Chocolate, JalapeƱos and the Invisibility Syndrome in Counselor Training By Lawrence Rubin, PhD, ABPP on 5/30/19 - 12:59 PM

On those two nights after leaving school following back-to-back, eye-opening and unsettling experiences in my graduate counseling classes, I had a strange feeling that I had arrived at the intersection of possible culture blindness, social discomfort and the questioning of my own clinical supervisory competence.

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I reflected back on two absolutely unrelated but clearly convergent events in two separate graduate counseling classes on back-to-back nights—ethics and psychopathology. As it was to turn out, challenging, unanticipated and enriching lessons in diversity were in the making.

Scenario one: My back was to the class as I was about to write down their responses to a question I had posed. One of my students, located in the far back right corner of the classroom had offered a verbal response, and as I turned to make eye contact I wasn’t quite sure where the voice had originated. My eyes landed on one particular African-American woman who I thought had made the comment, but quickly the student sitting next to her, also African-American, quipped “it was me, but there is a lot of chocolate in the room.”

Instantly embarrassed, I did my best to conceal the painful feeling of embarrassment and the deeper thought that, in that moment of failed echo-location, I had conveyed the message that the voices of all black people sound alike. Or, had I?

Scenario two: Occasionally, I joke with students about the snacks they bring to class. A Latina student in the back of the room offered up a bag of potato chips, across the front of which was a green elliptical design that on quick glance I thought was meant to be a jalapeño. I thanked her and said, “I don’t eat jalapeños.” Just as quickly as in the first scenario, this student shot back, partly in humor but also likely in defense, “did you assume these are jalapeño-flavored chips because you know I’m Mexican?”

Still reeling from the chocolate event of the previous night, I was once again embarrassed, thinking that I had somehow awkwardly fumbled insensitively across a cultural divide, falling flat on my face in the process.

I knew that these were learning opportunities in the making, both for myself and my counseling students, who had each taken our program’s multicultural course with Judi Bachay, an international scholar and diversity expert here at St. Thomas. But, there is nothing quite like a live-action, and as Irvin Yalom puts it¹, “here-and-now experience,” for conveying an important concept. And while I made a nominal attempt to address my concerns in class each time, I could tell that the two students were equally uncomfortable.
Was it my cultural insensitivity that provoked their humor-cloaked defensive comments, or over-sensitivity to their own racial/cultural positioning in my class…in society? In either event, I believed that as their (white) teacher, I needed to do my best to find out, for them, for myself and for the class.

I was indeed able to speak in private with each of these two students on separate occasions and discovered the following. The formative educational years of the student in the first scenario was spent alongside white peers, where a sense of racial discomfort led to concern that she would be judged primarily by her skin color, rather than the qualities of her character. Racial invisibility as Darrick Tovar-Murray suggests², was in a sense, a psychological survival strategy. During her transition to college, the student in the second scenario attended classes in a less-Latinx environment compared to earlier years. She became less comfortable with her Mexican roots, often trying to conceal her accent—a different, but no less poignant form of invisibility. She lived with the fear of being called a chola.

I felt sadness for each of these students who grew up believing they had to trade elements of their racial and cultural origin for the security, or perhaps false security, that invisibility falsely promises. I have never felt that pressure—part of my privilege, I guess. I shared with each of them the guilt I felt, perhaps white guilt, and my concern that I had contributed unknowingly to their experience of invisibility. But in retrospect, perhaps their respective protestations were statements of visibility, and refusals to remain hidden. Lessons were learned on both sides of the divide those nights.

References

(1) Yalom, I. (2017). The gift of therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. New York: Harper Perennial.

(2) Tovar-Murray, D., & Tovar-Murray, M. (2012). A phenomenological analysis of the invisibility syndrome. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 40(1), 24-36. 


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