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Two girls from different nationalities smiling

Faculty confronting race issues in class can--and will--spur students to feel anger, hurt and conflict, yet it is crucial to helping students understand and work with their cultural assumptions, said Michael Loewy, PhD, chair of the University of North Dakota's counseling psychology department, at an APAGS session on race and cultural dialogues at APA's 2006 Annual Convention.

"I am a fat, gay Jew...I'm also white and male and, temporarily, relatively able-bodied," he said, noting that each those groups influences the way he thinks and acts.

Loewy's graduate students are almost exclusively white, which often minimizes the number of race-related conversations that arise organically, he said. To prompt such discussions, he requires his students to read "Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation" (Jossey-Bass, 2003), by fellow panelist Derald Wing Sue, PhD, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College at Columbia University. The book confronts unconscious and unintentional racist actions, such as a woman clutching her purse around minority teenagers or a white man flinching at getting in an elevator full of black men. Nearly each semester, his students express frustration and anger about the issues the book raises during in-class discussions. To work through these issues, he urges them to openly share their reactions to the material by discussing how he worked through his own beliefs.

"We need to experience those feelings of rage, fear and hurt and [we need to] feel defensive and move through that," he said.

However, changing students' thinking is not easy, warned counseling psychology professor Janet Helms, PhD, director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College.

Helms introduced town hall meetings that focused on the counseling psychology program's racial and cultural climate several years ago. The meetings ended because many students and faculty resisted engaging in the dialogues, finding that talking about race and culture was too emotional, she explained.

Yet many students still advocated for confronting the difficulties posed by the college's racial and cultural climate. As such, the program is currently undergoing an assessment of its dynamic by an outside agency.

"Anything can be changed," she said. "But don't expect it to be changed without pain."

-Z. Stambor