Reducing Prejudice and Racism Through Counselor Training as a Primary Prevention Strategy

Paul B Pedersen. Handbook of Racial & Ethnic Minority Psychology. Editor: Guillermo Bernai. Sage Publications. 2003.

Reducing prejudice and racism is too often perceived as a secondary or tertiary prevention strategy, in reaction to events that have already occurred. This chapter will describe the reduction of prejudice and racism through three counselor training approaches as a “primary” prevention strategy. Inaccurate attributions that result from prejudice and/or racism translate into defensive disengagement by counselors and their clients, each trying to protect the truth as he or she perceives it. By preventing mental health providers from making inaccurate assumptions about other cultures in the first place, multicultural counselor training can protect both the providers and consumers from misattributions. Ponterotto and Pedersen (1993) presented a model for improving interracial and interethnic relations that emphasizes the need for training programs to be preventive, developmental, and long term. This chapter will seek to build on the Ponterotto and Pedersen foundation.

Cultural, racial, and ethnic prejudice depends on preconceived judgments about individuals from selected groups that are not based on actual experience with the individuals who are prejudged. These prejudices are generalized beliefs assumed without evidence to be true despite disconfirming information to the contrary. Prejudice is a learned response to attitudes and beliefs of individuals based on misinterpretations of experience, and because it is learned, it can also be unlearned.

Racism is defined by Ridley (1995) as “any behavior or pattern of behavior that tends to systematically deny access to opportunities or privileges to members of one racial group while perpetuating access to opportunities and privileges to members of another racial group” (p. 28). Racism is typically directed against minority members at the institutional as well as the individual level in overt or covert forms. When racist behavior is based on race-based prejudices, it is intentional, but often racism can be unintentional when individuals are unaware of the effects their behaviors have on others (Ridley, Espelage, & Rubinstein, 1997).

The reduction of prejudice and racism begins with appropriate teaching and training approaches. This chapter will identify teaching and training techniques that have been widely used in teaching about racial prejudice, broadly defined to include populations identified by ethnographic, demographic, status, and formal or informal affiliations. These approaches will include (a) the triad training model for hearing the positive and negative internal dialogue of a culturally different client in counseling; (b) a synthetic culture laboratory for finding common ground without giving up cultural integrity among Alpha (high power distance), Beta (strong uncertainty avoidance), Gamma (high individualism), and Delta (strong masculine) synthetic cultures based on Geert Hofstede’s (1980, 1986) 55-country database; and (c) the development of multiculturally skilled group-work leaders through the application of Ivey’s (Ivey, Pedersen, & Ivey, 2001) microcounseling model to the cultural group context. The appropriateness of structured and experiential exercises for identifying culturally learned assumptions and cultural patterns will be emphasized throughout.

The Trained Counselor

Culture-centered training results in movement from simple to more complex thinking about multicultural counseling relationships. A trained counselor depends less on stereotypes and is better prepared to comprehend the influence of a cultural context on the counseling process. The trained counselor has a wider range of response alternatives to meet the needs of each cultural context. The trained counselor can describe each cultural context from the contrasting viewpoints of culturally different participants. The trained counselor can identify and understand the “source” or basic underlying cultural assumptions of a problem. The trained counselor can keep track of the “salient” culture for a client as it changes over time and place. The trained counselor can account for her or his own culturally learned assumptions in the counseling process (Midgette & Meggert, 1991).

Several multicultural training models have been suggested. Ridley, Mendoza, and Kanitz (1994) described multicultural counseling training (MIT) as a framework that moves from training philosophy to learning objectives, instructional strategies, program designs, and evaluation-matching instructional strategies with learning objectives. Cushner and Brislin (1997) described training alternatives, which divide experiential/discover approaches from didactic/expository approaches and culture-general from culture-specific foci. Sue et al. (1998) described a three-stage developmental sequence that moves from awareness of culturally learned assumptions to knowledge of culturally relevant facts and finally to appropriate skills to bring about positive changes. Pedersen (2000a) described a five-stage program for developing multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skill through (a) needs assessment, (b) the definition of specific objectives and design techniques, (c) training approaches, and (d) evaluation strategies.

The first stage of training is increased awareness. Culture is within the person and difficult to separate from other learned competencies. Developing an awareness of culturally learned assumptions is therefore essential for any intentional counselor as a professional obligation (Pedersen, 2000a; Sue, Ivey, & Pedersen, 1996).

The Intrapersonal Cultural Grid in Figure 31.1 provides a framework for describing the degree of awareness necessary for culture-centered counselors. On one dimension, the social system variables of (a) ethnographic (nationality, ethnicity, etc.), (b) demographic (age, gender, place of residence, etc.), (c) status (social, educational, economic, etc.), and (d) formal or informal affiliations to ideas and/or organizations emerge as “culture teachers” in our lives. On the other dimension, there are categories for (a) “what you did: BEHAVIOR,” (b) “why you did it: EXPECTATIONS,” and (c) “where you learned to do it: VALUES.” The Intrapersonal Cultural Grid is an open-ended framework to increase our awareness of the “culture teachers” who have taught us the “rules” that regulate our behaviors. Each behavior is guided by many culturally learned expectations with regard to that behavior in a particular situation. Each culturally learned expectation is an extension of many culturally learned values, and each value was learned from the many culture teachers in our social systems. The interaction of behavior-expectations-values with the social system variables demonstrates the complexity of understanding prejudice and racism in the cultural context where it was learned and is displayed. The same behavior may have different meanings, and different behaviors might have the same meaning depending on the cultural context.

The second stage of training is increased knowledge. It is essential to assemble the facts and information on which culturally learned assumptions are based before attempting to change the assumptions. Counselors who have developed an appropriate awareness will know what facts they need and will be motivated to gather that information before proceeding with their counseling intervention. This second step of gathering knowledge and developing an informed comprehension provides a database for understanding one’s own and other cultures as meaningful (Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). Sue and Sue (1999) pointed out a pervasive and enduring bias in the knowledge being taught about multiculturalism in counselor education programs.

The third level of training requires a skilled and intentional ability to make appropriate changes in each multicultural context. The third level is the most difficult and presumes a successful development, first, of cultural awareness and, second, of cultural knowledge about the client’s cultural context (Pope-Davis & Coleman, 1997; Sue et al, 1998). Change is perceived as linked to the cultural context in such a way that training and education themselves become a treatment modality. The counselor, client, and their culture teachers contribute to the construction of a shared context, which is both complex and dynamic. Culture-centered counselors are able to generate a wide variety of intentional verbal and nonverbal responses appropriate to the cultural context.

We know that behaviors are learned in a cultural context and are displayed in a cultural context, so it makes sense that accurate assessment, meaningful understanding, and appropriate intervention require that counselors be educated to have the awareness, knowledge, and skill appropriate to their own and their clients’ context. Every test and theory in counseling was developed to fit the precise needs of a particular cultural context, so it should not surprise us when a particular test or theory is less than an exact fit with radically different cultural contexts (Dana, 1998; Paniagua, in press; Samuda, 1998). The search for culture-free and culture-fair tests has failed. We are left with a mandate to train counselors in translating the data from culturally biased tests and theories to their clients’ cultural context. Even those of our colleagues who react negatively to the infusion of multiculturalism in the curriculum are probably in favor of accurate assessment, meaningful understanding, and appropriate interventions.

The training process begins by asking the right questions. An approach for infusing multicultural questions into the counselor education curriculum can easily be developed as an integrative seminar. Students can bring their syllabuses for the other classes they are taking into the seminar. The class discussion will focus on preparing the students to generate questions about the relevance of culture into their other classes for discussion in those other classes; in that way, a culture-centered perspective is infused throughout the other courses in counselor education. Pedersen, Carter, and Ponterotto (1996) have compiled a list of several hundred unanswered questions by 30 multicultural specialists that could enrich a classroom discussion.

The Triad Training Model

The importance of self-talk (Ellis, 1987), internal dialogue (Meichenbaum, 1986), and self-instructional training (Capuzzi & Gross, 1995) has been carefully documented in cognitive therapies. Siegrist (1995) reviewed the extensive literature on inner speech as it relates to cognition, Nutt-Williams and Hill (1996) demonstrated the importance of self-talk to individual therapy, and Penn and Frankfurt (1994) demonstrated the importance of inner conversation to family therapy. The greater the cultural difference, however, the less likely a counselor is to accurately perceive the client’s inner conversation (Pedersen, 2000b). However, we can assume that part of the client’s inner dialogue is negative and part is positive.

The triad training model involves a role-played interview between a culturally different counselor and a three-person coached team of client, pro-counselor, and anti-counselor. The anti-counselor seeks to explicate the negative messages that a client from that culture might be thinking but not saying, whereas a pro-counselor seeks to explicate the positive messages in the client’s mind. Although either an anti-counselor or a pro-counselor may be used without the other, the combined influence allows one to hear the client’s internal-dialogue “hidden messages” in both their positive and negative aspects. The pro-counselor and anti-counselor provide continuous, direct, and immediate feedback to both the client and the counselor during the counseling process. Many of the sources of resistance, such as prejudice and racism, consequently become explicit and articulate to the culturally different counselor during the role-play.

It is important to understand the role of the pro-counselor and the anti-counselor. The culturally similar anti-counselor is deliberately subversive in attempting to exaggerate mistakes by the counselor and negative reactions by the client during the interview. There are several ways the anti-counselor can articulate resistance. The anti-counselor can build on the need to keep the problem, encourage the client’s ambivalence, distract or sidetrack the counselor, keep the conversation superficial, obstruct communication, annoy the counselor, make the counselor defensive, and exaggerate differences between the counselor and client to keep them apart. The triad training model encourages the direct examination of hidden negative messages a counselor or client might be thinking but not saying to articulate examples of prejudice and racism in the safety of the role-play. The counselor is then able to articulate examples of prejudice and racism and better deal with those negative messages when they come up during actual interviews.

The pro-counselor attempts to articulate the hidden positive messages that might also be included in a client’s internal dialogue. The culturally similar pro-counselor helps both the counselor and the client articulate the counseling process as a potentially helpful activity. The pro-counselor functions as a facilitator for the counselor’s effective responses. The culturally similar pro-counselor understands the client better than the culturally different counselor and is thus able to provide relevant background information to the counselor during the interview. The pro-counselor is not a cotherapist but an intermediate resource person who can guide the counselor through suggesting specific strategies and information that the client might otherwise be reluctant to volunteer. In these ways, the pro-counselor can reinforce the counselor’s more successful strategies in coping with prejudice and racism, both verbally and nonverbally. The pro-counselor might restate or positively reframe what the client or counselor said, keep the interview focused on the primary problem, offer verbal and nonverbal approval, reinforce important insights, highlight positive statements, and suggest alternative strategies.

The advantages and directions for using the triad training model in preservice or in-service education are detailed in Pedersen (2000b). Cultural differences tend to exaggerate and magnify the likelihood of inappropriate counseling interventions. Providing immediate feedback to trainees regarding cultural differences, prejudice, racism, and other hidden messages in role-played counseling interviews creates the opportunity to prevent those negative factors from interfering with real counseling interviews later.

Research on the triad training model has not been extensive, but results thus far have been encouraging. Research (Pedersen, 2000b) suggests that it increases counselor awareness, knowledge, and skill. The evidence of increased awareness is reported in the positive evaluation of in-service training, favorable comparisons with interpersonal process recall (IPR) training on awareness, self-reports of increased awareness, and increased identification of negative thoughts in cross-cultural counseling. The evidence of increased knowledge includes increased receptivity to multicultural information about clients, a more articulate description of culturally different values, self-reports of increased sensitivity to different populations, and increased knowledge about a client’s host culture. The evidence of increased skill includes increased frequency of good verbal counseling statements, increased confidence for working with client populations unfamiliar with counseling, self-reports of greater effectiveness in family therapy, and more favorable feedback from Black students working with White counselors.

The more sociocultural differences there are between a counselor and client, the more difficult it will be to accurately anticipate the influence of prejudice and racism in what the counselor or client is thinking but not saying. The triad training model is a method in which immediate and continuous debriefing occurs during the role-played cross-cultural interview itself. The triad training model is a means of learning to hear and deal with specific examples of prejudice and racism in multicultural counseling.

The Synthetic Culture Laboratory

The literature on the use of simulations in training is extensive. Crookall and Saunders (1989) and Crookall and Arai (1995) discussed intercultural applications of simulations. Most simulation games include learning about interpersonal effectiveness among their objectives, recognizing that members of different cultures seldom have safe opportunities to interact with contrasting cultures in the real world. Bringing different cultures together in a simulation provides an opportunity to examine issues of prejudice and racism as they result in misunderstandings with minimum risk (Greenblat, 1989).

Hofstede and Pedersen (1999) have developed a laboratory simulation based on synthetic cultures:

A synthetic culture is one that does not exist in reality and, moreover, does not pretend to resemble a real national culture. Synthetic cultures exist only in the training or game context. By playing these synthetic stereotypes or extreme examples, the participants will become better able to recognize and be prepared to deal with the more subtle elements of these stereotyped tendencies in themselves and others in the real world, (p. 417)

The database was derived from more than 70,000 subjects from more than 55 countries, developed by Hofstede (1980, 1986).

Pedersen and Ivey (1993) described how a synthetic culture laboratory can be used for both preservice and in-service training to identify examples of prejudice and racism. The objectives of the synthetic culture laboratory are as follows:

  • To identify culture as an internalized and learned perspective by which experiences are organized into meaningful patterns;
  • To identify stereotyped and culturally biased learning patterns and their consequences in the safety of a simulated interaction;
  • To identify participants’ awareness of their own positive and negative feelings about other cultural perspectives;
  • To increase participants’ skill for identifying common ground and shared values with persons from different cultures, without sacrificing integrity;
  • To increase participants’ awareness of controversies and societal issues across cultural perspectives regarding “outsiders.”

Participants are introduced to the four synthetic cultures of Alpha (high power distance), Beta (strong uncertainty avoidance), Gamma (high individualism), and Delta (strong masculine). The organization of the laboratory follows a series of steps.

First, participants have 30 minutes to select one of the four synthetic cultures, learn the one page of rules, discuss the problems created by “outsiders,” and select a team of two or three consultants for each synthetic home culture who will visit the other three synthetic host cultures, in turn, to help them deal with their own problems caused by outsiders. By the end of 30 minutes, each of the four synthetic culture groups should have been socialized into their new synthetic culture identity and be able to respond appropriately according to the rules of that synthetic culture.

Second, the first rotation will require sending a team of consultants from each synthetic home culture to each synthetic host culture (e.g., Alpha team goes to Beta) for a 10-minute consultation in which the host and home culture participants interact in the role of their respective synthetic culture identities. After the 10-minute interaction, time will be called, and both home and host cultures will step out of their roles to debrief and discuss whether they were able to find common ground on the problem of outsiders, without either host and/or home culture participants giving up their cultural integrity. After debriefing, the consulting teams will return to their synthetic home culture to report back on what they learned about prejudice and racism, which can increase their success in future consultations.

Third, the second rotation will repeat the procedure of the first rotation, matching the team of consultants with a different host culture (e.g., Alpha team goes to Gamma).

Fourth, the third rotation will follow the same pattern as the first and second rotations with a different host culture (e.g., Alpha team goes to Delta).

Fifth, each synthetic culture group will report back to the larger group about what they learned from the laboratory. Specific emphasis will be given to the advice they have for outsiders coming into cultures resembling their synthetic host culture in the real world and feedback to the other three synthetic culture groups about what they liked and did not like about cultures resembling those synthetic host cultures.

Sixth, instructions for debriefing the synthetic culture laboratory are given in Pedersen and Ivey (1993), Hofstede and Pedersen (1999), and Hofstede, Pedersen, and Hofstede (2001). Hofstede and Pedersen (1999) identified 10 synthetic cultures in an enlarged version of the Hofstede dimensions of national culture, which can be used for training or simulations. Other examples besides the synthetic culture laboratory are also described, including both face-to-face and electronically mediated settings.

The synthetic culture laboratory provides a safe place to take risks in increasing the counselor’s self-awareness of his or her own cultural bias, increasing the counselor’s awareness of alternative “real-world” cultural systems in a framework of contrasting alternatives, and socializing the counselor into a new and different synthetic culture together with people from a variety of other diverse real-world cultural backgrounds. Each counseling microskill such as giving feedback, asking questions, summarizing, encouraging, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, reflecting meanings, confronting, focusing, and influencing is accomplished differently in each cultural context. The synthetic culture laboratory provides the counselor a chance to rehearse the different words and behaviors that are appropriate to each of the contrasting synthetic culture contexts (Pedersen & Ivey, 1993).

Multicultural Group Microskills

We learn about our cultures in a group context, beginning with the family, and multicultural issues are present in every group. Ivey et al. (2001) organized their book on intentional group counseling around the central issue of our multicultural memberships in groups throughout our lives:

We are all multicultural human beings; our very selfhood and identity are embedded in the language we speak, our gender, our ethnic/racial background and our individual life path and experience. Because all behaviors are learned and displayed in a cultural context, we bring our own cultural experiences into our group through the manner in which we participate. The multicultures cannot be separated from the individual; they are deeply embedded in our concept of self and others, (p .2)

We know that it is easier to change a person’s attitudes and opinions in a group context than it is through one-on-one interaction (Corey, 2000). Social pressure from peers is a powerful force for change. All of our cultural beliefs, attitudes, and opinions—including prejudice and racism—were learned in a group context. With the increased popularity of group-work as a counseling model, it is appropriate to look at the training of culturally intentional group-work leaders as a valuable resource for reducing prejudice and racism.

If, for example, you examine how the multicultural world of the counselor is both similar and different from a client, the complex multiplicity of cultures becomes apparent. This adaptation of the cultural grid mentioned earlier examines each behavior of the client or the counselor as linked to many culturally learned expectations, each expectation as linked to many culturally learned values, and each value linked to perhaps a thousand or more of the culture teachers in our life as we remember the messages of family, friends, enemies, heroes, heroines, mentors, teachers, and fantasies we have had about the person we want to become someday. If you assume that there are only two people in the room when your client walks into your office and closes the door, you are already in trouble. There are literally thousands of people in that office hidden in the multiculturalism of the client and of the counselor.

Ivey et al.’s (2001) book uses a microskill approach to examine how our life experiences influence our worldview and the worldview of others so that we do not interpret anyone’s behavior out of context. Through increased awareness of our biases and prejudices, we can become more intentional in our group leadership skills, and we can train our group members to become more intentional as well. Corey (1995) pointed out that “because of the power group counselors possess, it is possible to use this power to stifle group members instead of empowering them. Being aware of your personal biases is the first step toward guarding against unethical practices in your own group work” (p. 27).

As we become more aware of our multicultural heritage, we protect ourselves against stereotyping by recognizing both similarities as well as differences across individuals and groups, no matter how similar or different those individuals or groups might appear. There is a clear ethical mandate to understand the multicultural aspects of group-work. The American Counseling Association’s (ACA, 1995) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice comments, “Counselors are aware of their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors and how these apply in a diverse society, and avoid imposing values on clients” (A.5.b).

The Ivey et al. (2001) approach examines each microskill used in group-work and group-work training in terms of the cultural context where that skill was learned and is being displayed. This approach attempts to demystify groups so that each microskill can be adapted accurately, meaningfully, and appropriately to each cultural context.

If you master the basic skills of observation and intervention, you will have multiple possibilities for action when faced even with the most difficult leadership challenge. Intentionality means that you are able to flex with changing situations, develop creative new responses and constantly increase your repertoire of skills and strategies with groups. Intentionality can be expanded with the idea of cultural intentionality—the ability to work with many varying types of people with widely varying multicultural backgrounds. (Ivey et al, 2001, p. 20)

We begin learning about ourselves and our culture in the family and extended family, where we learn about power, authority, responsibility, and the other “rules” by which we live. We soon expand our memberships to include friends, peers, school, spirituality, leisure groups, and casual interactions, but we continue to apply those original culturally learned “habits” about our behavior toward others, some of which include examples of racism and prejudice.

Each of us has learned habits—ways of thinking and behaving acquired from our past experiences—and we all have different paths through life. Participating in groups helps us discover ourselves more completely and how our habits of living are perceived by others. Group membership teaches us things about ourselves and our style that we didn’t know before. (Ivey et al, 2001, p. 21)

The microskills approach seeks to systematically examine our specific habits of behavior in groups toward becoming more intentional rather than accidental or unthinking toward others. Beginning with attending behaviors, this approach builds a foundation of listening and process skills. The visual representation used is that of a pyramid, with each skill building on the previous foundation skills. Focusing, pacing, and leading are microskills that demonstrate how groups work. The basic listening sequence is a microskill for drawing out the stories of group members from there-and-then to the here-and-now. These microskills are then integrated by examining and role-playing transcripts of group interactions to practice microskills of listening, reframing, interpreting, self-disclosure, and feedback. The strategies for interpersonal influence are the most sophisticated level of microskills and help the group leaders develop their own personal style of intentional and multicultural group leadership.

The multicultural foci of this approach are not marginal to the development of generic skills in group leadership but are identified as central and essential. This model moves away from the isolation of multicultural issues to a specialized course and moves toward integrating multiculturalism into the fabric of the generic curriculum.


The generic applicability of multiculturalism can be demonstrated in basic psychological concepts. Pedersen (2000a) described at least a dozen positive advantages of reducing prejudice and racism in counseling. First, interpreting behavior out of context leads to misattribution. Second, identifying common ground across cultures facilitates win-win outcomes from conflict situations. Third, our individual identity can best be understood by learning from the culture teachers in our internal dialogue. Fourth, by examining many different perspectives in problem solving, we are less likely to overlook the best answer. Fifth, cultural diversity protects us from imposing our self-reference criteria inappropriately on others. Sixth, by learning to work with those different from ourselves, we will develop the facility for working with future cultures not yet known to us. Seventh, every social system that has imposed the exclusive will or the dominant culture as the measure of just and moral behavior has been condemned by history. Eighth, it is not just the content of our thinking but the very process of linear thinking itself that can become culturally encapsulated. Ninth, all education and learning challenge our conventional assumptions and results in some form of culture shock. Tenth, spiritual completeness requires that we complement our own understanding of ultimate reality with the understanding of others. Eleventh, cultural pluralism provides the only political alternative to chaotic anarchy or authoritarian tyranny. Twelfth, a culture-centered perspective complements and strengthens conventional theories of counseling and psychology as a fourth dimension much as the fourth dimension of time complements our understanding of three-dimensional space.

Unlearning prejudice and racism involves acquiring accurate awareness, meaningful understanding of multicultural experiences, and appropriate interventions. Sue et al. (1998) suggested four principles to guide us toward increased competence: First, we need to learn from as many sources as possible to validate our understanding; second, a balanced picture requires contact with the healthy and strong members of the target culture; third, factual understanding needs to be supplemented with experiential reality; and fourth, we must be constantly vigilant against biases in ourselves and the people around us.

We need a conceptual framework for multiculturalism as a psychological perspective. Sue et al. (1996) have attempted to develop a multicultural theory for reducing prejudice and racism in counseling based on six basic propositions. First, each Western or non-Western theory already represents a different worldview, implicitly or explicitly. Second, the comprehensive context of each client-counselor relationship must be the focus of treatment. Third, the counselor’s and client’s own cultural identity will influence how problems are defined and direct the goals of the counseling process. Fourth, the goal of culture-centered counseling is to expand the repertoire of helping responses available to counselors. Fifth, there are many alternative helping roles for counseling from other cultural contexts to supplement conventional counseling. Sixth, the individual, family, group, and organization can only be accurately understood in their cultural context. These propositions are intended to encourage the discussion of how cultural encapsulation by prejudice and racism can be eliminated among counselors.

Counseling is moving toward becoming a culture-inclusive science that will routinely include cultural variables in the future just as contemporary psychology routinely disregards them. We will be asking questions such as the following: Which psychological theory works best in each cultural context? What are the cultural boundaries of each psychological theory? Which psychological phenomena are more likely to occur in which cultures? We will no longer speak about cross-cultural psychology but rather understand all human behavior in the central cultural context.