewed as incompatible from one cultural context to the next. That is, patterns of thought, behavior, and functioning may be deemed normative and acceptable in one cultural milieu yet construed as deficient or deviant in another cultural milieu. Culturally responsive counseling practice requires an ethic of caring and understanding in an effort to build bridges between children whose cultures and backgrounds do not necessarily mirror the cultural dictates of mainstream American society. Elsewhere Lee (2001) and Gay (2000) have articulated characteristics indicative of culturally responsive counseling practice. We proffer that culturally responsive counseling practice refers to the inclusion of diverse perspectives into the counseling process in a manner that validates and affirms children from marginalized groups and recognizes the contextual dimensions of race, culture, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and geography. In this article, we concentrate on the complex and dynamic interaction of race, culture, and class and discuss implications for delivering culturally responsive counseling services.

African American Socioeconomic Status

The contemporary Black middle class emerged with the advent of the Civil Rights movement (Walker & Wilson, 2002). As sweeping social and political changes placed fewer restrictions on social mobility, educational access, and residential patterns of African Americans, this expanded opportunity structure permitted more people of African descent to improve their socioeconomic status and enter the ranks of the middle class.

Middle-class status has been variously defined. For instance, Conley (1999) defined middle-class status as two rimes the poverty rate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), the average poverty threshold for a family of three was $13,738 and $17,603 for a family of four. By these rather inclusive guidelines, a sizable proportion of African Americans are in the middle class. In fact, Sue and Sue (2003) noted that more than one third of the African American population can be classified as middle class.

Ford (1997) described the Black middle class as a diverse population encompassing individuals who vary in class standing from lower middle and upper middle to the elite social strata. That is, middle-class African Americans range in scope from the working poor to the affluent. Although much variability exists in employment, lifestyle, and material possessions--depending upon the rung of the social ladder one occupies--on the whole, each group (i.e., lower middle, upper middle, elite) shares core values related to a strong work ethic, achievement orientation, racial pride, and adherence to mainstream American social norms (Sue & Sue, 2003). The unifying element among members of the Black middle class appears to be a common value orientation and motivation toward social mobility.

In the main, middle class African Americans remain woefully underrepresented in the professional literature. Although erroneous, prevailing assumptions regard the Black population as a monolithic entity that is largely poor and undereducated. Such stereotypes obscure the vast heterogeneity that characterizes this population and minimizes the specific and unique concerns that confront middle class African American adolescents. Culturally responsive school counselors should recognize that social class standing can shield youngsters from concerns about economic well-being, but at the same time exacerbate feelings of guilt related to middle class status, feelings of isolation and alienation from other African Americans, and experiences with racism. Recognition of the complex issues related to race, culture, and class will better position counselors to deliver more effective counseling services. Next, we present a case study to facilitate discussion of the impact of race, culture, and class on the counseling process.


Tiffany is a 10th grade African American female student who performs well academically. She is enrolled in three advanced placement (AP) courses, and she is a member of the orchestra and the gymnastics team. Both her parents are attorneys, and she lives comfortably in an upper middle-class neighborhood. Although there are several other African American youngsters in her community, most of them are either older, younger, or attend private school.

Tiffany scheduled an appointment with her counselor to request removal from two AP courses, citing preparation for the statewide gymnastics competition as the reason. This request puzzled the counselor because Tiffany makes the honor roll consistently. Confused, the counselor, who happened to be Caucasian, probed for a more in-depth explanation from Tiffany. Although Tiffany insisted that her reason related to shifting priorities in athletics and an after-school job, the counselor speculated that more might be going on. She finally asked Tiffany to what extent her request might result from her being one of very few African Americans in her class. At that point, Tiffany felt the counselor truly understood the challenges academically successful African American children such as herself must endure. Tiffany wept as she explained to the counselor that her African American peers teased her for working hard to obtain good grades, speaking standard English, participating on the gymnastics team, and living in an affluent community. In essence, she was accused of "acting White." She confided to her counselor that the stress was overwhelming. Additionally, her White peers limited their contact with her only to expressing interest in her friendship when they could receive answers for homework assignments and speaking to her outside of class as long as no other Whites were present. They also jokingly queried about whether her parents sold drugs to afford their lifestyle, and her teacher intimated that her term paper was so well written that it may have been plagiarized.

The counselor appropriately validated Tiffany's concerns and shared that over the years she had worked with other African American females who had expressed similar concerns. She recognized that in many ways Tiffany was isolated from both her Black and White peers and was truly an outsider within two disparate peer groups. The counselor had Tiffany prioritize her concerns and establish related goals. Tiffany decided that she wanted to find an African American peer group who shared her interests, have teachers respect the quality of effort she invested in her work, and experience less antipathy from her White peers.

Between sessions, the counselor consulted with two people of color, the only African American counselor in her department and a local minister of a predominantly African American congregation who served on the guidance department's Advisory Board. The African American counselor was instrumental in helping the White counselor recognize issues such as the competing demands that African American youngsters negotiate and the simultaneous pressure that students often experience from their same race peers. She recommended to the White counselor that Tiffany consider joining civic organizations whose purpose is to provide service and, at the same time, assist cultivating positive identity formation in African American youngsters. The minister recommended that the counselor inquire about Tiffany's church affiliation and have her consider joining a church youth group, which would bring her into closer contact with other conscientious African American youngsters.

At the next scheduled appointment, Tiffany discussed with the counselor strategies for meeting other African Americans with whom she appeared to have more in common. Tiffany also expressed an interest in joining the African American history club. The counselor recommended that Tiffany participate in a small group entitled, "Sisters on the Move," a support group for academically successful African American adolescents. When the counselor registered Tiffany for classes for the following year, she made certain to enroll her in AP classes where she would not be in the minority and receive some support from other students of color.

Concerned that the racial climate may be somewhat unhealthy for students of color, the Caucasian counselor approached the school improvement team and the principal about in-service workshops to address cultural competency issues in the classroom. The counselor recognized that some issues would require policy and institutional changes to more positively influence the social and educational experiences of minority children.

During their remaining sessions, the counselor helped Tiffany realize she did not have to sacrifice academic performance for peer acceptance. For the duration of the year, Tiffany seemed to be in much better spirits.


Race and Class

The interlocking paradigms of race and class have been inadequately addressed in the literature, and the few researchers who have examined these topics have typically treated these paradigms as mutually exclusive entities wherein race functions independently of class. Hooks (2000) cited a number of causal factors for the separate treatment of race and class. First, class, unlike race which is an immutable aspect of one's identity, can be camouflaged with conspicuous consumption. In other words, people can deflect attention from their impoverished social circumstances by possessing the accoutrements of money such as clothing and cars. Second, racism in this society is so virulent that it frequently deflects attention from class. Historically, African Americans have banded together to combat racial oppression as opposed to class oppression. Moreover, racial solidarity could be achieved because all African Americans experienced bias on the basis of skin color; whereas, class distinctions created a caste system that did not engender similar forms of economic solidarity. Third, because this society maintains a hedonistic obsession with material accumulation and negative attributions are often made about the poor being responsible for their plight, few people openly acknowledge personal deprivation and want. Society has made the poor internalize a sense of shame about their class status; consequently, people seldom volunteer information about their social position unless it is patently obvious.

A culturally responsive counselor would recognize the complex intersection of race and class embedded within Tiffany's presenting problem. Although Tiffany did not worry about food, shelter, or safety, she did experience ostracism from some of her peers. For instance, her African American peers isolated Tiffany because of their perceptions of her social class standing and concerns that she was "acting White," given her decision to excel academically. Her White peers could only accept stereotyped constructions of African Americans as criminals involved in the drug trade. The varying forms of ridicule she experienced from both her African American and Caucasian peers left her feeling dejected and alienated.

Privilege and Middle-Class Status

McIntosh (1989) provided groundbreaking analyses of White and male privilege as a sociopolitical force that confers a set of benefits to one group while concurrently denying those same benefits to a marginalized group with less status, power, and prestige. Her discussion of White privilege focused exclusively on the benefits that race grants European Americans. Perhaps a more useful discussion of privilege would examine this system of advantages in a domain-specific context. Privilege can occur along different binary dimensions that include class distinctions between the haves and have-nots; differences in sexual orientation primarily between heterosexuals and homosexuals; contrasts between males and females; distinctions between physical attractiveness and unattractiveness; differentials between the young and old; and differences in language such as standard and nonstandard English. In each case, society accords status and privilege to individuals who possess more preferred attributes such as higher social class standing, heterosexual orientation, maleness, attractiveness, youth, and the ability to speak standard English.

As defined herein, a middle-class African American who lacks privilege on the basis of race may well experience privilege on the basis of socioeconomic stares. Although middle-class status creates for Tiffany greater economic advantages, a wider assortment of personal choices, and a shield from poverty, her middle-class status does not provide complete protection from the often inevitable experiences with racism in a racially ambivalent society (Tatum, 1997; Wiley, 1992).

Hooks (2000) noted that class frequently serves as a mediating variable against racism. For instance, Tiffany believes that the accusation of plagiarism was a form of discrimination. Although social class standing may not protect her from racist assaults, class may mitigate against some consequences of racism. Thus, Tiffany has a degree of potential protection because of class that may not be available to other students of the same race. In comparison to a parent from the lower socioeconomic class, should Tiffany's parents construe the teacher's accusation as a racist incident and opt to respond to allegations of racism, they are more apt to know how to maneuver within the educational system. Tiffany's parents would likely know how to schedule a teacher conference, enlist an administrator if necessary, articulate their concerns to school personnel, and exude confidence and self-efficacy in the process. Class privilege may also mean that Tiffany's parents would likely have reliable transportation and the ability to take time from work without having to decide between loss of pay or inquiring about a child's school-related concerns (Patton & Day-Vines, 2003). Provided the allegations were true and in the event the situation was not resolved at the building level, a middle-class parent would likely have the resources to pursue other channels to seek redress, including accessing community leaders, school board members, and the media. Yet while many middle-class African American parents may have access to formal and informal resources within organizations and agencies, the depth and breadth of this access still does not approximate the resources available to their European American counterparts of equal class standing.

While class does not thwart egregious violations of an African American child's personhood, it can certainly interrupt the vicious cycle of racism, particularly when parents have the resources in money, time, knowledge of the educational system, and status in the community. Outcomes for middle-class parents may be markedly different than those for African Americans who lack class privilege. Although one's race may contribute to oppression on the basis of skin color, class status may assuage at least partially the detrimental results of racist discrimination.


Many of the cultural values prevalent in African American communities originated in West Africa (Holloway, 1990). As is the case with many non-western peoples, some dominant American cultural values and African American values are often at odds. For instance, an American cultural orientation or worldview promotes individualism, competition, material accumulation, nuclear families, religion as distinct from other parts of culture, and mastery over nature (Sue & Sue, 2003). In marked contrast, many African Americans, particularly those with traditional worldviews, embrace values such as the significance of the collective over the individual, kinship and affiliation, extended families, spirituality, connectedness, harmony with nature, and holistic thinking (Asante & Gudykunst, 1989; Nobles, 1991). Middle-class African Americans are often likely to adopt value orientations that encompass elements from both African American and mainstream American cultural perspectives (Sue & Sue). Tiffany experienced a collision of these competing worldviews. More specifically, she did not feel a sense of belonging in either peer group and consequently felt vulnerable to feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and distress.

Code Switching

Social class variables often influence the extent to which African Americans express certain culturally derived behaviors such as code switching, a practice in which individuals alter their behavioral patterns to conform to the current environment (Celious & Oyserman, 2001). For example, an adolescent may speak and behave in the Black English vernacular when interacting with African American peers, yet modify speech and behavioral patterns to coincide with the norms and expectations valued in more integrated settings.

For some youngsters, code switching can create a certain amount of psychological distress, particularly as they negotiate various cultural settings simultaneously (i.e., home, school, church, neighborhood) that may require markedly different communication styles and responses. In such instances, students must determine which setting requires which communication style (i.e., standard vs. nonstandard English), the consequences of each communication style, and when and whether one mode of communication should take precedence over another mode. For instance, communicating in nonstandard forms of English may curry favor with peers but engender disapproval from teachers as well as negative attributions about a youngster's cognitive abilities. When communicating with peers and teachers separately, the decisions about communication patterns may be somewhat obvious. What happens, however, when a student is immersed in two environments at once, say the classroom where a teacher and peers are present? Which communication pattern will prevail and how will teachers or peers react to a youngster's communication style? These issues may pose a confusing and stressful dilemma for students in general, and for middle-class African American youngsters in particular.

Middle-class African Americans may be less likely to live in more homogeneous, segregated communities and more likely to commute regularly between several disparate cultures (i.e., home, school, community, church, peer group) that require different nuances in communication, as in Tiffany's case. Additionally, communication style is a critical factor in a youngster's development and potential for success. Any dilemma posed by this navigation can be mitigated by the use of culturally responsive counseling practices. For these youngsters to make 'situationally intelligent' decisions it would be important for counselors to first recognize code switching as an important cultural marker and to normalize the student's need to navigate multiple and simultaneous norms and values (Perry & Fraser, 1993). Lack of awareness about these and other issues may leave counselors ill-equipped to work effectively with African American adolescents.

The Extended Family and The Church

Relative to cultural values, two institutions have weighed prominently in African American life--the extended family and the church. The extended family provides considerable social and emotional support for its members and consists of nonfictive, biological relatives such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well as fictive family members composed of close friends and associates (Billingsley & Caldwell, 1991). Traditionally, extended family members have participated actively in the growth and development of African American children. As African Americans prosper and employment opportunities move them away from extended family networks, close family ties require more effort to maintain (Tatum, 1999). Given Tiffany's residence in a predominantly White community it is possible that she experiences a sense of geographical dislocation from other African Americans.

The church has also served a significant role in the socialization of African American youngsters. In particular, the church has provided educational support, religious guidance, mentoring, pastoral counseling, financial assistance, and political activism as mechanisms for enhancing social and cultural outcomes (Richardson & June, 1997).

Culturally responsive school counselors can use what they know about the cultural attributes of African American youngsters to foster the familiar cultural contexts to which youngsters are accustomed and subsequently improve counseling outcomes. To know someone is to know her or his culture. Far too often the culture of the home and the culture of the school remain unsynchronized for minority children (Patton & Day-Vines, 2003). Culturally responsive counselors accommodate the emerging demands of children from culturally distinct groups. As such they recognize students' culturally derived behaviors, and interpret those behaviors appropriately and without construing such behavior as peculiar or inferring pathology in a student. Moreover, culturally responsive counselors demonstrate comfort exploring and processing the specific and unique manner in which culture may impact a student's values, viewpoints, and interpretation of stimuli. Unequipped with the requisite knowledge of culture, counselors may inadvertently avoid, ignore, overlook, or minimize the contextual dimensions of race, culture, and class.

Even as the shared cultural values of African Americans are examined, one should remember that a marked degree of heterogeneity or intra-group difference exists within any group and that social class may influence the manifestation of these cultural attributes (Pedersen, 1994; Sue & Sue, 2003). Conceptualizing information in terms of broad or modal characteristics of groups precludes one from viewing all groups as monolithic entities.


Psychologists and other social scientists underscore the importance of identity and belonging as a means of achieving psychological anchorage and acceptance. White and Parham (1990) defined identity as "the adoption of certain personal attitudes, feelings, characteristics, and behaviors and the identification with a larger group of people who share those characteristics" (p. 42). Bulhan (1979) defined identity as a core human need that reflects the manner in which an individual defines self in relationship to other group members. Lack of a sense of connectedness or identity leads to nihilism, or what West (1993) defined as a "profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair" (p. 13). Analogously, Erikson (1955) contended that failure to sort out identity issues leads to a bifurcated sense of self. Some researchers have documented the protective function of positive ethnic and racial identities (Goodstein & Ponterotto, 1997; Poindexter-Cameron & Robinson, 1997; Smith, Walker, Fields, Brookins, & Seay, 1999).

Given the importance of identity to healthy development, school counselors should seriously consider addressing identity issues in the context of counseling. Racial identity development theory permits counselors to understand the unfolding transformations that occur in individuals as they transition from stages wherein ethnic and racial group membership have limited salience to students, through to positions and statuses wherein ethnic and racial group membership become prominent and well-integrated features of students' lives. Elsewhere Vandiver (2001) has discussed, in more depth, racial identity development theory and implications for counseling.

Triple Quandary

Boykin and Toms (1985) proposed that African Americans, in general, and children, in particular, have the difficult task of integrating three distinct identities. Referred to as the "triple quandary," these identities are at once complex, competing, and contradictory. Boykin and Toms argued convincingly that this quandary reflects three interlocking arenas of experience or consciousness that include (a) mainstream American, (b) minority, and (c) African American identities.

First, African American children receive socialization experiences into mainstream American culture by virtue of their existence within the dominant culture. These socialization experiences might include a predilection for television, computers, and peer involvement as well as the adoption of certain American cultural values such as individualism, competition, and the accumulation of material goods. These preferences often derive more from one's upbringing in American culture than they do from membership in a particular racial group.

Second, for African American children, socialization occurs based on their minority status as members of a race who suffer victimization and oppression. For instance, many African Americans learn early on that their minority group status predisposes them to discriminatory treatment and constant reminders about their subordinate position in a society that devalues blackness. Often, these lessons begin during childhood. Residence in more integrated communities may increase the likelihood that middle-class African Americans endure certain indignities because of skin color. For example, when White peers are invited to attend a social event or gathering, an African American child might be excluded from participating primarily on the basis of skin color (Tatum, 1997). Within the case study, Tiffany's Caucasian peers questioned the legitimacy of her residence in an affluent community and her parents' occupations, and instead endorsed stereotypical constructions of financial well-being among African Americans. This particular kind of racial discrimination may be less of an issue for children from the lower socioeconomic levels who may reside in largely segregated communities.

At school, African American children may not be encouraged to take rigorous classes and may instead be urged to pursue vocational versus college preparatory programs of study. Similarly, African Americans remain over-represented in special education programs and underrepresented in gifted education programs, often being recommended for lower-level courses (Patton, 1998). Such experiences erode the emotional well-being of African American children, and parents frequently find themselves trying to overcompensate for the psychic wounds inflicted upon their children's personhood.

Third, socialization experiences prompt African American children to become conscious of their status as African Americans with a rich heritage linked to the West African cultural experience. Some African American children may be exposed to African American history in their homes, churches, and social organizations. Other youngsters may even participate in Kwanzaa, an African American cultural celebration, learn facets of African and African American history that have been excluded from school curricula, or surround themselves with images and themes that validate and affirm the African American experience. In either case, possession of ethnic artifacts and literature as well as exposure to cultural events and information tends to be a prerogative of the middle class. As an example, poor families may have less disposable income after paying for food, shelter, child care, and transportation.

Boykin and Toms (1985) argued that a healthy identity rests upon successful, simultaneous negotiations of each of these three identity domains. Given that many middle-class African American adolescents often find themselves in integrated educational and residential settings (Graham, 1999; Tatum, 1999), it seems plausible that many of these youngsters would have multi-dimensional identity structures that accommodate the separate contexts in which they have been socialized. For Tiffany and many other middle-class African American adolescents, socialization within an American and an African American identity can pose dilemmas because the two identity structures often function as antithetical forces. Negotiating two or more opposing cultural forces can create tension, inner turmoil, and psychological distress for some African American adolescents. Tiffany struggles to gain acceptance by both her African American and Caucasian peers. Culturally responsive school counselors who recognize these potential dilemmas are in a better position to provide supportive and encouraging counseling interventions for African American adolescents. Recognition of the identity issues students confront permits counselors to recognize healthy and unhealthy identity functioning, provide more accurate case conceptualizations of students' concerns, facilitate students' self-understanding, and promote self-acceptance. Fordham's (1988) discussion of fictive kinship networks provides an appropriate illustration of the personal conflict that can result when youngsters experience difficulty reconciling multiple aspects of their identity.


Fictive Kinship Networks

In her study of high-achieving African American high-school students, Fordham (1988) concluded that successful students are plagued with the burden of choosing between either social acceptance by peer group members or academic success. More precisely, Fordham contended that the peer group, which she termed "fictive kinship networks," discourages students from pursuing scholastic achievement. In effect, fictive kinship networks espouse a set of values that operate as the direct antithesis of mainstream American cultural values, which concomitantly endorse individualism, achievement, and success. The particular value orientation sanctioned by fictive kinship networks demonstrates racial solidarity among group members and operates as an oppositional response to mainstream American cultural values.

Torn between two competing value systems, fictive kinship networks on the one hand and mainstream American cultural values on the other, achievement-oriented African American students such as Tiffany, who elect mainstream American cultural values, often endure ridicule and ostracism from members of the fictive kinship network. For instance, students who choose to excel academically may be accused of "talking White" or more precisely speaking standard English versus vernacular English such as Ebonics. Other students may encounter criticism for participating in activities sparsely populated with African Americans such as lacrosse, the debate team, or swim teams. Even establishing friendships outside African American peer groups or listening to music regarded as having a White orientation may subject a youngster to relentless censure.

For many African American adolescents, an orientation toward dominant cultural values exacts a hefty price at the expense of healthy identity functioning and psychological well-being (Fordham, 1988).

Under these circumstances, high achieving students must make a mutually exclusive choice between loyalty to fictive kinship networks and adherence to dominant cultural values. As such, Fordham noted that given limited alternatives, students who opt for academic achievement frequently adopt a "raceless persona" in which they, in many respects, ignore and minimize any vestiges of an African American racial identity to obtain the accouterments of success. Relatedly, Tiffany and other middle-class youngsters often find themselves belonging to several different communities at once--the neighborhood community, the school community, the African American peer group, and the church group--yet never realizing a sense of belonging in any setting. Although discussed in a separate context, Lorde (1984) referred to this phenomenon as the "outsider within," meaning that membership in a particular group does not guarantee belonging and connection to others. As a member of the gymnastics team, the orchestra, and one of few African Americans in her class, Tiffany feels a sense of personal isolation from her White peers with whom she only seems to share academic and athletic interests. Tiffany's distress seems to result from the fact that, unlike her White peers, shared interests and sustained contact with other youngsters does not seem to engender more close friendships for her. Among her African American peers, Tiffany seems only to share a commonality in racial group membership.

Successful counseling interventions with middleclass African American clients must explore these critical social issues and offer, by way of remedy, the proposition that students can occupy space within fictive kinship networks and the American cultural mainstream simultaneously. Although the values of each group appear diametrically opposed, they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Students need not adopt a raceless persona. Indeed, it is possible both to have a strong African American identity and to maintain an orientation toward success. In support of this contention, the professional literature propounds a theoretical and empirical relationship between racial identity and psychological well-being.

In a similar study of gifted African American high school students, Townsend and Patton (1995) provide elaborate responses from students regarding their experiences navigating between three separate and distinct experiences: (a) mainstream American culture; (b) African American culture, and (c) gifted culture. The authors documented the importance of maintaining an awareness of conflicts experienced by students and implementing culturally mediated social development enhancement strategies. Townsend and Patton endorse a culturally affirming framework that integrates African and African American cultural norms and orientations historically associating effort with success and positive outcomes. These authors contend that progressing one's knowledge and functioning has been a valued tradition of people of African descent from classical to contemporary times. They argue, in fact, that excelling academically is consonant with being African American and thus expressive of the values of hard work, upward mobility, and success as has been attained by those of middle-class status. In contrast to Fordham (1988), Townsend and Patton maintain that many African American students are just as likely to express achievement as a condition of being African American, taking the position that to do otherwise would be to deny their "Blackness." Under these conditions, many African American students choose not to deny their racial identity. Although Tiffany has encountered considerable difficulty, she has adopted an orientation in which she is working to occupy both a success orientation and membership with African American peers without compromising either position. Culturally responsive counseling interventions would help Tiffany recognize that her feelings of distress and her difficulty reconciling two competing worldviews is normal for students who navigate two dissimilar cultural settings.

Politics of Hair and Skin Color

The politics of hair and skin color has been a contentious intra-racial issue within the African American community, irrespective of social class (Robinson & Howard-Hamilton, 2000). This phenomena stems back to slavery and the practice of miscegenation, when slave masters accorded preferential treatment and status to their bi-racial offspring who usually had lighter skin and straighter hair textures (Okazawa-Rey, Robinson, & Ward, 1987). Following the demise of slavery, many African Americans continued to assign greater value to individuals who approximated a White European aesthetic. Even today, many African American youngsters endure teasing and ridicule because of their appearance, especially individuals who lie at either extreme along the skin color and hair texture continuum. These experiences can erode one's feelings of self-worth and sense of personal adequacy (Holcomb-McCoy & Moore-Thomas, 2001). In the context of counseling, some African American adolescents may need reassurance about their appearance, strategies for coping with their perceptions of physical attractiveness, skills to resist internalizing negative messages imposed by society, and opportunities to openly process their experiences and reactions about issues of hair and skin color. Reinforcing notions of self-acceptance represents an appropriate counseling strategy. Although Tiffany did not cite the politics of hair and skin color as a presenting concern, a culturally responsive counselor should demonstrate an openness towards addressing such sensitive issues when they arise in a manner that validates and affirms the child. It is critically important that counselors not avoid these topics because of their personal discomfort or because they do not recognize these issues as artifacts of culture.

Geographic Dislocation

The civil tights movement of the 1960s resulted in unprecedented growth of the Black middle class. Upward social mobility and fewer housing restrictions contributed to large numbers of African Americans flocking from urban settings to suburban White communities. Although important outcomes of this movement included better schools and improved housing conditions, these new residential patterns dislocated many African Americans from predominantly Black social outlets and extended family networks (Tatum, 1999). For adolescents, manifestations of this phenomenon often meant being the only African American in a class or activity, lacking a Black peer group, and being isolated from the African American community that had served as an important socializing agent for many of their parents. School counselors should recognize that isolation from the African American community could prompt adolescents to adopt a raceless persona described by Fordham (1988). Maintaining such attitudes leaves youngsters ill-prepared for the often inevitable experiences they encounter when confronted with racism and discrimination and is particularly salient for African American youngsters once they reach puberty and their peer relationships change with the onset of the dating process (Tatum).

School counselors can help foster well-being by permitting youngsters to verbalize and sort through these issues in an accepting environment. During the counseling process, Tiffany's counselor can explore the extent to which her geographic dislocation impacts her relationship with both her African American and Caucasian peers as well as identify strategies that will help reduce her current stress level and enhance her ability to maneuver successfully between both peer groups. An appropriate counseling goal is to help Tiffany become bi-cultural or multicultural, such that she functions equally well in African American, mainstream American, or other cultural settings. Culturally responsive counselors recognize the central properties of mainstream American and African American culture, promote bi-cultural functioning by affirming and validating both cultural orientations, normalizing the demands and expectations of each cultural group, and helping students maneuver fluidly between both cultures.


In this section we enumerate a number of strategies that counselors can implement when counseling middle-class African American adolescents. These strategies integrate what is known about the cultural values, social institutions, peer expectations, and racial identity functioning of African American adolescents into the school counselor's repertoire. Such strategies can help decrease African American adolescents' dissatisfaction with the counseling process and reduce premature termination rates, while simultaneously accommodating the students' backgrounds during the counseling process. School counselors can capitalize on the significance that African Americans place on social relationships by fostering relationships that parallel the familiar cultural experiences of many African American youngsters. Cultivation of favorable counseling climates serves as a prerequisite for establishing trusting relationships that cannot be understated (Ford, 1997). Failure to do so can have adverse consequences on the therapeutic alliance and contribute to dissatisfaction and early termination.

Individual Counseling

Initially, counselors may confront concerns of African American adolescents during individual counseling. In most instances, students will not seek counseling because of their race or social class; however, issues of race and class may be embedded in their presenting problems. Counselors should be cognizant of these hidden issues and approach counseling with an aura of acceptance and openness in an effort to understand the complex interaction between race, culture, and class. Further, a student's perception that a counselor does not comprehend contextual variables related to race and class may lead to superficial self-disclosures, unhelpful counseling interventions, dissatisfaction with counseling services, and premature termination. Counselors must exude comfort in addressing the sociopolitical issues of race and class.

Tiffany's counselor recognized the complexities of race and class and created a safe environment in which she could talk openly. The counselor demonstrated an interest in Tiffany and probed Tiffany for a more complete understanding of Tiffany's concerns. Had the counselor made a literal interpretation of Tiffany's request to change classes the counselor would have missed important contextual dimensions of Tiffany's presenting problem. Instead, the counselor broached the subject of race and class by asking Tiffany how the dearth of African Americans in accelerated classes influenced her decision to pursue less rigorous coursework. This accurate conceptualization of Tiffany's dilemma made Tiffany feel understood and helped her self-disclose. Such a question serves a diagnostic purpose. If the student does not perceive that race or class may be germane to the counseling concern, the student is likely to say so. If the student recognizes the impact of race and class on that concern, the student may feel comfortable exploring those issues in more depth and be willing to articulate concerns that might otherwise be withheld for fear the counselor lacks insight regarding the Black experience.

Culturally responsive school counselors should be comfortable enough to allow a student to explore feelings, concerns, and perceptions without becoming defensive or de-legitimizing the student's problems, especially when the student addresses the issue of racism. Appropriate strategies for processing concerns about racism may be to allow the student to sort through the concerns in a nonjudgmental fashion. The counselor should exercise caution and not permit the student to wallow in self-pity or mal-adaptive criticisms of school personnel. Instead, the counselor may help the student devise strategies for coping with and confronting racism appropriately.

Given the embeddedness of racism and discrimination in our society, counselors may need to perform alternative roles as advocates and change agents in which counselors work within the system to institute changes in school policy or climate (Sue & Sue, 2003). This strategy may require counselors to conduct in-service training on topics such as diversity, advocate on behalf of students, and model appropriate behavior in efforts to improve the social and educational experiences of African American adolescents. Counselors must also recognize that although interracial tensions consume a considerable amount of psychic energy of African American adolescents, so too do intra-racial issues such as fictive kinship networks and the politics of hair and skin color.

Group Counseling

Group counseling permits adolescents to process their individual and collective experience, learn coping strategies, and feel less isolated. Incidentally, this particular counseling modality incorporates communal dynamics that are valued among many African Americans (Ford, 1997). Of course, such a group would likely not convene around issues pertaining to middle-class status, especially since, as hooks (2000) notes, people are quite reticent about issues of social class. Although social class may not be the presenting problem, issues of class and race may be embedded in students' concerns. For instance, group members might express concerns about the pressure to conform to the demands of fictive kinship networks described by Fordham (1988), process the challenges associated with being one of few minorities in a class, or sort out identity issues. Tiffany's counselor recommended her for participation in a support group which would help Tiffany process some of her conflicts with other African American students who had similar concerns.

Cultural Informants

At times, school counselors may need to acquire additional information about working effectively with middle-class African American adolescents by consulting with cultural informants. Cultural informants are people who provide insight about an indigenous group who may be unfamiliar to outsiders (Patton & Day-Vines, 2003). Usually, cultural informants are hi-cultural, meaning they can maneuver fluently both in mainstream American culture and in their own indigenous culture, while respecting the central properties of both cultures. Often their ability to commute between two disparate cultures permits them to understand the expectations of both their own and the culture of the "other." These individuals serve as guides and have an abundance of resources upon which school counselors can capitalize. African Americans employed in the school, members of African American social and civic organizations, and personal contacts can all serve as suitable cultural informants. Tiffany's counselor consulted with an African American school counselor in her department as well as a local minister who served on the department's advisory board. Her interactions with these individuals broadened her depth of understanding of middle class African American adolescents and helped her identify culturally responsive counseling interventions for Tiffany.


African American civic, social, and religious organizations in particular have functioned as enduring parts of the African American community's vitality (Day-Vines, 2000). Most notably these organizations have supplemented the social and cultural experiences of many African American children, which have been particularly important for African Americans who live in predominantly White communities. Parents may express some comfort with the academic preparation their children receive in school yet harbor concerns about their children's social experiences and limited exposure to other African Americans. To create a balance between the academic experiences at school and social experiences in the community, many parents have relied on civic and social organizations to reinforce Black culture, instill confidence, and provide positive peer groups and adult role models for their children (Graham, 1999). This struggle for balance has been especially necessary for families living in suburban communities that are sparsely populated with African Americans. These civic and social organizations often have youth components aimed at promoting healthy identity functioning, civic responsibility, leadership training, and racial uplift. An abbreviated list of national organizations with local chapters includes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League; fraternities such as Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Kappa Alpha Psi, and Phi Beta Sigma; and sororities such as Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. Counselors working with students who have limited contact with the African American community may suggest participation in these organizations and may maintain a list of local referrals they can disseminate to children and their families. Many of the social and cultural needs children have lie outside the realm of the school counselor's expertise, so counselors need to draw on resources indigenous to the Black community to complement the educational and social experiences of African American adolescents. Optimally, a counselor would maintain contacts within the Black community. Incidentally, the African American counselor who served as a cultural informant recommended that Tiffany consider membership in a civic organization.

Within the African American community, the church is considered one of the most viable institutions. Historically, the church has provided religious, spiritual, social, educational, mental health, political, and economic sustenance to its members through numerous programming and outreach ministries (Nettles, 1991). For many African Americans, seeking help external to the family is patently discouraged, yet counselees who are reluctant to work with a counselor may consider sharing their concerns with a clergy member. Richardson and June (1997) recommended that counselors form alliances with Black churches particularly because churches instill in African Americans a positive Black identity. In the case study, the minister recommended that the counselor inquire about Tiffany's church affiliation.


This article addresses the interaction between race, culture, and social class and underscores that middle-class African American adolescents may have concerns that bear little relationship to poverty and its attendant pressures. Cultural conditioning may prompt some counselors to assume that all African American adolescents, irrespective of social class differences, may experience an identical set of life stressors. This belief could not be farther from the truth. Social class issues frequently affect the social experiences that people confront. A counselor working with middle-class African American adolescents needs to be attuned to the specific and unique issues that middle-class youngsters experience and avoid looking at African Americans as monolithic entities. The manifestation of culturally responsive counseling involves a deliberate effort to bridge the cultural divide through the demonstration of understanding, respect, and competence in dealing with cultural differences.

Given broad variability in income distribution among members of the Black middle class, middleclass status may better reflect a mentality, mode of thought, or value orientation geared toward social mobility and respectability (Ford, 1997). African Americans have distinctive cultural patterns and behaviors that may be mediated by factors of social class, and counselors need to recognize these issues in the context of counseling. Identity is a critical component of psychological functioning, and failure to negotiate identity issues can create personal distress for some youngsters.

An important part of the counseling process may involve referrals to other individuals and institutions that have demonstrated respect and authority in the African American community. These individuals and agencies serve as positive role models to African American youngsters by maintaining and promoting a positive African American experience.

Culturally responsive counselors recognize the student first as an individual and then in a cultural context in an effort to avoid some of the stereotyping that can have negative consequences during the counseling process. School counselors can attain some familiarity with and understanding of social issues such as fictive kinship networks, the politics of hair and skin color, and the impact geographic dislocation can have on youngsters. Maintaining current referral lists, contacts within the Black community, and access to cultural informants are all skills on which school counselors can rely to improve their responsiveness to and multicultural competence with African American adolescents.

A counselor who has some familiarity with the specific and unique issues that concern middle-class African American youngsters is better poised to listen empathically, recognize the relationships between race and social class, and less likely to discount or unintentionally avoid prominent features of adolescents' lives.


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Norma L. Day-Vines, Ph.D., is an assistant professor.

James M. Patton, Ed.D., is a professor. Both are with the School of Education, The College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA.

Joy L. Baytops is a specialist, Teacher Quality Enhancement, Virginia Department of Education, Richmond.
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Author:Baytops, Joy L.
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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