A proposal for a qualitative study investigating the phenomenology of racism from the perspective of White co-counselors engaged in work to eliminate their own racism.  Includes a complete literature review of research on co-counseling and a cursory review of implicit racial bias outcome literature.

A Proposal for a Qualitative Investigation of the Phenomenology of Racism in White Co-Counselors Who Are Working to Eliminate Racism

The racism of Whites against African Americans in the United States is a multi-layered problem.  Most obviously, there are overtly racist individuals and organizations.  Thirteen percent of Whites considered themselves racist in a recent CNN poll (CNN, 2006), for example, and there are many US-based racist political organizations, such as the American Nazi Party (American Nazi Party, 2009) and the American National Socialist Movement (National Socialist Movement, 2009).  There is certainly covert racism as well, in the form of individuals who may believe and behave in racist ways, but who would not admit to it someone conducting a poll or a potential employer.  We can only speculate, therefore, on the percentage of the US White population who have racially biased attitudes and who consciously endorse them.  The number is quite likely significantly higher than 13%.

Not all racism is conscious, however, and in a way this presents a tougher problem than conscious racism, whether overt or covert, for three reasons.  First, it is probably much more widespread.  Harvard Implicit, for example, found that approximately 70% of people who took their Implicit Associations Test (IAT) for non-conscious racial bias were biased against African Americans to some degree (Project Implicit, 2008).  Second, non-conscious racism exists by definition outside of the individual’s awareness, so it can remain a secret to the owner as well as wider society.  Even if an implicitly-racist individual’s conscious attitudes ran strongly enough counter to their implicit attitudes that they would want to do something about it, it would be difficult for them to notice—in fact, the strength of their conscious convictions may be a factor that makes it more difficult to recognize their own racism (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2004).  Third, even if an individual suspected they had unconscious racist attitudes because of having taken the IAT, for example, and wanted to do something about it, activities which may reduce this bias are not widely known or tested.

Institutional racism exists on the level of official institutional policies, but also at the level of implementation by the individuals employed by those institutions.   Since the 1960s,  some great strides have been made towards the elimination of policy-level institutional racism in the United States, but policies are still enacted by individuals. If 70% of those people are likely to have some implicit bias against African Americans, and most of those 70% probably do not even know it, then this is a serious problem. Social psychology research literature is full of evidence that implicit attitudes can affect our behavior and decision making without our knowledge (for a review, see Ferguson & Bargh, 2004).

Whites in the US seem to inherit negative emotional reactions to Blacks from their culture but many do not realize it because their conscious beliefs are in conflict with them, and this conflict is sharper for egalitarian Whites, making it possibly even more difficult for them to recognize their own racism (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986).  This may help to make sense of evidence such as Devine’s (1989) finding that, while in a task that allowed conscious consideration, low-prejudice participants could inhibit stereotype-congruent thoughts, in other tasks where no conscious consideration was allowed, high and low-prejudice participants made equivalently stereotype-congruent evaluations of ambiguous behavior; or Correll, Park, Judd, and Wittenbrink’s (2002) investigation of shooter bias in which Whites’ anti-Black shooter bias in a shoot-don’t-shoot test was correlated with implicit stereotyping but uncorrelated with 3 measures of prejudice.  It may even shed some light on Eberhardt, Davies, Purdie-Vaughns, and Johnson’s (2006) shocking evidence that the more stereotypically Black a defendant looks, the more likely they are to receive the death penalty.  This in an institution bound by law and oath to mete out justice without regard to skin color, and in which defense lawyers are given the chance to weed out racist jurors.

These implicit attitudes were once thought to be intractable, but today there is some evidence that they can be changed.  Rudman, Ashmore, and Gary (2001), for example, found that college students who volunteered for a seminar on prejudice and conflict had less implicit and explicit bias against Blacks afterwards, compared to a control group.  Galinsky and Moskowitz (2000) found that taking the perspective of an African American was associated subsequently with less bias in both implicit and explicit stereotyping.  Kawakami, Dovidio, Moll, Hermsen, and Russin (2000) found that stereotype-negation training, which Rudman et al.  called “emotional reconditioning” (2001, p. 866), decreased implicit biases.

The problem remains, however, that the people most likely to think such change is a worthy cause may be the least likely to realize that they need to make such a change (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986).  I have heard personal reports of resistance to diversity trainings, for example, in such egalitarian-minded institutions as trade unions and academic departments in universities.


In the 1950s, Harvey Jackins started what has become an international personal growth movement based on a peer-counseling model: Peers form therapeutic relationships and trade time listening to each other.  They believe that people are naturally good, intelligent, and compassionate, but can be held back from behaving in these ways by emotional hurts.  Emotional hurts are best healed by emoting in the presence of loving attention.  This process allows one to re-evaluate the meaning that had been made from hurtful experiences—such as that one is not a good person, or that other people are not good—and, on re-evaluating, behave in a way unimpeded by emotional blocks or cognitive distortions.  (For the official descriptions of the tenets of co-counseling, see the writings of Jackins 1965, 1970, 1973).

Co-counselors take racism very seriously.  Jackins’ organization, Re-evaluation Counseling Communities (RCC), has made the elimination of racism a top priority, and encourages all co-counselors to do the emotional work necessary to become aware of and eliminate the ways that they are racist.  Co-counselors believe that growing up in a racist culture means that White people inherit ‘oppressor patterns’ which result in racist beliefs and behaviors.  These oppressor patterns, like other negative patterned behavior, are perpetuated by emotional hurts which in turn are subject to healing by introspection and emoting in the presence of loving attention.  In the belief that these oppressor patterns can cause individual Whites to treat individual Blacks as less than themselves, co-counselors consider it a duty to do what they can to rid themselves of them.

There is some experimental evidence for the kinds of processes co-counselors believe exist around racism.  In a study by Rudman and colleagues, of students taking a diversity class, change in explicit biases were associated with cognitive variables, while change in implicit biases were associated with affective variables, to the extent that the authors speculated that participants were “‘unlearning’ anxiety associated with African Americans” (2001, p. 862).   Amodio, Harman-Jones, and Devine (2003) found similar results, using a behavioral measure, the startle-eyeblink response: Consciously controlled processes were subject to cognitive intervention, while automatic bias by Whites to Blacks reflected affect-based responses.  Macrae, Bodenhausen, Milne, and Jetten (1994) found that cognitive attempts to suppress stereotypes had the opposite of the intended effect; participants who were told to suppress stereotypes ended up stereotyping more pejoratively than participants who were not told to repress.  Galinsky and Moskowitz (2000) found that when participants took the perspective of a specific African American and reduced their stereotyping, they also increased their self-other overlap with, and positive evaluations of, that African American, meaning that they came to see him both in a more positive light and to be more like themselves.  Finally, Fein and Spencer (1997) found that stereotyping and prejudice seem to be ways of maintaining a positive self-image: Participants whose self-images were bolstered were less likely to stereotype compared to those whose self-images were reduced.  Additionally, participants whose self-images were reduced had an increase in their self-esteem directly following their stereotyping.

The tenets of co-counseling have much in common with concepts like self-actualization, the problem of emotional blocks, the healing power of authentic communication, and the role of the therapist, as expressed by humanistic psychologists and therapists (see e.g. Maslow 1943, Rogers 1951, or Satir, 1972). Though co-counselors would disagree with the characterization of co-counseling as “therapy,” because it is seen as a personal growth activity, rather than a treatment of pathology (see e.g. Heron, 1973), the practice of co-counseling arguably includes most of the common factors of effective psychotherapeutic intervention, as laid out by Sprenkle and Blow (2004): the client’s natural ability to heal, the personal qualities and abilities of the counselor, an empathic therapeutic relationship, a facilitation of new perspectives on old patterns, and connecting with emotions.  Additionally, co-counseling may incorporate a factor Sprenkle and Blow suggests is particular to family therapy, that of thinking of human problems in their social context.

There is, however, almost no scientific examination of co-counseling, possibly because RCC discourages official alliances with other organizations (Re-evaluation Counseling, 2009).   The research literature that has been published on co-counseling consists almost entirely of enthusiastic reviews (see e.g. Bronstein, 1986; Grant, 2006; Heron, 1973; Kearney, 1987; Scheff, 1972; Somers, 1972; ), plus one critique (Tourish & Irving, 1995), one very preliminary qualitative study (Glaser, 1976), and a few quantitative studies conducted outside of the US, with a non-RCC version of co-counseling:  Edwards (1984), for example, found preliminary evidence for participation in a co-counseling class increasing self-actualization.  Stevens (2001) and Stevens, Martina, and Gerben (2006) found in clinical trials that elderly women had less loneliness, more and better friendships and self-esteem after completing a program based in part on co-counseling.  Finally, Wolf and Hirsch (2003) found improved parenting-related stress, attitudes, and practices compared to controls for participants in a parent-education program based on co-counseling.

A Proposal to Investigate the Phenomenology of Racism in White Co-Counselors

Implicit, non-conscious racism is a serious problem in the US.  Our public servants such as judges, police officers, social workers, and therapists, who enter their professions to help people, are often very likely unintentionally biased in their services to Black Americans.  Co-counselors are people with a passion for social justice, who realize that they have emotion- and culture-based racial biases, and who are dedicated to examining and eradicating them, using a free and widely available peer-counseling process.  I propose a preliminary, qualitative investigation into the phenomenology of co-counselors working on racism, to address the research question “What might the experience and insight of White co-counselors who are working on their own racism against Blacks have to offer to the challenge of eliminating racism in the United States?”

A qualitative study is appropriate for two reasons.  First, the early stage of this research. There is almost no published literature on the problem of permanently shifting unconscious racial bias.  This makes experimental or other outcome-based research at this point rather a shot in the dark.  Qualitative research occurs in the field, using open-ended questions that can be changed mid-process to accommodate new insights and challenges.  It is a process of collecting, distilling, and interpreting the participants’ experiences and meanings holistically, with their cooperation.

Second, it is quite likely that co-counselors will not be interested in participating in quantitative evaluation of their process, which is deeply personal and based on tenets which are held with near-spiritual conviction.  This means that if those who do not participate in co-counseling wish to nevertheless benefit from the body of knowledge that co-counselors have collected, they must proceed carefully and very respectfully.

Phenomenology is a qualitative methodology that emerged from the thinking of existentialist philosophers and has become well established in psychological and sociological research.  The basic procedure is to conduct and record open-ended interviews with people whose experience is relevant to the research question, followed by a thematic analysis of data intended to reveal the basic elements of common experience and meaning held by participants.  It is considered an excellent starting place to build theory, when current theory is lacking (see e.g. Creswell, 2009).

Participant Selection and Ethical Considerations

RCC and alliances. It may be against the policies of RCC to make the kind of alliance with a researcher or institution required to conduct this research in a respectful way (Re-evaluation Counseling, 2009); it may be possible to conduct this research with individual, volunteer co-counselors, who are perhaps practicing outside of the official RCC organization, or who are part of the largely European co-counseling organization, Co-counselling International, which may not have a ban against such alliances.  These options raise very serious ethical concerns, however, and I am unwilling to undertake them.

RCC has a sister-organization, United to End Racism (UER), whose purpose is to conduct anti-racism outreach and who make official appearances at national and international anti-racism and peace conferences (United to End Racism, 2009).  It is possible that UER is free to make the kind of alliance that would allow for the collection, analysis, and dissemination of empirical data on their work to eliminate racism.  To this end, I propose to request permission from RCC leadership to approach members of UER to conduct interviews, explaining that I plan to involve interviewees’ help in refining the interview and checking the data analysis with veto power at several points in the process.

Snowball sample. If I get that permission, I propose to conduct pilot interviews with two White co-counseling leaders I know who are members of UER, to get help in refining my interview questions and to get recommendations for other UER members to ask for an interview.  I will ask those who agree for further interviewee suggestions until I have interviewed 20 participants.  It is possible that I will reach new-information saturation prior to 20 participants, but I will continue to 20 to ensure that I have a publishable sample size.  A “snowball sample” like this one, gathered by convenience without any kind of randomization, will not be representative of White co-counselors, much less all co-counselors.  The hope, however, is not to generalize the results of this study to a larger population, but to use them to generate ideas for theory.

Data collection. Because of the highly personal and sensitive nature of the subject matter, it will be important to maintain participant confidentiality.  Participants will choose pseudonyms for their interviews and demographics information to be identified by.  I will keep linking information, available only to myself, only until the participants have reviewed the transcripts of their own interviews and made any corrections or clarifications they desire.  All data will be kept in a locked lab while it exists.  Participants will be made aware, by way of an advised-consent form, a verbal review of that form, and an opportunity to ask questions, of the following: my sponsoring institution, sample-selection process, the purpose of the research, the nature of the questions they will be asked and that they run the risk of thinking and talking about emotionally charged subject matter, that there will be no direct personal benefit to them for participating, that they are guaranteed confidentiality, that they can withdraw from the process at any time with no negative consequences and that they can remove the data they contributed from the process at any time, and contact information for my supervisors in the case of concerns or questions they do not want to address to me.  They will also be made aware my intent to publish the findings in a scientific or educational periodical.

Data analysis. Participants will be given the opportunity to review, clarify, and correct the data and the interpretation of the data at three stages.  First, they will each receive a copy of their interview once it is transcribed, whereupon they may make any desired changes; second, once the primary themes have been distilled, and third when the final article is near completion.

IRB and HSP considerations. If these procedures are followed, I do not anticipate rejection by the Institutional Review Board or the Human Subjects Protection department.  If additional concerns are raised, however, I will gladly consider their suggested improvements.

Interview Questions

The questions I will use to develop a rich, thick description of the phenomenology of White co-counselors’ experience of racism and eliminating racism are a work in progress.  I intend to refine them in collaboration with both my supervisors and my participants.  It will be important to have a set of questions that gets at the granular experiences of co-counselors; the specific thoughts, emotions, behaviors, problems, and confusions that they have experienced in their day-to-day work are at least as important as the beliefs and theories they use to guide themselves, which are already thoroughly elucidated in the writings of Jackins.

It will be important to preface each question with “in naturalized language,” to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation in data analysis.  “Naturalized language” is what co-counselors call language which does not rely on terminology specific to co-counseling.  Co-counselors use the term “discharge,” for example, to refer to behaviors that psychologists call emotional or affective discharge, such as crying or shouting, but also to refer to behaviors such as spontaneous stretching, yawning, and shaking.  To avoid confusion and a laborious back-and-forth interpretation process, it will be important for participants to name the specific behavior they are referring to as “discharge.”  This process will have the additional benefit of keeping the focus on the granular experiences of the participants.

Here are some questions that might end up in the final form of the interview: “How do you experience racism in yourself? What specific experiences let you know that you have racism?”  “Did you do any racism work before you started co-counseling?  What was it, and how do you view that work now?”  “What experiences brought you to work on racism using co-counseling?”  “What does it feel like at first, when you sit down to work on your racism?”  “What exactly do you do when you work on racism?  What do you think about?  What emotions do you feel?  How has that changed since you started?”  “Do you have any experiences that lead you to believe that you have less racism now than you used to?  What are they?”  “Has this work been like you expected it to be?  Any surprises?”  “What have you discovered about how racism exists in yourself that non-co-counselors who are interested in eliminating racism would benefit from knowing?”  “What are the blocks for Whites working on racism in themselves?  How have you experienced those blocks?”  “Are there any important questions that I have not asked yet?”

Credibility Considerations

Qualitative reliability. Since there will be only one researcher, I am not sure what can be done to ensure internal consistency through the research process, other than making sure the transcripts do not have mistakes in them, keeping careful field notes, and proceeding with care throughout the collection and analysis phases.  I will have to gather more information about this.

Qualitative validity. There are two major threats to validity in this design proposal.  The most important is my own involvement with co-counseling.  I have practiced and continue to practice co-counseling since 2002, both inside and outside of the RCC community.  I have taken two introduction courses and assisted in a third, 16-week introduction course.  I participated in a bimonthly men’s support group for two years and attended two statewide men’s gatherings and three Oregon men’s leaders meetings.  I have attended a mental-health liberation workshop, a workshop for Whites for the elimination of racism, and a meeting of the allies to Jews support group.  I know and have counseled with many of the RCC leaders from the Eugene and Portland areas, who I like and feel loyalty towards.  I also believe that co-counseling has been a very useful practice in my life and in my own effort to eliminate racism in myself, and that the tenets of co-counseling form a useful model for thinking about emotions, healing from trauma, and human relationships.

Second, this design relies on only one source of data: audio recordings of interviews.  This means I will not be able to triangulate the themes that emerge using multiple sources of data, which weakens qualitative validity.

To attempt to counteract these problems, I will use the following seven methods of increasing the trustworthiness of a study.  First, conducting 20 interviews will mean spending considerable time in the field, and getting a thorough feel for the topic from many perspectives.  Second, using a peer debriefer will help keep my process consistent and thinking clear in the face of a large amount of data and emotional subject matter.  Third, using an experienced research supervisor as an internal auditor throughout the process as a methodology coach will help avoid validity pitfalls.  Fourth, having an honest, invested external auditor look over all of the data to see if they concur with my analysis will make up, to some degree, for not having the check of coder reliability with multiple coders.  Fifth, I will present my own bias clearly and comprehensively, so that the ways that my own involvement with co-counseling and my ethnic background, for example, are not hidden from the research consumer.  Sixth, participants will each have three opportunities to check the accuracy of the data and analysis, as discussed above, under “Participant Selection and Ethical Considerations: Data analysis.”  Last, I will not hide the presence of data that runs counter to the themes I found, and will instruct auditors to point out any that I may have missed.

Qualitative generalizability. The intent of this research is not to test any theories of racism or how implicit biases change, and it is not to generalize the information collected to a broader population.  It is to investigate the specific experiences of specific people to see what themes may emerge.  These themes may form the bases of testable hypotheses in future research, which may support generalizability to larger populations, but at this stage of research, generalizability is not a great concern.

Relevance to Clinicians

In light of the early stage of this research, the results will not be directly relevant to clinicians in the context of evidence-based practice, except that, in the unlikely scenario that they get a co-counselor as a client, the clinician will have read something about their culture.  This is both because this research will be a generation and distillation of ideas, not a testing of them, and because co-counselors, who are not even reliably represented by this sampling method, are very unlikely to come see professional clinicians, given their stance on mainstream mental-health care.  It is possible, however, that this research could stimulate directions in other research that could yield generalizable information relevant to both to clinicians and their clients.  The issue of racism may be present in the families of origin of a mixed-ethnicity couple, for example.  It might reveal co-counseling to some clinicians as another community resource to keep in mind.  Also, future research could help clinicians discover and ameliorate their own racial biases, helping them think about their clients more clearly and serve them more equitably.


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