Daniel T. Sciarra, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education and Rehabilitation
In early September 2006, as then chair of Hofstra’s Department of Counseling, Research, Special Education, and Rehabilitation, I attended the annual Provost’s Breakfast, where Provost Berliner presented on the current academic state of the University and the goals for the coming year. At the very end of his presentation, he mentioned that back in May a formal faculty exchange agreement had been signed between Hofstra and Claflin University, a historically black college/university (HBCU) in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and that he would be looking for a faculty member to go there in the spring 2007 semester. No sooner had the provost finished speaking, I dashed over to him, interrupted his conversation, and said: “I would be interested in going to Claflin.” His response was: “Great, send me your vita.” By the middle of November 2007, it was decided that I would be the inaugural Hofstra professor to participate in the exchange with Claflin, and that Annette Grevious, a professor of theatre, speech and drama, would be the first Claflin professor to visit Hofstra as part of the program.
I have often reflected on that September morning when I impulsively manifested interest in going to Claflin. I consider myself a very non-impulsive person, so what could explain this out-of-character behavior? A myriad of possible explanations have passed though my mind. I was a middle-aged man needing a change, I was tired of cold winters, and I wanted to play golf all year around. On a more serious note, my reflection led me to believe there were deep-rooted personal and professional reasons for my impulsive self-nomination.
I enjoyed a history of benefits that resulted from immersing myself in environments where, as a white person, I was either alone or clearly in the minority. As a psychologist devoting his life to helping others gain greater self-awareness, I had come to the conclusion that my own path to greater self-awareness was rooted in two dimensions of my identity: race and gender. There is a lot I do not know about myself, but there is one thing I know with utmost clarity: being white and being male fundamentally define who I am and how I was socialized to view myself and the world around me. While I believed I made great strides in overcoming my sexism, my racism seemed to be much more insidious and difficult to eradicate. If racism can be compared to a cancer, I had come to the conclusion that I would never be cancer-free and that the most I could hope for would be to prevent the cancer from metastasizing and perhaps go into remission. Over the years, one of the best therapies for my cancer was becoming part of non-white environments for an extended period of time. On that September 2006 morning when I heard the call for Claflin, I saw an opportunity for yet another racially diverse experience in my battle against racism and enhancement of my own racial identity.
Professionally, I wanted to go to Claflin because of a teaching, research, and practice career that was dedicated to issues of multiculturalism in counseling and racial identity development. I felt I had the professional resources to teach at an HBCU, talk about my research on issues of race, and perhaps, most importantly, put race on the table by talking about my own “whiteness.” While I had done these things during my teaching career at Hofstra with mostly white students, I wanted to experience the difference of bringing race into the classroom as a white professor in an HBCU.
White Racial Identity Attitude Development
Over the last 20 years, the theoretical basis for my self-reflection, teaching, and research has been Helms’ (1984, 1990, 1995) model of White Racial Identity Attitude Development (WRIAD). Helms proposed models of racial identity to describe an individual’s psychological development in response to his or her socioracial environment. Helms suggested a number of sequential, yet permeable, ego-identity statuses for both blacks and whites. Each status represents a cluster of attitudes, beliefs, and values that affect how an individual perceives the world and influences the way he or she processes information about race (Gushue & Carter, 2000). The sequential ordering of the statuses reflects increasing complexity and flexibility in the processing of racially related information. According to Helms, at any given time, usually one status will predominate, although some characteristics of others may be present. The tasks and challenges of each lower status must be resolved in order to progress to the next. However, in a particular situation, an individual may revert from his or her current predominant status to a lower one. For whites, Helms has proposed two fundamental processes underlying the development of increasingly more complex and integrated racial identity ego statuses: the abandonment of racism (Contact, Disintegration and Reintegration statuses) and the development of a positive white racial identity (Pseudo-Independence, Immersion/Emersion and Autonomy). The content of each of the statuses appears in Table 1 and has been described at length in the literature (e.g., Helms, 1990, 1995; Carter, 1995).
My personal journey toward developing a positive racial identity has taken me in and out of all six statuses. As a university professor, I am quite comfortable being a white person with a predominant status of Pseudo- Independence, where the tendency is to intellectualize issues of race. Forays into the statuses of Immersion-Emersion (the forging of positive white racial identity) and Autonomy (a lived commitment to a non-racist society) have depended, for the most part, on having like-minded people as part of my support system. At a point in my development, I ended making my home in neighborhoods populated by people of color and moved to the predominantly white suburbs where the psychological need to reflect on my whiteness and what it means to myself and those around me is absent. The possibility of going to Claflin would return me to those cherished experiences and environments where I would be confronted with my own whiteness. The black south, albeit for a limited period of time, would replace the white suburb. Oh! How I wanted to go! How I needed to go! I was reminded of a Hofstra graduate student of mine several years ago who had attended racially diverse public schools. She remarked one day in class how troubled she was by the fact that her own children, because of the area in which the family was living, would probably attend predominantly white schools. She was lamenting this fact because her children would not have the same multicultural experience she had in school and how they would be missing out on something so valuable.
While my developed white racial identity may have permitted the desire to go to Claflin, it was built upon being a white man whose predominant racial identity status for many years was the Contact status – an obliviousness to issues of race and, most especially, to white identity. In general, whites tend to operate from this status, which prevents them from understanding race as a sociopolitical construct that determines an individual’s place in society. Whites, whose predominant racial identity status is Contact, tend to have color-blind attitudes (“I don’t see color; I just look at the person”). The Contact status is, in essence, a form of covert racism, as whites who operate from this status dilute the importance of race, avoid conversations about race, and lack awareness about white privilege. Reducing the centrality of race allows whites to remove the fear of being judged as racist.
Recent research (see, for example, Gushue, 2004; Gushue, Constantine, & Sciarra, 2008) has shown that white counselors tend to assign significantly higher (i.e., healthier) ratings to clients of color versus white clients, even when the presenting symptoms are exactly the same. This is a contrast to research in the 1980s, when results showed that white mental health practitioners tended to overpathologize clients of color. One explanation for this more recent discrepancy may be a racial identity status that fears appearing racist and therefore evaluates the client to be healthier and not in need of services. It is the equivalent of making a Type II error in research, i.e., the error of failing to observe a difference when in truth there is one. A second explanation is the shifting standards model proposed by Biernat and colleagues (Biernat & Manis, 1994; Biernat, Manis & Nelson, 1991; Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997) of how racial or cultural stereotypes could influence judgment. These authors suggest that when making subjective judgments about a member of a group for which social stereotypes exist, evaluators subconsciously shift the standards they use to arrive at a judgment. In the case of white counselors making judgments about clients of color versus white clients, the latter is held to a higher standard (e.g., “for a white person, they really should be doing a lot better”). Conversely, the client of color is held to a lower standard and therefore evaluated as healthier (e.g., “for a black person, she’s really doing quite well”).
The Immersion Experience:
An Antidote to Color Blindness Teaching multicultural counseling over the years, I have had some success in promoting higher levels of racial identity among white students through the use of the immersion experience. The value of the immersion experience is based upon the Contact Hypothesis (Brown, 1995). The Contact Hypothesis rests upon the belief that contact between divergent social groups is the best means toward reducing tensions and misunderstandings. Allport’s (1954) comprehensive studies of the contact theory of inter-group relations have provided the framework for many interventions designed to reduce racism. Allport’s findings were not a patent endorsement of simple contact theory. He was quick to point to data derived from the study of blacks and whites living in Chicago to prove that close proximity alone did not eradicate racial bias. In fact, the data presented showed that just the opposite was true, close proximity led to a clearer manifestation of racial prejudice. Rather than dismissing the Social Contact theory completely, Allport (1954) and others identified conditions of contact that must be met in order to bring about the reduction of prejudice:
1. Contact must be of sufficient frequency, duration, and closeness to permit the development of meaningful relationships between members of the groups concerned.
2. Contact should take place, as much as possible, between participants of equal status.
3. The necessity exists for cooperation so that all members of the different groups are mutually dependent upon one another for the attainment of a desired outcome. A need for cooperation provides an instrumental reason for the participants to be motivated to develop better relationships with each other. (Allport, 1954; Amir, 1969; Cook, 1962, 1978; and Pettigrew, 1971)
A carefully planned immersion experience would ideally meet the aforementioned conditions. Over the course of a 15-week semester, students are required on a weekly basis to be part of a group that is culturally alien to them. White students are encouraged to find a group where they visibly don’t belong. Some students do a better job with this than others, as they allow their limits to be tested. The immersion experience is endowed with the power to upend students’ basic assumptions about themselves and their place in the world by introducing them to a community where they take on the role of the nondominant member. As part of the anxiety that accompanies the adaptation to this new environment, students’ underlying belief systems are activated and their contents brought into sharp relief. It is only through this process of examining internalized prejudices that they can start to grasp the significance of the insidious nature of cultural biases that impinge upon quality of life for so many people. The sharing of these insights in an understanding class atmosphere can qualify the conceptual material presented in a deeply personal manner. Here is an excerpt from a former student’s journal as she began her immersion experience by attending with her daughter a predominantly black after-school program:
The history of the location combined with the racial make-up of the neighborhood seemed to stir some previously unconscious fears within me. Though I rationally could tell myself that it was the African-American community members who were successful in combating the drugs and violence that had plagued the location in question, I could not shake the feeling of anxiety. When I attempted to name the fear cloaked within the anxiety, I shamefully came to recognize it as residual racial mistrust. I was uncomfortable with this recognition since it clearly indicated that I was not as multiculturally evolved as I had wanted to believe. Up until this time all my interracial experience had been conducted within settings where the whites were the racial majority. This was a neighborhood I drove through almost daily but had never stopped and walked through. I was aware that first week that I was crossing what had existed in my mind as a racially determined geographic boundary. I felt conspicuously white. As I entered the waiting room and sat down, I found myself scanning the faces of the other parents, looking for some sign of welcome or acceptance. It was not forthcoming, and I was then left to consider why I thought it was someone else’s job to take care of my discomfort. Whatever I experienced, it would be mine to work out. I felt an acute sense of aloneness (DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005, p. 7).
Claflin: An Immersion Experience?
I mentioned earlier that the impulsive manifestation of my desire to go to Claflin as the inaugural faculty exchange professor may have been rooted in longing for yet another immersion experience because I had benefited so richly from previous ones. Was Claflin an immersion experience? Yes and no. Claflin met some of the requirements of the immersion experience. It was sustained (I was there more than four moths); it was total (my sole job was at Claflin, I took my meals in the student cafeteria, and I lived in its small town, also predominantly black), and as a white person I was clearly in the minority (Clafin’s student body is 96 percent black and the faculty is 50 percent black, 25% Southern Amerasian, and 25% white). In addition, much like the student described above, my psychological projections ran amok – a clear indication that one is immersed in some fashion.
On the other hand, Claflin was not an immersion because I was there as a visiting professor, and contact was not always with those of equal status. While I engaged as much as I could with other faculty members, to the students I was someone with expert knowledge who had come from the outside to further their learning. In many ways, I still had privilege – for some because of my whiteness, for others because of my position.
Race In and Out of the Classroom
Since I had done a good deal of teaching, writing, and research in multicultural counseling and racial identity development theory, I looked forward to Claflin because I wanted to experience the difference of talking about race and whiteness as a white professor at an black institution versus a predominantly white institution. Perhaps it is of little surprise to know that putting race on the table at Claflin was a much easier and more comfortable experience. The audience simply “got it.” I enjoyed great facility in expressing my white racial identity and consciousness. I was fond of making statements that were preceded by phrases such as: “As a white person, I have been socialized to think …” “As a white person, I am accustomed to …” “What do you expect from a white person who …” I believe that making my whiteness a central focus of my identity permitted honest and enriching conversation about race and racism in our society. Though this never occurred in any obvious fashion, I always felt psychologically ready to deal with those who would dismiss me simply because I was white.
As I went to work everyday, race was at the forefront of my consciousness. I thought of my life at Claflin as an existential laboratory to examine and reflect upon the constant cross-racial interactions that I encountered and where I could test and be tested on my white racial identity. It was not always easy. I remember one incident where I traveled with a black colleague to Hilton Head Island (a bastion of whiteness) where he had a time share. There was some problem with the condo we had been assigned, and I remember my friend coming out of the office and commenting to me: “People pay a lot of money to come here and the last thing they want to see sometimes is a black man living next door to them.” I was both angry and uncomfortable wanting to avoid and perhaps deny that such racism exists. I felt sad about what had happened and yet somewhat encouraged that my colleague could share such ugliness with me, a white man. It was one of many experiences that made Claflin an ideal place to deal with race in and out of the classroom.
At Hofstra, race in the classroom is a different experience. Talk about issues of whiteness and white privilege often seems to evoke defensiveness, apathy and quizzicalness. Talk about privilege is especially difficult, as students want to find something in their history to deny that they have been privileged. Once again, I return to the immersion experience as a means of helping students understand racial privilege. Rather then lecturing them about issues of race, power and privilege, immersions allows them to experience some of the challenges and stressors faced by members of a minority group, especially one of color. This is especially important for counselors-in-training who will work with clients of color who are dealing with the emotional challenges of being members of a minority group.
I would like to end by quoting from the same former Hofstra student’s immersion experience during the time she and her daughter had attended a predominantly black after-school program for eight weeks:
I was getting my daughter ready for school one day this week when she announced that she wanted braids in her hair “just like the other girls have.” Her girlfriends are black, and they wear their hair in multiple, beaded braids or cornrows. I explained to her as gently and as patiently as possible that she had a different kind of hair and, though it wasn’t the kind of hair that could be made into a lot of braids, that it could be pretty worn in another way. She was not satisfied. “I want braids like the other girls” she said, “I want black hair!” This was a watershed moment for me as a parent. Suddenly I realized that I was inversely experiencing what some black mothers experience with their daughters. It is painful and disturbing to see my daughter compare herself unfavorably to a standard derived from a reference point that does not reflect the distinct lines of her own natural beauty. In Olivia’s case, her reference points were her friends in class and thus a standard that was based upon African- American attributes. This, of course, is not generally the case in the world beyond her preschool walls. It made me think of what it would be like as a black mother and to try to raise my daughter to cultivate her black beauty in a world where white standards of beauty prevailed (DeRicco & Sciarra, 2005, p. 11).
If we are to progress as a racially conscious society and institution and eradicate the insidious effects of color blindness so popular in certain sectors, I believe whites must experience racism for themselves for there to be any chance of dealing effectively with diversity in and out of the classroom.
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