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Empowerment groups for urban African American girls: a response.

Although I wanted to read Bemak, Chung, and Siroskey-Sabdo's article in an objective sense, my response to their article is most likely influenced by my own experiences as an African American female and mother of an African American daughter. To me, the paramount issue facing African American females is the double and sometimes triple oppressions that we experience--being female, African American, and oftentimes poor or working-class. Dealing with racial stereotypes along with gender stereotypes can have a damaging influence on the development of African American girls. And, despite the achievements of African American women in this country, the images of African American females continue to be negative (Jordan, 1997). (1) Counselors of African American females, therefore, must have the ability to conceptualize problems from a feminist perspective as well as a cultural/racial perspective.

Although I applaud Bemak et al. for responding to an important and critical topic, I believe they missed an important element in their empowerment group approach--the element of an Afrocentric or Black feminist perspective. In resistance to the modern feminist movement, in which White women have been accused of focusing on oppression in terms of gender while ignoring issues of race, class, and sexuality, theories of Afrocentric or Black feminism evolved. Black feminism was developed to call attention to the multiple oppressions experienced by African American women, and to define their everyday experiences in their own terms (James, 1999). African American women share the common experience of being women in a society that denigrates women of African descent.

This commonality of experience suggests that certain characteristic themes will be prominent in an African American woman's life. For example, one core theme is a legacy of struggle. The struggle to survive in a White, privileged, and male-dominated society makes African American women vulnerable to discrimination and assaults in the workplace, on the street, and at home. This legacy of struggle is true for African American girls as well. Many African American girls, as Bemak et al. encountered, live in hazardous and hostile environments. Their awareness of being victimized by racism and poverty creates a Black feminist sensibility or a Black woman's legacy of struggle. Other common themes of African American female life include the interlocking nature of race, gender, and class oppression; replacing denigrated images of Black womanhood with self-defined images; belief in Black women's activism as mothers, teachers, and community leaders; and sensitivity to sexual politics (Collins, 1990).

Bemak et al.'s empowerment group intervention lacked a connection to the girls' experiences of being female and African American. African American women and girls as a group have experiences that contribute to their unique view of the world. Individual African American women display varying types of consciousness regarding their life experiences in the context of race and gender. By tapping into the everyday, unarticulated consciousness that traditionally has been denigrated in White, male-controlled institutions, African American women can begin to embrace an Afrocentric and feminist consciousness.

Research in African American studies suggests that an Afrocentric worldview exists that is distinct from and in many ways opposed to a Eurocentric worldview (Hoskins, 1992; Mazama, 2001; Winters, 1994). While African Americans have been forced to repress or adapt these Afrocentric worldviews in the face of different institutional arrangements of White domination, the continuation of an Afrocentric worldview has been fundamental to African Americans' resistance to racial oppression (Wieder, 1992). African American women, in particular, draw on this Afrocentric worldview to cope with racial oppression. But far too often African American women's Afrocentric consciousness remains unarticulated and not fully developed into a self-defined standpoint. This articulation of a racial and feminine self, I believe, should be a major goal of empowerment groups for African American girls in urban schools.

An empowerment group for African American girls, in my opinion, must include discussions and dialogue regarding each girl's legacy of struggle. It also would be important for the girls to discuss their struggles and challenges as related to being African American and female. Thus, developing new interpretations of familiar realities would be another group. For instance, the girls might be asked to analyze their intimate relationships or to discuss their academic achievement in the context of their race and gender. The girls would be encouraged to share their experiences, and the similarities and differences in their experiences, and most importantly to analyze their experiences. Validating and placing these girls' lived experiences at the center of analysis offers fresh insights on the prevailing concepts and the paradigms of their worldview. Viewing the world through a lens of race, class, and gender oppression creates new possibilities for an empowering Afrocentric feminist knowledge base. In other words, revealing new ways of knowing that allow African American girls to define their own reality is empowering. This goes beyond the notion of merely allowing the girls to decide on the format and structure of the group.

As I read Bemak et al.'s intervention for empowering urban African American girls, I wondered aloud, "Can a non-African American and male group counselor lead an empowerment group for African American girls?" Just as there are male feminists, there are also Black feminists who are non-Black and male. Guy-Sheftall (1995) has contended that both men and women can be Black feminists and named Frederick Douglass and William E. B. DuBois as prominent examples of Black male feminists. Although I believe that Whites and African American men can embrace a specific political perspective that is aligned with Afrocentric feminist thought, I believe that one risks obscuring a group's focus and the unique "lens" that African American women bring to the knowledge of their experiences.

Based on this opinion, I believe that empowerment groups for African American girls should be led by at least one African American female, The presence of a White male, in particular, could symbolize the White, male-dominated society that African American females are oppressed by and this potentially could create the same denigrating dynamic that occurs in the general society. I believe that an African American female counselor who has an understanding of Afrocentric or Black feminism would be the most effective leader of an empowerment group for African American girls because she can act as a role model and can offer emotional support for the girls in identifying and responding to racism.


The African American female experience is characterized by the intrinsically linked oppressors of race, class, and gender. These oppressors are interwoven into social structures, and they work together to define the history of the lives of African American women and women of color. Groups designed to empower African American girls should be implemented using an Afrocentric feminist perspective. The particular oppressions that African American girls face lead to specific perspectives on reality that should be articulated in empowerment groups. In sum, I believe as Jackson (2001) advised,
 To provide a psychologically healthy and
 "emotionally safe" environment for African
 American women and to support the development
 of an integrated self-definition that
 grows out of an experience of self as "different"
 or as "object," service providers must
 create services with an understanding of the
 multiple interacting sociocultural contexts
 that define the lives of these women. Such
 services should be administered by service
 providers who share the sociocultural and historical
 experience of being African American
 women or who have been adequately trained
 to work with African American women.
 (p. 68)

Bemak et al.'s work, although creative and important, needs to address these unavoidable issues in their empowerment groups.

(1) The terms African American and Black are used interchangeably in this article and are used based on how the various authors read had utilized either term.


Collins, P.H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Guy-Sheftall, B. (1995). Words of fire: An anthology of African American feminist thought. New York:The New Press.

Hoskins, L.A. (1992). Eurocentrism vs. Afrocentrism: A geopolitical linkage analysis. Journal of Black Studies, 23, 247-257.

Jackson, L.R. (2001).The interaction of race and gender in African American women's experiences of self and other at a predominately white women's college. In D. Pope-Davis & H.L.K. Coleman (Eds.), The intersection of race, class, and gender in multicultural counseling (pp. 49-70). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

James, J. (1999). Shadowboxing: Representations of Black feminist politics. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Jordan, J. (1997). Counseling African American women from a cultural sensitivity perspective. In C. Lee (Ed.), Multicultural issues in counseling: New approaches to diversity (chap. 7). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Mazama, A. (2001). The Afrocentric paradigm: Contours and definitions. Journal of Black Studies, 31, 387-405.

Wieder, A. (1992). Afrocentrism: Capitalist, democratic, and liberationist portraits. Educational Foundations, 6, 33-42.

Winters, C.A. (1994). Afrocentrism: A valid frame of reference. Journal of Black Studies, 25, 170-190.

Cheryl C. Holcomb-McCoy is an assistant professor, Department of Counseling and Personnel Services, University of Maryland at College Park.
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Author:Holcomb-McCoy, Cheryl C.
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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