Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

Living Edition
| Editors: Jay Lebow, Anthony Chambers, Douglas C. Breunlin

African Americans in Couple and Family Therapy

  • Marlene F. WatsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_428-1


Family Therapy Family Therapist Racial Identity African American Family Racial Profile 
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Name of Family Form

African Americans in Couple and Family Therapy



African Americans, unlike most ethnic groups who immigrated to America in search of freedom and equality, arrived involuntarily as slaves. Living in the shadow of slavery economically, politically, socially, and psychologically, African Americans often are misunderstood, stigmatized, and racially stereotyped as inferior. Due to a history of racism, discrimination, and lack of cultural understanding, African Americans are wary and underutilize mental health services. Also, disparate and inadequate treatment of African Americans has resulted in a culture of mistrust. As such, it is critically important that couple and family therapists develop knowledge of African American history and culture.

Failure to consider the historical trauma of slavery and the impact of race in African American clients’ experiences and presenting problems may cause couple and family therapists to conceptualize cases from the default perspective of the dominant white culture. While accredited couple and family therapy training programs are tasked to attend to context, race continues to be an afterthought. Moreover, the advent of evidence-based models as best practice in couple and family therapy may have the unintended consequence of minimizing or negating the significance of race.


The term African American refers to the descendants of those black Africans who were enslaved in the United States of America. According to Billingsley (1992), the African American family often is viewed too narrowly, which, out of the context of black* communities and the larger society, can fuel stereotypical thinking and be counterproductive. Frequently, theoreticians, researchers, and clinicians focus exclusively on single-parent families, the lower class or problem children and youth, falling into the trap of seeing these phenomena as characteristic of African American families. Billingsley proposes a broader and more complex definition of the African American family as “an intimate association of persons of African descent who are related to one another by a variety of means, including blood, marriage, formal adoption, informal adoption, or by appropriation; sustained by a history of common residence in America; and deeply embedded in a network of social structures both internal to and external to itself” (p. 28).

Throughout history and the changing sociopolitical landscape, the name associated with black* Americans has been fluid, evolving across time periods. A word or name contains power and conveys persuasive ideas that can enlighten or erode people’s minds. In reality, imposing, proposing, accepting, or rejecting names can be used as a political tool. By the end of the first third of the nineteenth century, the N-word, which can be traced to the Latin word niger meaning black, was firmly entrenched in the American psyche. During slavery blacks* largely were referred to as the N-word, conjuring up powerful imagery of black* people as ugly, promiscuous, dangerous, immoral, and animal-like. Thus the imposition of the N-word onto black* Americans was political, dehumanizing blacks* and humanizing whites.

The word Colored to describe black* Americans rose to dominance in the mid to late nineteenth century. The rape of black female slaves by white masters resulted in mulatto children, a new group of black* Americans with mixed ancestry that needed classification. Colored was regarded as more encompassing and inclusive (Smith 1992).

Negro replaced the word Colored in the late nineteenth century. Notables such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois pioneered the movement to trade Colored for Negro. The media, both black* and white, helped the word Negro to gain acceptance and become the standard through its use of the term (Smith 1992), documenting the role of the media in shaping public discourse and politics.

The Civil Rights Movement ushered in the word Black. The late 1950s to early 1960s called into question the word Negro to define black* Americans. A critique of the word Negro found it outdated and reflective of the past and slavery. Negro was thought to stir the white imagination of black* Americans as docile, passive, and eager to please – Uncle Tom-ish. Civil rights leaders and organizations, such as Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Muslims, and Black Panthers, rallied behind the term Black (Smith 1992). Also, acclaimed singer James Brown made a record in 1968 that became akin to a black* national anthem, “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” helping to solidify Black as the new identity. Black now stood for racial pride and action – empowerment. Black communicated African Americans’ rejection of second-class citizenship and the status quo (Smith 1992).

The word Black, though not accepted by all, remained unchallenged until 1988 when renowned civil rights leader Jesse Jackson declared that members of the black* race preferred the term African American. Seeking parity with white ethnic groups, the African American label was fashioned to express cultural integrity and put black* Americans in the proper historical context (Smith 1992).

African American and Black* often are used interchangeably. However racial labels can arouse strong emotions. For example, Zilber and Niven (1995) found that whites, particularly liberal whites, view the label African American negatively in comparison to Black. African American was thought to be indicative of concern with the specific group, not society. Moreover, black* Americans’ concern about racial identity was seen as insignificant.

African Americans are not a monolithic group, and therefore therapists should not assume that all embrace a single term. Therapists may be able to facilitate an understanding of the terms Black and African American by helping clients to distinguish between racial and ethnic identities. Approaching identity from a both-and rather than an either-or perspective, black* Americans can accept Black as their racial identity and African American as their ethnic identity.

Slavery. Fully comprehending African American couples and families requires understanding slavery. Slavery began in 1619 with the arrival of a Dutch ship in Jamestown, Virginia carrying 20 black Africans. Millions of blacks, including royalty, were stolen from their African homes, brought to America in chains, and sold into slavery for the specific purpose of white economic prosperity. Slavery, as a legal practice, ended with the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln following the Civil War in 1865 (Meltzer 1984). Blacks* were enslaved in the United States of America for over 200 years.

African people and cultures were rich and diverse (Meltzer 1984). Slaves were forced into one mass identity, stripped of their rightful names, country, tribal identities, language, religion, customs, and the right to read or write. As chattel, they were worked, raped, bred, whipped, and sold according to the master’s needs and desires (Watson 2013). Perceived as a better fit because their black skin made them more durable, slaves, including infants, were guinea pigs in medical and scientific experimentation (DeGruy 2005; Wyatt 1997). Slavery thus violated the most basic and core sense of self that, as Africans, the slaves had known.

Slaves were denied the right to marry and forced to become studs and breeders. Slavery first established patterns of no marriage, out of wedlock children, teenage pregnancy, and absentee fathers. “The white man was the original abandoning father in this country” (Pinderhughes 1998, p. 187). He fathered children with slaves, denied paternity, and rebuffed his children.

Slavery dismantled the black* family. The African sense of “we” was disturbed because slaves could be torn apart at any time. Couple and parenting relationships were fragile at best, and group solidarity was difficult to sustain. Direct support from or for the group was virtually nonexistent because of the perils of doing so (Wyatt 1997).

Sexuality was altered for the slaves and their descendants, beginning with the rape and impregnation of black* females by white men aboard the slave ship (Wyatt 1997). Most female slaves were sexually assaulted by white men by their 16th birthday (Russell et al. 1992). Marriage and sex were valued and respected as a sacred part of life’s plan in Africa. Deprived of their clothing, with potential buyers and strangers touching their most private parts to determine if they were worth the price, the slaves’ destinies as sexual beings were changed on the auction block (Wyatt 1997).

Slaves experienced a brutal attack on their bodies and minds. They had no real ability to nurture, care, protect, and support one another as intimate partners and parents. Slave men and women were forced to silently endure the degradation and humiliation of the other and to internalize the shame that comes from fear, powerlessness, defeat, and/or emasculation.

Race and Racism. Race is a socially constructed concept, which preserves the myth of white superiority and black inferiority (Watson 2013). The institutionalized belief of white superiority and black inferiority is fundamental to the African American experience. According to Walton and Smith (2008), American founding father and author of the Constitution Thomas Jefferson stated in his Notes on Virginia that blacks were “inferior by nature, not condition” (p. 7).

The white/black bifurcation functions to uphold the purity, privilege, beauty, goodness, and moral authority granted to whites at birth. By contrast, black* is targeted as inherently flawed, deficient, and undeserving, paving the way for social discrimination and bias. African Americans thus are likely to experience injustice, criminalization, devaluation, depression, anxiety, relational fractures, attachment ruptures, identity crises, trauma, high blood pressure, and more based on the socially imagined but life-shaping construct of race.

Walton and Smith (2008) use Carmichael and Hamilton’s definition to describe racism as “the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over it” (p. 5). Regardless of one’s ideology or rationale, any policy that has the intent or effect to subordinate a racial group is decidedly racism. For racism to be successful, a group or individual must have the relative power to impose its will onto another group or individual through policies.

Relevant Research About Family Life

Black* family research primarily has emanated from three perspectives: (1) ethnocentric, (2) cultural relative, and (3) class. The ethnocentric view compares African Americans to Eurocentric values, norms, attitudes, and behaviors, resulting in pathology of any deviation. Congressman Daniel P. Moynihan is responsible for decades of research that approached black* families as pathological, affirming that the social is political. The infamous Moynihan Report entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action in 1965 resulted from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s request to understand social unrest and poverty in the black* community (Billingsley 1992).

Blaming the victims, the Moynihan Report attributed problems in education, employment, and politics to internal black* family weaknesses. Rather than placing racism and injustice at the center, Moynihan placed the dysfunctional black* family at the center; reinforcing the policy perspective that society did not need to change and downplaying the need for civil rights legislation and affirmative action (Billingsley 1992). Emphasized as weak were the matriarchal black* family structure and the absence of black* males as heads of household, not the mandated invisibility of black men, such as that in 1662 requiring black children to take on the status (slave or free black) and name of their mothers regardless of the condition of the father (Russell et al. 1992).

The cultural relativist perspective ascended in opposition to comparative studies of black* Americans to white Americans, espousing an Afrocentric worldview (Sudarkasa 2007). For instance, African American couples tend to have more egalitarian relationships, which reflect African values of unity, harmony, cooperation, and interdependence, not the Eurocentric value of head of household. The class perspective de-emphasizes race, seeking to understand the specific needs and concerns of African Americans according to socioeconomic status.

Black Identity. Black slaves and white indentured servants worked together in early America, developing friendships and romantic relationships. Race mixing became a major concern, particularly black* men and white women. Also, race mixing made it more difficult to justify slavery on the basis of white morality and black immorality. Additionally, the widespread rape of female slaves by white masters presented a problem, namely, whether mixed race children should take on the free status of the white father or the black slave mother. Departing from traditional English law, Virginia enacted legislation, necessitating children to have the same status as the mother (Russell et al. 1992).

The rising number of mulattoes required racial classification. The “one drop” rule was decided by legislators to address the problem of race mixing and to maintain the social order. Anyone with a drop of black blood was by definition black*. Mulattoes were forced into the black box no matter how white looking their skin, hair, and features, giving birth to a color caste system (colorism) that is evident today. Colorism positively affects those with lighter skin and negatively impacts those with darker skin, influencing power and privilege. Hence skin color may be the undercurrent in family strife or the basis for mate selection (Russell et al. 1992; Watson 2013).

Whiteness as the ideal marker of beauty, education, success, and wealth is the backdrop against which African Americans develop identity, contributing to divisiveness in the African American community. For instance, this author’s light-skinned client Joe and his family considered themselves to be “exceptional” blacks*. Joe railed at worthless black* men and decried being a black* man. Yet everyday he went into his Fortune 500 company, he felt less than all of his white peers, leaving him disconnected from self, other blacks* and white coworkers. As a result, Joe suffered from severe anxiety and depression (Watson 2013).

The Nigrescence model of black* identity (Cross 1991) comprises five developmental stages: (1) pre-encounter, (2) encounter, (3) immersion-emersion, (4) internalization, and (5) internalization-commitment. The pre-encounter stage starts with where the person is – the present identity that needs to be changed. Pre-encounter racial attitudes vary from low salience to neutral to rejecting. Low salience refers to individuals who accept being black* but do not see blackness as a factor in their daily lives. Some however feel compelled to defend themselves against blackness as a social stigma, having little knowledge of black* history or culture. Neutrality denotes persons who believe they have evolved beyond race. An example of which may be an actress who does not see herself as a black* actress but rather an actress who happens to be black*. Antiblack African Americans blame other blacks*, uphold racist stereotypes, and affirm white culture (Cross 1991).

Underlying causes of pre-encounter attitudes may be “miseducation, a Eurocentric cultural frame of reference, spotlight or “race-image” anxiety, a race-conflict resolution model that stresses assimilation-integration objectives, and a value system that gives preference to other than Afrocentric priorities” (Cross 1991, p. 192). Given that the American educational system has not focused on Africa’s role in civilization and the role of blacks* in the making of America, blacks* generally have a distorted view of their own cultural history as well as other histories besides white western history. According to Cross (1991), poor mental health is not necessarily the most damaging outcome of miseducation but a learned world view that inhibits knowledge and weakens the capacity to advocate for one’s best interests.

Through miseducation, blacks* are socialized to have a greater appreciation of all things white, leading to a Eurocentric cultural perspective. Thus blacks* in the pre-encounter stage may enjoy black* music and/or art but may see it as counter to being accepted into the white mainstream. The problem for blacks* is not appreciating white culture but seeing it as a measure of “correctness” (Cross 1991). Spotlight or race image anxiety speaks to African Americans being overly sensitive to white people’s belief in negative racial stereotypes, triggering worry about the behavior of other blacks*. On the positive side, spotlight anxiety can lead to a heightened awareness of prejudice and discrimination. However self-hating blacks* are beyond race image. Antiblack blacks* embody their disdain for black skin and see blackness as an imposition that must be discarded. Blacks* with an assimilation-integration outlook think it is incumbent upon African Americans to fit into white spaces and structures, not those structures changing to be more racially inclusive (Cross 1991).

A person’s identity is shaped by early experiences in family and society. Once formed, identity is difficult to change, no matter the stage. Incoming experiences are expected to match a person’s understanding of self and the world. An encounter must occur that is strong enough to shake a person’s current identity, thrusting the individual toward needed change. The encounter can be a sudden event, such as the murder of nine black* people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina by a self-proclaimed white supremacist or the mass incarceration of blacks* (Cross 1991).

The encounter can be positive (e.g., reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X) or negative (e.g., racial profiling) and involves two steps: experiencing and personalizing. Witnessing a dramatic event does not necessarily mean that one is changed by it. For a person’s worldview to be affected, the encounter must be personalized. Feelings of confusion, guilt, anger, anxiety, and depression likely are experienced in this stage, which may be motivational (Cross 1991).

In the immersion-emersion stage, an individual is committed to developing a new identity but more familiar with the old identity. Persons in this stage exhibit first-order change, such as wearing natural hairstyles and/or African clothing. Also, either-or thinking is manifested in this stage wherein the old attitude of white is superior and black is inferior is reversed to black is superior and white is inferior. During the immersion phase, an individual is consumed with blackness – a self-liberating experience from whiteness – and tends to be judgmental about others’ blackness, which can become divisive. Anyone who becomes stuck at the immersion level has a pseudo-black* identity because of being more concerned with negating whites than affirming blacks* and dismantling racism (Cross 1991).

Emersion signals the emergence from oversimplified dichotomous thinking and reactivity. An individual in the emersion phase is better positioned to develop a black* identity because there is a balance between emotion and intellect. Realizing that the commitment to black* issues does not require white hatred or negation, the individual is ready to move toward internalizing a new identity. However it should be remembered that individuals at the immersion-emersion stage might regress because of the warring old and emerging new identities; fixate on white hatred because of pain, anger, and guilt; or become overwhelmed and give up (Cross 1991).

The internalization stage “seems to perform three dynamic functions in a person’s everyday life: (1) to defend and protect the person from psychological insults that stem from having to live in a racist society; (2) to provide a sense of belonging and social anchorage; and (3) to provide a foundation or point of departure for carrying out transactions with people, cultures, and situations beyond the world of blackness” (Cross 1991, p. 210). Second-order change occurs at the internalized stage of black* identity development. An individual is concerned with standards of blackness, not outward physical appearances of blackness or black* rhetoric. Uncontrolled anger is redirected away from white people toward racist systems and injustice; and black* pride replaces rigidity and a holier-than-thou black* attitude. Nonetheless, individuals at the end of this stage could develop a monocultural (black nationalist), bicultural (black and American), or multicultural (multiple cultural interests and saliences) orientation. Internalization-commitment, the final stage of the Nigrescence model, is mainly distinguished from internalization by a sustained interest and commitment to black issues (Cross 1991).

Black Male-Female Relationships. Marriage is desired and valued by African Americans. Prior to the twentieth century, marriage was quite prevalent among African Americans. Currently, marriage is lower among black* Americans than any other racial or ethnic group. As well, African Americans have the highest rate of divorce and never married. Social scientist bell hooks (1981) posits that black* men adopted a view of black* women as controlling and emasculating from Moynihan’s unfavorable report about the matriarchal black* family. Likewise, black* women may have accepted a view of black* men as inadequate.

The cognitive dissonance or discomfort between black* men and women may be due to the residual effects of slavery and ongoing racism (Watson 2013). Surviving the horrors of slavery, slaves disconnected emotionally. While emotional disconnection was a protective factor in slavery, it may be limiting black* marriage today. Living with the realities of racism may cause feelings of shame and helplessness in African American men and women that each may try to avoid by disconnecting or projecting onto the other. Finger pointing, African Americans attempt to justify rather than heal from the trauma of slavery.

The devaluation of black* womanhood and manhood began in slavery with sexual victimization, objectification, and marginalization. Black* women were seen as hypersexual, and black* men were praised for their sexual prowess. The sexual objectification and victimization of black* men and women severed intimate bonds and created suspicion and distrust. Slavery and its racist aftermath taught black* women two important lessons: black* women were not deserving of the same protections as white women; and black* men could not be counted on to protect and provide. A prevailing message of the strong black* woman thus was born as black* men struggled with the “boy” complex from slavery (Watson 2013).

Black Mass Incarceration. The mass incarceration of black people functions as the new Jim Crow, upholding the legacies of slavery in the present day. Imprisonment is profitable and, like slavery, requires bodies to secure the business interests of those that capitalize and benefit from it. Incarceration therefore has become the response to problems of addition, poverty, adolescence, and mental health issues. Blacks* are disproportionately incarcerated and tend to receive higher sentences, generating racial disparities in the criminal justice system that likely are steeped in myths about black inferiority and white superiority originating from slavery (Stevenson 2015).

According to Stevenson (2015), the four institutions that have determined the American approach to race and justice are (1) slavery, (2) the reign of terror following slavery, (3) Jim Crow, and (4) mass incarceration. The end of slavery announced the beginning of terror for black* people by the police, KKK, or any white person. Black* families were constantly in fear of lynching, bombing, and overall racial violence. Also, blacks* were subject to conviction for nonsensical offenses that then allowed them to be leased (convict leasing) to businesses, effectively forcing them back into slave labor. Jim Crow, which legalized segregation and denied blacks* basic rights, had real consequences for daily psychological functioning of African American families. Similarly, modern-day racial profiling has many of the same characteristics and negative consequences for black* families. On a daily basis, blacks*, regardless of class, experience a variety of indignations and humiliations, whether followed in a store, profiled by the police, or mistaken for the help. Mass incarceration is a weakening burden borne by African American families and communities. Targeted prosecution and draconian laws for drug crimes in poor black* neighborhoods and the collateral damage (e.g., voter disenfranchisement and barriers to reentry) to African American families operate within the American legacy of race relations (Stevenson 2015).

Special Considerations for Couple and Family Therapy

African Americans, unlike other ethnic groups, are sometimes seen as having no history and culture to safeguard or defend. Social scientist E. Franklin Frazier believed that the African culture was obliterated by the experience of slavery. Scholars Melville Herskovits and W.E. B. Du Bois opposed Frazier’s view, asserting that important vestiges of African culture survived slavery and that black* family life in the United States is an extension of African heritage (Billingsley 1992).

Although ties to African heritage were broken and distorted in slavery, there remain African American cultural values that are submerged in African values. The intergenerational transmission of African values from slavery to the present can be seen in the behavioral and psychological functioning of African American families around interdependence, unity, mutual responsibility, reconciliation, cooperation, and religion/spirituality.

Dr. Maulana Karenga solidified and, to a great extent, codified the cultural connection between Africa and African Americans when he founded Kwanzaa in 1966. Kwanzaa, an American holiday that commemorates the African cultural heritage of blacks*, is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 and is based on seven fundamental principles known as the Nguzo Saba. These seven principles are (1) Unity (Umoja), (2) Self-determination (Kujichagulia), (3) Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima), (4) Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa), (5) Purpose (Nia), (6) Creativity (Kuumba), and (7) Faith (Imani) (McClester 1994).

The cumulative effects of race have resulted in historical trauma or post-traumatic slave syndrome for African Americans as a people (DeGruy 2005). Absorbing the myth of white superiority and black inferiority has created lies and difficulties that manifest themselves today in multiple ways, including racial identity, black* marriage, and mass incarceration. Couple and family therapists must confront myths of racial differences and challenge racial injustice to work effectively with African American clients. Couple and family therapy should be a place where both therapists and African American clients can commit to a process of truth, honesty, and healing. Racial indignations and microaggressions accrue daily for African Americans, taking a serious toll on the mind, body, and spirit. As a result, couple and family therapists may be scratching only the surface with African American clients without a deeper conversation around slavery, race, and racism.

African Americans have shown tremendous strength and resilience in the face of adversity. Hope and faith have been two major sustaining factors, allowing African Americans to achieve, accomplish, contribute, and survive despite slavery and racism. Nonetheless, if true healing is to come, African Americans must face the grief, losses, and trauma of their own history. Couple and family therapists must be prepared to help African Americans do so by seeing (own and that of client), not avoiding, race. Otherwise, couple and family therapists risk perpetuating racism and oppression in the lives of African American clients. As a cautionary note, couple and family therapists must do their own person of the therapist work, including uncovering racial biases, in order to be able to hold the intensity of engaging in meaningful conversations about race while staying emotionally present and connected in therapy.

However the growing interest in evidence-based models of treatment may deter couple and family therapists from attending to race as a crucial dimension of inquiry in therapy. Fundamentally, evidence-based models tend to neglect broader social influences that impinge on black* families daily. Personally, this author believes that evidence-based models may unwittingly distort or mystify race and its impact on black* families. Denying, relabeling, or reframing race could be detrimental to African American clients because it basically robs them of their racial experiences and feelings, which might contribute to the development of a false self. Self-inauthenticity for African Americans, in turn, could reinforce feelings of internalized racism and black inferiority.

Admittedly, evidence-based models, such as emotionally focused therapy (EFT) and attachment-based family therapy (ABFT), have not researched their applicability for clients of culturally and racially diverse backgrounds. However, they maintain a universality of human emotions, such as attachment. Nevertheless, attachment in families can be affected by outside social forces, which is well documented by slavery.

Despite research demonstrating the effectiveness of evidence-based models across racial and cultural lines, the question of racial equality and healing from slavery and racism remains for African Americans. Families are affected by politics. The early pioneers in the field of couple and family therapy began a revolution that transformed mental health and changed the view of families from adversaries to supporters. Will the field again rise to the occasion and take an active stance against racism and oppression?



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Drexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Farrah Hughes
    • 1
  • Allen Sabey
    • 2
  1. 1.Employee Assistance ProgramMcLeod HealthFlorenceUSA
  2. 2.The Family Institute at Northwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA