The Problem with Colorblindness in Pastoral Counseling
The topic of racial diversity has grown louder and stronger in recent years. As a fourth generation Chinese-American woman who was born and raised in Hawaii and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, I am happy that race and ethnicity are being brought into the forefront, and that there are movements across the nation to increase awareness about these issues. What bothers me still, however, is that even though there is an increased awareness, there is also a sense of dismissal or skepticism around the importance of addressing these topics.
In my graduate-level counselor-training program, there was only a single course on social justice and culture sensitivity. Most students thought something along the lines of, “If the client doesn’t bring it up, then perhaps I won’t have to address it,” or, “This may not be important to me because I don’t plan on working with ethnic minorities.” Being in the helping profession, however, should never be centered on a client ensuring that their counselor, pastor, or confidante is the one who is comfortable. On the contrary, it is the requirement of the helper to develop a strong rapport and ensure that the help-seeker sitting across from you has found a safe environment where he or she can tell you anything without fear of judgment. But if those of us within the role of helpers are not addressing the difficult topics or calling out the elephant in the room, then how can those that seek our help ever feel safe enough to confide in us?
As I neared the end of my program, I became frustrated with the lack of race and ethnicity being spoken about openly in my classes. It was not only the lack of it in classes, but also the blissful ignorance from my classmates whenever I spoke about how living in Hawaii was very different than the Pacific Northwest after making adjustments to my diet, altering my lifestyle, and even on occasion being “exotified” by random men passing me on the street, who would look at me as though I was a commodity and then make comments such as, “I want one of those.” I did not move to the Pacific Northwest expecting my life to be exactly as it was in Hawaii. Moving was my choice, and I knew that there would be times of discomfort and frustration. I had merely wanted my classmates to acknowledge that the frustration I experienced was due to being of a different race than they were.
I had similar feelings of frustration when I attended conferences, and although there were many workshop options for addressing culture, I still sensed that there was a fear of labeling race and talking about it openly. The message I constantly received was that people in the helping profession needed to develop a sense of inclusivity and ignore very blatant differences between others such as skin color. The message was to become racially colorblind. In reality, though, addressing race and racial trauma, and acknowledging key cultural differences, can assist those in the helping profession to better understand another’s experience. Colorblindness is meant to be inclusive, as it emphasizes treating individuals as equally as possible without paying attention to race, culture, and ethnicity. In actuality, however, this type of ideology leads to evasiveness and encourages the continual unawareness of the existence of racism, turning its eye from acknowledging differences between racial groups.
3 Unhelpful Colorblind Reactions to Race
I channeled my frustration into the development and eventual publishing of a research paper on how the ideology of racial colorblindness is more harmful to a therapeutic relationship (or any relationship) than it’s well-intentioned foundation of inclusion (Dempsey, Ching & Page 2016). While the research paper speaks at length about the implications for using a colorblind ideology within a counselor-training program, there are types of colorblind reactions (dismissive, pseudo-apathetic, and intrusive) that are important to recognize within the helping profession in general. The importance of recognizing these reactions are to not elicit fears of guilt or shame, but instead to help you gain a stronger awareness and understanding of how these reactions may impact others as you minister to people in your church. I myself am guilty of sometimes using colorblind reactions with others within my own ethnic group. The true importance lies within increasing your own awareness so the next time you are sitting across from someone who is of a different race or ethnicity than you, you may be more in tune with what may be harmful or helpful along the journey toward growth and healing.
A dismissive reaction occurs when a person of color’s experience is equated to an experience that could have happened to anyone—saying or acting like race had nothing to do with it. Student A shares that they are having a difficult time adjusting to college because English is a second language, while Student B shares that they, too, are facing difficulties because the workload is more difficult than high school. A dismissive reaction would be, “It seems like everyone is having a hard time in college!” A more appropriate response would be to acknowledge that Student A’s difficulty is based on a significant change in lifestyle due to race and ethnicity.
Dismissive reactions happen a lot when the helper may believe that the person seeking help is simply sharing a small experience, rather than realizing or recognizing how significant the experience relates to or defines life for that person. Any significant meaning about the experience becomes lost within colorblindness. The easiest example of this type of reaction that comes to my mind is the “All Lives Matter” movement, as I feel the movement has negated and dismissed all of the experiences of being a black man or woman living in America that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, equating those experiences to general stressors of all races.
The pseudo-apathetic reaction initially sounds like it’s introducing empathy, but then falls short of acknowledgement and understanding, evolving into sympathy instead. If a person seeking help shares an experience with you, a pseudo-apathetic response may sound like, “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry, that sounds awful!” or “Well that does sound horrible but that kind of injustice or inequality happened a long time ago and things are better now.” The pseudo-apathetic reaction initially begins with a small genuine interest, and then concludes in a distancing within the helper/help-seeker relationship. There is no willingness to sit in the uncomfortable parts of processing the hurtful nature of an experience.
Imagine if you are venting to a friend or partner about your incredibly tough day and your friend or partner says, “I’m so sorry that happened!” and then continues to talk about his or her own day. Now imagine the same scenario, but instead your friend or partner says, “That sounds like a very frustrating day. Tell me more about it.” In the second scenario, there is the acknowledgment of the feeling behind the story, and the invitation to sit with you in that frustration.
The final type of colorblind reaction is the type of reaction that occurs when someone attempts to rename, re-label, or re-educate on the experience by emphasizing that life is hard for a person because that person is putting too much focus on race and ethnicity. The intrusive reaction occurs when someone unwelcomingly begins trying to fix or solve a problem, attempting to alter a person’s worldview. Within a helping profession context, this would look like the helper trying to point out to the help-seeker that if they did not see skin color, race, or ethnicity as a barrier, then the help-seeker would not be viewing the situation as a problem. It may sound like, “You know, if you didn’t focus so much on being Asian then maybe you wouldn’t be so stressed out about being Asian.” It may also sound like trying to intellectualize the person-of-color experience with sentiments such as, “I have Asian friends!” or “I’ve read books about …” and “I’ve seen documentaries on …”
A Better Response
Being part of the helping profession can be a truly rewarding experience, as it us to have the privilege of being invited into a person’s world to witness triumphant moments and challenging times. Although there are many great therapeutic techniques to help people, I strongly believe that the simple use of empathy can be the most powerful. With empathy, helpers are able to help many people process what’s happening in their life and learn to help themselves. Empathy is so important as it shows a person that I am able to understand why a certain experience is causing or will cause a strong impact in one’s life. Empathy is the cornerstone for me as a counselor and a vital tool for acknowledgement and validation.
My hope is for you to be mindful and aware of how colorblindness can impact your reactions and interfere with your ability to use empathy as you minister to others. Providing empathic responses to others while acknowledging race and ethnicity would look like, “You felt singled out as an Asian woman, and I can hear the hurt and pain that this has caused you.” It would also look like, “You already have a lot on your plate to manage at work and at home, but on top of all of that you feel like being Latina causes others to view you differently.” Or perhaps it will look like, “You wanted to stand up for yourself in that situation, but you weren’t sure what to do or what to say, because you have learned that if you speak your mind you might be viewed as ‘the angry black man’ and then you’d have even more of a headache to do with.
Do not be afraid to address race and ethnicity as you use your gifts to minister to others in your church or in your community. By addressing race and ethnicity you are acknowledging the impact it has in a person of color’s life. You will show that you are not only listening to the experience of those seeking help, but you are truly hearing, seeing, and recognizing how this singular experience is influencing a person’s entire journey. So if you’d like the elephant to leave the room, I would suggest you first learn to start talking about it.
Dempsey, K., Ching, J., and Page, U. (2016). When colorblindness hurts: Cultural competence implications for counselors-in-training. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 7(4). 101-108.
Jerrica KF Ching lives in the beautiful state of Washington and works as a Mental Health Primary Care Provider serving children, adolescents, and their families at Columbia Wellness. She graduated with an MA in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling from George Fox University and is working towards becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist.