Discussing racism and discrimination with African-American males in a clinical setting

A model for black racial identity can help with discussion of racism and discrimination

Steven D. Kniffley Jr., MA
Spalding University

Steven D. Kniffley Jr., MA In the wake of the recent Trayvon Martin shooting, black males presenting signs of mental illness may indicate concerns related to the experience of racism and discrimination (Fischer & Shaw, 1999). Discussing the effects of racism/discrimination with ethnic minorities in a clinical setting can be a difficult subject to navigate. However, studies have suggested that the clinician’s willingness to engage this discussion can be beneficial (Elligan & Utsey, 1999; Sue & Sue, 2008). One area to consider when discussing racism/discrimination with a black male client is their racial identity development. The following discussion will explore the concept of identity development and how it can influence a clinical conversation about racism/discrimination with this population. Furthermore, practical suggestions for discussing this subject based on black males’ racial identity development will be provided.

In the midst of the social paradigm shift that occurred during the 1960’s, Dr. William Cross developed a model of black racial identity development that highlighted a progression from a lack of racial identity awareness or racial self-hatred (Pre-Encounter) to a hypervigilant sense of racial pride (Immersion/Emersion) to an internalized Multiculturalist/Afrocentric racial identity (Internalization). The process of racial identity development can be significantly influenced by the experience of racism/discrimination (Cross, 1991; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991). Based on the Cross model the following recommendations are suggested for discussing the experience of racism/discrimination with black male clients:

  • Pre-encounter status: Black males endorsing this status will be largely unaware of the influence that their skin color has when it comes to the experience of discrimination and racism (Cross, 1991; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991). Exploration of this subject can exacerbate feelings of low-self-esteem, anxiety, and challenge their belief about experiencing differential treatment than other members of their race. When working with these Black males, it may benefit the client to help them navigate conflicts related to the experience of racism and discrimination through an appropriate re-education process and by modeling positive attitudes towards cultural diversity (Sue & Sue, 2008).

  • Immersion/emersion status: Black males endorsing this status will strongly identify with issues of racism/discrimination (Cross, 1991; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991). In discussing the black male’s experience in this status, it may benefit the client to validate the negative influence that racism/discrimination has had in their lives. Furthermore, these clients are generally receptive to conversations that are action oriented and focus on the external change of racially oppressive systems (Elligan & Utsey, 1999; Sue & Sue, 2008).

  • Internalization: Black males endorsing this status have developed an inner sense of security concerning their racial identity via the internalization of Afrocentric beliefs or a multiculturalist perspective (Cross, 1991; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991). In discussing issues of racism/discrimination with these individuals, they will typically acknowledge the reality of their experience with this issue. However, they may respond best to an action oriented conversation aimed at societal change (Sue & Sue, 2008).

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin has brought to the forefront that racism and discrimination are still a chronic part of the black male experience. This event has highlighted the need for more dialogue concerning the experience of racism/discrimination by black males. Clinicians must be willing and prepared to engage in this conversation with our black male clients, with the intent of providing a safe space to explore this issue, its effect on racial identity, and what actions can be taken on the part of the client.


  • Cross, W. (1991). Shades of black: Diversity in African American identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 499-521.

  • Cross, W., Parham, T., & Helms, J. (1991). Stages of Black identity development: Nigrescence models. In R.L. Jones (Ed.) Black Psychology (3rd ed, pp. 319-338). New York: Harper & Row.

  • Elligan, D. & Utsey, S. (1999). Utility of an African centered support group for African American men confronting societal racism and oppression. Journal of Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 5(2), 156-165.

  • Fischer, A. & Shaw, C. (1999) African Americans’ mental health and perceptions of racist discrimination: the moderating effects of racial socialization experiences and self-esteem. Journal of Counseling Psychology®, 46(3), 395-407.

  • Sue, D.W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and practice (5th ed). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Steven Kniffley, Jr. is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Candidate at Spalding University with an emphasis in child and family therapy using multicultural interventions. His research interests include African-American male identity development, its influence on psychopathology and its treatment. He is also a recipient of the American Psychological Association Minority Fellowship.