Developing a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Social Work with African American Clients

Why Develop a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Social Work With African American Clients? by Janice Hawkins, Ph.D., LMSW

Being an Afro-Caribbean American social worker, I have always found it personally difficult to be receptive to therapy. I am by no means exempt from the vicissitudes of life and have entered therapy several times with varying degrees of success. I always start with good intentions, but I am the ultimate resistant client with attitude and too much information. As a black woman, I learned early that authority figures generally could not be trusted. I learned to distract them from focusing on my issues with my sense of humor and an outgoing attitude. I knew instinctively that it was important to look okay so “they” left me alone. Growing up in a household with Afro-Caribbean parents, I was brought up to neither share confidences nor admit emotional pain to outsiders. The personal disclosure and behavioral changes that therapists typically suggest were often embarrassing and totally unimaginable to me even from a cultural point of view. Most women from my background would rather “handle their own business” than seek outside help from a stranger. It was considered an embarrassment to one’s family and upbringing to admit that any issue is so severe that only a “head doctor” could help. As a social worker for a city agency, I was called in by a coordinator of a teen mother program to interview a teenage mother. According to the coordinator (who was Black American) and the social worker (who was Latino), there was “something wrong” with the girl. She would not carry through on instructions although she was a pleasant quiet girl who never said “no.” When I spoke to her, I recognized that as the youngest member of her household, she could not make decisions. Her grandmother would have to be consulted, as she was the family matriarch. Despite the teen mother’s age (18) and her motherhood, she was still considered a child in her culture (Guyana) and behaved as such. The program coordinator remained resistant, stating she had to change because “she is in America now.” Disclosing personal problems to a counselor (“stranger”) could not only be seen as a sign of weakness, but also as leaking family secrets. Personal matters that cause pain or discomfort are only discussed with family members and very close friends. As an indirect result, parents and other extended family members exert considerable influence on important decisions, such as career choices and choice of marriage partners, assuming

an unusually strong role in structuring and directing response to stress and stressful situations. Culture and ethnicity have been well documented as key factors in the psychotherapeutic process. Even if therapists are aware of the variations of African diasporic cultures, they can mistakenly think that individuals from those cultures prefer to be called “African American.” The term “African American” is commonly used to refer to individuals who share historical ties to the west coast of Africa, and to experiences of slavery. African Americans are diverse with respect to appearance, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, cultural expressions, family composition, and geographical origin. But black people from the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Canada speak different languages and/or different versions of English and may consider themselves to be black but not African American because of vastly different historical and cultural experiences (Liggan & Kay, 1999). Generally speaking, in family systems of African descendants, family members assist each other with child care, finances, emotional support, housing, counsel, and so forth, particularly in times of trouble or stress. Families are considered to extend to non-blood related relatives, such as neighbors, babysitters, friends, ministers, ministers’ spouses, and church family, with ties as well as bio-family members (Evans & Davies, 1996). Standard Therapeutic Beliefs About Counseling and Family Cultural consideration must be part of the therapy, as cultural issues will emerge under pressure of the process. The lack of knowledge of a particular client’s culture and family dynamics could delay or harm the therapeutic process. A client’s behavior that is labeled resistant may simply be a lack of recognition of the client’s world view. Part of our job as social workers is to understand the client’s world to the degree that we see their behavior for what it is. Many standard therapeutic paradigms discourage developing a personal relationship with a client, because of the possibility of transference of feelings from the therapist to the client and vice versa (NASW Code of Ethics, Sec. 1.06c). This approach to therapy appears to be based on an assumption that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or culture, develop along uniform psychological dimensions and respond in similar ways to interactions. This assumes that there are no cultural biases in outcome between dissimilar analysts and clients. The lack of understanding of a culturally different client’s values and motivations, or the assumption that they are the same as one’s own, can be

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