Creating a culturally affirming training experience

In Black History Month, we seek to celebrate and reflect on the contributions of African Americans to our society and industries. Frequently, this celebration involves reflecting on movements, notable individuals, and collective accomplishments. While highlighting the past and current accomplishments of individuals and groups is an important aspect of Black History Month, developing climates that help foster the next wave of Black History figures is also essential.

As psychology broadly, and counseling psychology specifically, seeks to increase the diversity of the profession, we must ensure that we have training environments that affirm Black trainees and students. However, too often training programs and clinical training sites may inadvertently create unsafe environments for Black students.

In a 2011 survey of African Americans, Latinx, Asian Americans and European American psychology graduate students, African Americans reported a greater relationship between barriers and their ethnicity than Asian Americans and Latinx Americans. When compared to European American students, African Americans were 12.6 times, and Asian American and Latinx American were both 5.1 times more likely to report stereotypical rather than fair and accurate representations of their race within psychology.

Such findings suggest that Black students may perceive and experience more barriers to completing their degree, and one such barrier is combatting stereotypes and microaggressions.  Researchers suggest that “when students of color feel stereotyped or treated in a negatively differential way (i.e., left out, demeaned), stereotype threat theory predicts that they will disengage from that academic domain.”   Such experiences and poor climates may contribute to students of color, particularly Black students, leaving psychology prior to completing their advanced degrees.

To combat this, I outline several factors that will help create culturally affirming graduate school expression;

  1. Avoid microaggression: Microaggressions are insidious and have been described as a “death by a thousand cuts.”

Many faculty members and supervisors may be aware of verbal microaggressions; however, environmental microaggressions may be more subtle. Faculty and supervisors should review their syllabi and training materials to ensure diversity is represented in readings, case examples, and course lectures. Readings should avoid depicting Black Americans in stereotypical manners. In addition to becoming more aware of environmental microaggressions, faculty and supervisors should be mindful of nonverbal microaggressions as well.

Nonverbal microaggressions may include not nominating Black students for awards or fellowships, selecting Black students last for opportunities, systematically not responding to emails in a timely manner, or grading hasher. Microaggressions are unconscious and unintentional but their impact is devastating. Programs and training sites must systematically evaluate the presence of microaggressions within their organization.

  1. Evaluate your evaluations—Within graduate schools there are formal and informal evaluations. Often the formal evaluations appear to be culturally neutral, but if opportunities are disproportionate and based upon race then evaluations may inadvertently be biased.

Moreover, informal evaluations such as collegiality or “fit” may measure assimilation to cultural standards that are more aligned with White values and behaviors. Often these informal measures impact selection for opportunities, networking opportunities, and mentorship relationships which are necessary for successful program completion. Programs and training sites must assess their evaluations to see if the evaluations are skewed to favor White students.

  1. Ensure that training sites and supervisors are culturally competent and culturally responsive—Many programs are working on creating culturally affirming programs. However, many training sites may be overwhelmed with providing direct care, and thus, they neglect creating culturally competent workplaces.

Researchers state that training in supervision is less robust when compared to training in direct therapy services. Thus, many supervisors may be ill equipped to adequately supervise students and subsequently have difficulty engaging in multicultural supervision.

Multicultural supervision is the process of supervising individuals of a different racial background. Academic programs should develop supervisor manuals that provide tips on how to work with diverse students. Programs should also ensure that they solicit feedback from their trainees about their experiences to protect trainees from hostile training environments.

  1. Mentor and AdviseResearchers continue to find that mentoring is an essential component to retaining Black students in graduate school and advancing their professional career. Thus, programs must systematically review the level and quality of mentorship they provide for students of color. Faculty should develop a diverse network of professional colleagues to connect Black students to mentors of diverse racial background.
  2. Promote and model self-care—For many graduate students, especially Black students, the idea of engaging in self-care while in graduate school may seem foreign. Too often people link self-care to finances and the power to assert appropriate boundaries.

Because students may struggle financially and feel powerless against the demands of graduate school, faculty must provide information on how to engage in appropriate self-care strategies. Faculty should model proactive self-care habits (setting an appropriate schedule, managing time, using positive self-talk) and inform students of community resources that may assist them while in graduate school.

Black History Month is a great time to reflect on the past and admire how far we have come as a country. It is also a great time to build the programs, communities, and relationships that will continue to carry this country forward. The above suggestions will help create a training environment that supports the growth of all students and trainees. As we create more culturally affirming psychology programs, hopefully we will develop better psychologists within all races.

Shareefah Al’Uqdah PhD, Assistant Professor and Director of Training, Howard University Counseling Psychology Program

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