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Counseling African American Males


Male Socialization of African American Males
Practitioner Issues
Counseling Dyad Issues
Therapeutic Issues
Therapeutic Strategies
Therapeutic Goals
Strategies for Creating a Helping Environment
Reading List

The Male Socialization Process of African American Males

All humans are situated in an historical as well as a cultural process. Any understanding of African American men is predicated on an understanding of African American history and culture. This means that counseling approaches must be based on an understanding of and sensitivity to the personal history of African Americans. Young African American men in contemporary society face many challenges that may have an impact on their development. Manhood historically has not been a birthright for the African American male.

Given the forces that impinge on the development of African American men, it is imperative that committed counselors help them develop attitudes and behaviors that help them function at optimal psycho-social levels in a demanding world. African American men run into great difficulty as they grow older and become stronger. The chief problem is that they are nurtured in a hostile and non-supportive environment. The environment often includes poverty, criminal justice, unemployment, inequitable educational opportunities, and negative media images.

A male’s gender identity- his masculinity- has been and continues to be volatile. It has to be earned and proved on a day-to-day basis. A man can’t just be masculine, he must constantly “prove” it. The socially prescribed male behaviors require men to work against the fulfillment of certain needs and to be competitive, aggressive, and to evaluate their life successes in terms of external satisfaction. Every man is caught in this no-win bind: if he lives out society’s prescribed role requirements his basic human needs are unfulfilled. On the other hand, if these human needs are satisfied there is a chance that he may be judged, or may judge himself, not to be a real man.

Being emotionally inexpressive is a vital part of the very nature of “manliness.” Balswick (1982) calls it “male inexpressiveness” and defines an inexpressive male “as one who does not verbally express his feelings, either because he has no feelings or because he has been socialized not to.” Skovolt (1978) defines the phenomenon as “restrictive emotionality” since men appear to have difficulty expressing feelings openly, giving up emotional control and being vulnerable to self, others, and new experiences.

Many men, socialized to ignore feelings and become out of touch with their bodies, do not recognize internal stress, strain, and symptoms of sickness. If men are aware of these inner distress signals, they refuse to accept these signs of poor health, thus opening themselves up for cancer, strokes, breakdowns, heart attacks, and even suicide. The notion that sex role expectations are at least equally as strong for men as they are for women and that men experience similar pressures to conform their behavior to these expectations has led some to suggest that counseling may also function to reinforce a traditional role for men.

Strongly related to the issue of Black masculinity are the problems encountered on the path to manhood. Few Americans are unaware of the presence of young African American men and they are generally regarded as a source of tension in the social structure.

Practitioner Related Issues

Therapist need to be aware of their own biases. African Americans may be especially wary of the motives of authority figures and thus may test relationships before allowing themselves to develop trusting and intimate bonds with a therapist. The negative portrayal of African American men as absent from families and remiss as providers have left many practitioners devoid of basic knowledge or effective intervention strategies applicable to Black men.

The recognition of African American males as resources for sustaining the well-being of Black families can enhance the development of effective therapeutic intervention. Practitioners with a stereotypical view of African American males will fail to utilize their strengths jeopardize the effectiveness of the intervention. This stereotypical framework could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor client follow-up, premature termination, and failure to achieve treatment goals.

Counseling Dyad Issues

Women therapist struggle with balancing the power of their professional position with women’s more traditional roles of nurturer and caretaker. When women therapists are asked to generate a quick list of adjectives that describe male clients as they choose manipulative, hostile, intellectualizing, passive, distant, rigid, dominating, childlike, and generally uninterested in change.

Women have been taught to take cake of men without asking them to face their own vulnerability. Women therapist have also tended to ignore the sexual component of therapy with men. They often don’t find it clinically vital to explore male client’s fantasies and feelings towards them. The male client’s seduction or attraction can mean different things, since sexuality is a socially approved mechanism by which many men express not only lust, but care, dependency, connection, sadness, and anger.

Additionally, nothing intimidates most women therapist more than their male client’s anger. Some men try to control therapy by yelling, storming out of sessions, refusing to speak, or aggressively engage in intellectual argument. The female clinician must learn to confront without being critical and to set limits without being punitive.

The first task for the male therapist is to become more clear about their own values. Therapist, in particular male therapist, have been exposed to the traditional notions of male identity, role, and behavior. It could happen, then, that a male therapist may find it perplexing, and even threatening, when one of his male clients espouses nontraditional attitudes or behaviors. Restrictive emotionality also can plaque the male therapist.

The male therapist may be more likely to resort to corrective action rather than sharing the affective experiences of the client. Oftentimes the issue of homophobia- fear of close relationships with others of the same sex-can intensify issues of self-disclosures, intimacy, and trust. Homophobia encourages men to remain distant and view each other as competitors rather than as possible friends.

Therapeutic Issues

The male sex-role requires that men be independent, strong, self-reliant, competitive, achievement-oriented, powerful, adventurous, and emotionally restrained. These characteristics both take a toll on men’s physical and mental health, and make it difficult for men to seek and utilize psychological services. The traditional male role is a self-denying and stoic-heroic combination of characteristics. It appears that men seek therapy only as a last resort, when their lives are in very serious trouble or absolutely chaotic.

Even in crises most men will not seek therapy of their own volition, but at the insistence of someone else-either a wife or partner, a physician, a clergy-person, or an employer. Therapy can cause a great deal of anxiety since most men have developed cognitive schema which lead them to believe that exploring their sense of self can lead only to humiliation and rejection, especially if this exploration is done with other men. The results of this gender-type processing make it almost impossible for most men to find traditional therapeutic setting understandable, comfortable, or effective.

Once a man does choose to enter therapy, it is imperative that the therapeutic approach employed respond to his needs, his personality, and the behavioral expression of his gender schema. The therapeutic environment is tilted against men in that traditionally “feminine” values define the ideal client: the ability to tolerate feelings and put them into words, access to emotions, the capacity to talk about vulnerabilities and wounds, and to turn to others for help in their resolution.

Men come into therapy with a mix of reluctance, resistance, and hope. They may have little idea of what’s wrong in their life, except that they’ve lost their jobs, drink to much, or can’t make their relationships work. Seeking therapy is in itself humiliating for men. It is public admission that they couldn’t do it by themselves, that they are hurting and unhappy. Coming for treatment runs counter to the male ideal of competence and performance. Shame is also central to what leaves men feeling bad about themselves.

Historically, African American males have often been betrayed. African American men are not likely to share personal vulnerabilities. This tendency is not only a gender-related characteristic, but it is a racial characteristic, given the psychohistory of betrayal in the lives of African American men. Most African American men see no need for therapy. Their struggles with self doubt, vulnerability, relationships, or inability to cope with life events do not necessarily lead them to seek out mental health services.

Therapy is perceived as compromising “manliness” and “machismo.” African American male socialization teaches that men should be able to solve their own problems and that one should never drop his defenses with white people or risk his personal safety. The institution of slavery undermined African American men’s sense of trust, power, and control in many ways. Treatment for African American men must not only embrace the impact of racism and the contemporary concerns of African American people but also reflect aspects of African heritage, cognitive styles and psychological defenses. All African Americans, regardless of educational achievements and socioeconomic, have to some degree been traumatized by pervasive racism.

Therapeutic Strategies

1. Take steps to develop trust which is the crucial first step in treating African American men. Premature interpretations of the client’s problems may be perceived as professional arrogance, disrespect, or even an unfortunate display of “magical powers.”

2. Recognize the presence of real socioeconomic barriers to the well-being and the performance of the provider role, as well as acknowledge and enhance individual efforts to overcome these barriers.

3. Assist African American male clients must be given a way to become informed about his true history and culture.

4. Provided role models and the information about how they have succeeded and not simply that they did make it.

5. Assist African American male clients understand the variety of ways in which strength can be expressed and that he is not limited to traditional or macho pursuit such as sports.

6. Assist African American male clients understand how he can develop a healthy relationship with African American women.

7. Have clients become more aware of the challenges facing African American males internationally, nationally, and locally.

8. Critically explore clients’ image of African American men.

9. Regularly stress the notion of talking about responsibility, strength, character, giving, caring, sharing, and masculinity.

10. Assist clients in developing a sense of brotherhood with other African American males while helping them increase their network of male friends.

11. Explore therapeutic relationship regarding levels of intimacy and attraction.

12. Recognizing therapeutic battles as attempts to connect.

13. Talk about shame.

14. Recognize the role of shame.

15. Identifying with men - reassuring the client of both his feelings and his normalcy as a man.

16. Talk about love.

Therapeutic Goals

1. Increased awareness of the challenges associated with being African American and male and the notion of masculinity from a Black perspective.

2. Increased awareness that a positive African American man develops, protects, and cares for his body/physical health.

3. Increased awareness that a positive African American man develops and uses his mind to its fullest capacity by fostering the development of attitudes and skills for optimal academic achievement.

4. Increased awareness that a positive African American man has an indomitable spirit by fostering an understanding the major life roles and responsibilities of the African American male.

5. Increased tolerance of emotional pain and hurt.

6. Increased ability to access and share feelings.

7. An increased sense of responsibility towards maintaining and enhancing one’s mental health.

Strategies for Creating a Welcoming Counseling Environment

1. Make an agency wide commitment to better serve African American men.

2. Encourage staff to participate in professional development activities that increase their awareness and empathy for African American men and issues they face.

3. Increase the number of African American male professionals on staff.

4. Develop support and therapy groups for African American males.

5. Increase staffs presence on campus via general programmatic outreach activities.

6. Develop programs that focus on the interactions and relationships between African American men and women.

7. Develop programs that foster the development of skills that enhance self-esteem and self-worth (i.e. leadership training retreat, communication skills training workshops, etc.).

8. Develop program activities that speaks directly to issues affecting African American men.

9. Develop liaison relationships with campus organizations with significant male membership (i.e. fraternity, student government).

Reading List

Allen, A. A. & Gordon, S. (1990). Creating a framework for change. (Eds.) R. L. Meth & R. S. Pasick. Men in Therapy: The Challenge of change. The Guilford Press: New York. pp. 131-151.

Bograd, M. (1990). Women treating men. Networker, May-June, 54-58.

Carter, J. H. (1984). Providing clinical services for the unserved and undeserved populations: The Black patient. The Psychiatric Forum, Spr, 32-37.

Cazenave, N. A. (1981). Black men in america: The qwest for “manhood”. (Ed.) H. P. McAdoo. Black Families. Sage Publications: Beverly Hills. pp. 176-185.

Franklin, A. J. (1992). Therapy with african american men. Families in Society, 73, 350-355.

Garnets, L. & Pleck, J. H. (1979). Sex role identity, androgyny, and sex role transcendence: a sex role strain analysis. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 3, 270-283.

Good, G. E., Dell, D. M. & Mintz, L. B. (1989). Male role and gender role conflict: Relations to help seeking in men. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 36, 295-300.

Hilliard, A. G. (1985). A framework for focused counseling on the African-American man. Journal of Non-White Concerns, April, 72-77.

Hobbs, S. R. (1985). Issues in psychotherapy with Black male adolescents in the inner city: A Black clinician's perspective. Journal of Non-White Concerns, April, 79-87.

Ipsaro, A. J. (1986). Male client-male therapist: Issues in the therapeutic alliance. Psychotherapy, 23 (2), 257- 266.

Jones, A. C. (1985). Psychological functioning in black americans: A conceptual guide for use in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 22 (2), 363-369.

Jones, B. E. & Gray, B. A. (1984). Similarities and differences in Black men and women in psychotherapy. Journal of the National Medical Association, 76, 21-27.

Levant, R. L. (1990). Psychological services designed for men: A psychoeducational approach. Psychotherapy, 27, 309-315.

Mays, V. M. (1985). The black american and psychotherapy: The Dilemma. Psychotherapy, 22 (2), 379-388.

Osherson, S. & Krugman, S. (1990). Men, shame, and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 27, 327-339.

Smith, E. J. (1981). Cultural and historical perspectives in counseling blacks. (Ed.) D. W. Sue. Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory and Practice. John Wiley & Sons: New York. pp. 141-185.

Soloman, A. (1992). Clinical diagnosis among diverse populations: A multicultural perspective. Families in Society, 73, 31-377.

Staples, R. (1978). Masculinity and race: The dual dilemma of Black men. Journal of Social Issues, 34, 169-183.

Taylor, R. J., Leashore, B. R. & Toliver, S. (1988). An assessment of the provider role as perceived by Black males. Family Relations, Oct., 426-431.

Tomlinson, S. M. & Cope, N. C. (1988). Characteristics of black students seeking help at a university counseling center. Journal of College Student Development, 29 (1), 65-69.

Warfield, J. L. & Marion, R. L. (1985). Counseling the black male. Journal of Non-White Concerns, April. pp. 54-71.

Washington, C. S. (1987). Counseling black men. In M. Scher, M. Stevens, G. Good, & G. A. Eichenfield (Eds.), Handbook of Counseling & Psychotherapy with Men (pp. 192-202). Newbury, CA: Sage Publication.

Williams, O. J. (1992). Ethnically sensitive practice to enhance treatment participation of African American men who batter. Families in Society, 73 (10), 588-595.