This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Culture & Gender course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Psychology.” To that end, each student has to prepare three 1,000ish word posts focusing on particular stereotypes, their impact, and ways to reduce the negative aspects of stereotypes.
Curbing the Impact of Stereotypes on African-American Females by Shauna Weides
African American women, and women in general, face numerous stereotypes that can impact their entire lives. What can we as a society do to curb the impact as well as lessen the existence of these stereotypes? There is a substantial amount of research done on what these stereotypes are and the impact that they have, but not a lot has been done on how to deal with the impact of these stereotypes in the clinical or societal aspects or lessening the stereotypes altogether. Many of the stereotypes that affect perceptions of African American female clients also exist for African American female therapists and can have a negative impact on the therapeutic relationship as well as treatment outcome. African American women need to be built up through effective use of empowerment groups as well as counseling to grow as self-confident women capable of taking on any position or station in life. While curbing the impact is important, lessening the existence of stereotypes is even more important. To avoid having to curb the impact in therapeutic settings, lessening the existence of these stereotypes should be done as a unified society working together for the betterment of all.
A significant amount of literature has addressed stereotypes of African American female clients. A particular focus of attention has been on how those stereotypes, if held by the therapist, usually non-African American, can affect the therapeutic relationship as well as the treatment outcome. A review of the literature on the experiences of ethnic minority therapists revealed they felt there was inadequate training in multicultural issues. They also felt that their ethnicity affected their work with clients in both positive and negative ways, and that their white colleagues viewed them as being less competent or as only being able to work competently with ethnic minority clients.
Given the history of racial and gender discrimination, and the gendered racial stereotypes created to justify that discrimination, the very person of an African American woman elicits certain expectations from people, including clients. Experienced African American therapists believe that the cultural stereotypes applied to African American women in general is a likely occurrence in therapy with respect to the perception of the African American female therapist by her colleagues as well as her clients. Stereotypes can affect the perception of the African American female therapist, the client’s expectations of the therapist and the therapeutic relationship with an African American female therapist.
The stereotypes of Mammy (maternal, nurturing, family-oriented), Jezebel (overly sexualized, sexually promiscuous), and Sapphire (angry, hostile, aggressive) have been used to describe African American women. If these stereotypes are held for the African American female client, it would stand to reason that the same stereotype could be held for the African American female therapist. These stereotypes, if held by the client, can shape unrealistic expectations of the therapist and have an impact on treatment. If the client holds the stereotype of Mammy to the African American woman, they may expect the therapist to be the nurturing, self-sacrificing caretaker. If the therapist believes the client has this expectation, it will be important to explore it. If the therapist adopts this role it may reinforce an inappropriate level of dependency rather than facilitate the client’s capacity to develop and rely on their own resources in making change. The therapist will need to establish boundaries and explore the nature of unreasonable requests from the client.
Heterosexual male clients, both White and African American, may be predisposed to believe the Jezebel stereotype accurately represents African American women and may predispose them to behave seductively toward the therapist. While this behavior is uncommon, it may be intensified when the therapist is an African American woman. The African American female therapist must be sensitive to this stereotype and address this potential boundary violation. African American women are often perceived as angry when their facial expressions and mood are ambiguous and are often referred to as a Sapphire. Some clients may view African American women, and therefore their therapist as having the potential to be irrationally angry, that anger and violent responses to anger are synonymous and they may avoid potentially confrontational situations for fear the therapist may become angry. Some clients may avoid feeling or expressing anger towards the therapist for fear of alienating by angering them. When the therapist believes this may be occurring in the therapy session it needs to be carefully addressed and appropriately explored. Being aware of these potential stereotypes and how to curb the impact of them within the therapeutic setting can be crucial to treatment outcome for the client.
Despite the achievements of African American women, the images of these women continue to be negative. Empowerment groups, as well as counseling, can help to curb the impact of these stereotypes and assist African American women in growing to become self-confident, capable women. Individual African American women display varying types of consciousness regarding 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.
African American women draw on this Afrocentric worldview to cope with racial oppression, but far too often, it remains unarticulated and not fully developed into a self-defined standpoint. This articulation should be a major goal of empowerment groups for African American girls. It’s important for these girls to discuss their struggles and challenges as related to being African American and female. These girls should be encouraged to share their experiences, and the similarities and differences in their experiences, and most importantly to analyze their experiences. Validating and placing their lived experiences at the center of analysis offers fresh insights on the prevailing concepts of their worldview. Revealing new ways of knowing that allow African American girls to define their own reality is empowering.
It’s important to know how to curb the impact of stereotypes within the counseling session and empowerment groups, but what about those that never make it into counseling sessions or groups and are left to their own devices? As a society, we should be lessening the existence of stereotypes, or in a perfect world, stopping them altogether. Lessening the impact of stereotypes starts at home with the values and morals of the parents and what they are teaching their children. These values and morals should be coupled with educating our children within the school systems on stereotypes and the damaging effects they can have on others. Children need to be taught how to respect one another and accept one another regardless of race or gender so that when they become adults, these stereotypes do not exist for them.
Stereotypes exist for every race and gender, not just for African American women, but it’s important when working with this group that therapists are aware of the stereotypes placed on these clients, as well as themselves, and know how to handle them. Counseling and empowerment groups are important aspects in attempting to curb the impact of stereotypes; however, as a society, we need to work harder at lessening these stereotypes and make attempts to stop them altogether. More research and education need to be conducted on how to curb the impact of stereotypes as well as lessen them. Maybe with an increase in education, we can avoid having to curb the impact in therapeutic settings, and instead raise our children to become self-confident, capable adults that learn to accept others as well as themselves.