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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Career Dev. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 June 1.
Published in final edited form as:
J Career Dev. 2010 June 1; 37(1): 441–464.
doi:  10.1177/0894845309345847
PMCID: PMC2873201

The Vocational Significance of Black Identity: Cultural Formulation Approach to Career Assessment and Career Counseling


Scholarship is emerging on intervention models that purposefully attend to cultural variables throughout the career assessment and career counseling process (Swanson & Fouad, in press). One heuristic model that offers promise to advance culturally-relevant vocational practice with African Americans is the Outline for Cultural Formulation (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). This article explicates the Outline for Cultural Formulation in career assessment and career counseling with African Americans integrating the concept of cultural identity into the entire model. The article concludes with an illustration of the Outline for Cultural Formulation model with an African American career client.

Race is a strong predictor of labor market position. African Americans comprise 11% of the United States (U.S.) labor market, yet they account for 22% of the unemployed. The unemployment rate for African Americans has historically been more than twice that of White Americans (9% vs. 4%, respectively) (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007). Further, studies from various disciplines (e.g., social sciences, economics and business) illustrate that African Americans, on the basis of race, continue to experience discrimination in hiring practices, differential wage earnings, and persistent barriers to career mobility and advancement (see Riach & Rich, 2002). For instance, results from controlled field experiments of job interviews and job offers reveal that White individuals are generally the preferred candidates over non-White individuals (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2003). Further, Riach and Rich noted that although other racial/ethnic minority groups such as Hispanics [term used in Riach & Rich’s article] experienced discrimination at the interview offer stage, African American individuals experienced discrimination at both the interview and job offer stages. These trends indicate that African Americans are consistently more likely to experience labor market problems than other racial and ethnic groups. The relationship between racial group membership and career outcomes signifies that career development is situated within a cultural context.

Vocational scholarship on African Americans has often focused on cultural group differences on career variables, like career beliefs and occupational attainment, and less on cultural variables that account for observed differences. Attending to the unique circumstances with which African Americans may have to contend (e.g., restricted occupational opportunity and societal racism) within the context of minority group status may increase the understanding of their career development and the cultural relevance of career interventions (Byars-Winston, 2006; Cheatham, 1990, Parham & Austin, 1994). Analyzing, investigating, and intervening in the career behavior of African Americans necessitates a better understanding of mechanisms by which cultural variables, such as discrimination due to race and ethnicity, exert their influence on career processes and outcomes. One mechanism that has vocational relevance to African Americans’ career development is cultural identity.

Cultural Formulation Approach to Career Assessment and Career Counseling

Leong, Hardin, and Gupta (2007) reviewed literature illustrating the link between culture and self and the implications of these constructs for vocational psychology. In framing their review, the authors applied the Outline for Cultural Formulation (CF), published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fourth Edition (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association (APA), 1994), to career development. Leong et al.’s adapted CF Approach to Career Assessment and Career Counseling includes five dimensions: (a) Self and Cultural Identity, (b) Self and Cultural Conception of Career Problems, (c) Self in Cultural Context, (d) Cultural Dynamics in Therapeutic Relationship, and (e) Overall Cultural Assessment for Diagnosis and Care.

The CF is a descriptive guide to inform clinicians’ consideration, documentation, and assessment of culture in diagnosis and treatment. In the original CF (APA, 1994), culture is relevant throughout the therapeutic process. However, the variable of cultural identity is only specified in the first dimension wherein the client’s salient cultural referent groups are assessed. As noted in the introduction to this article, an assessment of culture necessitates an understanding of mechanisms or processes that carry the effect of culture on beliefs and behavior. Accordingly, Leong et al. (this issue) proposed that cultural identity is relevant to all dimensions of the CF. They stressed that systematic integration of this construct throughout the career assessment and career counseling process would increase the cultural relevance of career practice.

Career assessment is a systematic process of collecting client information in order to facilitate her or his career decision-making whereas career counseling is a diverse set of interventions aimed at promoting individuals’ career development. Several publications have articulated specific models, strategies, and instruments to facilitate culturally competent career assessment and career counseling with racial-ethnic minority groups (Flores, Spanierman, & Obasi, 2003; Fouad & Bingham, 1995; Hartung, Vandiver, Leong et al., 1998; Ponterotto, Rivera, & Sueyoshi, 2000). Rather than duplicate this extant scholarship, the relevance of cultural identity information gained from the first four dimensions of the CF model to enrich the overall diagnosis and treatment process is considered in this article. As such, career assessment, per se, is not discussed herein but rather the focus is on analysis of the impact of cultural identity on career concerns to facilitate career assessment. Similarly, in lieu of specific career counseling techniques, the utility of Leong et al.’s adapted CF approach to informing therapeutic care for career clients is given. The adapted CF is an approach to advance conceptualization of cultural identity within career-related assessment and counseling.

Following Leong et al.’s (this issue) review, this article discusses the literature on cultural identity for African Americans and their career development across the five dimensions of the CF. Because of the centrality of cultural identity to this discussion, significant space is dedicated to this construct in the first CF dimension. The article concludes with an illustration of the final dimension using a case example.

Definition of Population

The group collectively referred to as Black or African American in the U.S. is diverse and comprised of many ethnic groups. These groups include people born in the U.S. who are descendent from African slaves, African émigrés and those descendent from non-enslaved Africans, as well as those of African ancestry from the Caribbean, Latin and South Americas. Sociocultural and political histories uniquely distinguish each of these ethnic groups in terms of cultural identity and behavior. In the U.S., African immigrants and their prodigy whose ancestry does not include slavery and those from the Caribbean, Latin, and South Americas represent more recent waves of U.S. Black populations (in terms of critical mass, as they have long been here) and their cultural identities tend to be more informed by their national identity (Waters, 1999). In contrast, individuals whose African ancestors were enslaved in the U.S. may not have strong nationalist ties to a particular home country. It is this latter group that is primarily referenced in the scholarship cited in this article. The terms Black and African American are used interchangeably to reflect the terms used in the literature cited herein as well as the diverse preferences for the terms used by members of this cultural group. This article does not address diversity of nationalities and bi/multi-racial, bi/multi-ethnic individuals within the U.S. Black population.

Self and Cultural Identity: Looking Through the Black Veil

The self can be defined as an individual’s sense of uniqueness (Harris, 1995). The self is experienced across contexts, varying in its expression, content, and function. Shweder (1990) asserted that culture regulates “the human psyche, resulting…in ethnic divergences in mind, self, and emotion” (p. 1). In this sense, culture informs self-construals, like self-concept, which include cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions.

For groups that have experienced disenfranchisement, alienation, segregation, and institutional discrimination in the U.S. as a function of their racial and/or ethnic group membership, race and ethnicity may be especially salient in defining the self. The concept of race generally refers to classification of a group based on shared physical and hereditary characteristics whereas ethnicity generally refers to classification of a group based on shared ancestry, history, and cultural traits/traditions. Cornell and Hartmann (1998) asserted that racial and ethnic identities, the respective corollaries of race and ethnicity, are two of the “most potent forces in contemporary societies” (p. 4). Thus, ethnic and racial identity may be particularly important in understanding the behavior and attitudes of African Americans.

Racial and ethnic identities represent two types of cultural identity. Analysis of these identities reveals how they are both products of “assignment (by others or society in general) and assertion (by the individuals within the group)” (Eggerling-Boeck, 2002, p. 22). The construction of U.S. Black cultural identity occurred against the backdrop of slavery, a cultural and historical context that “erased ethnic identities” and socially assigned them to the racial identity of “Black” vis-à-vis de jure laws and related social practices. Yet, Black cultural identity is not simply derived from responses to perspectives imposed by the dominant social group (i.e., White Americans). Black Americans have also asserted themselves as an ethnic group, “…a self-conscious population that defines itself in part in terms of common descent (Africa as homeland), a distinctive history (slavery in particular), and a broad set of cultural symbols (from language to expressive culture) that are held to capture much of the essence of their peoplehood” (Cornell & Hartmann, 1998, p. 33). One may wonder whether Black identity is a result of being Black or a result of not being White. The reciprocal processes of assignment and assertion in the formation of cultural identity highlight the dual social and psychological processes involved in racial-ethnic identity development. Black identity, thus, is partly self-affirmed and partly derived from interactions with the dominant group (Griffith, 1980).

In discussing Black cultural identity, it is useful to consider the integration of ethnicity and race as ethnoracial distinctions of cultural identities. Ethnoracial identities are “historically contingent social constructions” (Bobo & Fox, 2003) that vary in salience across time and by intersections with other cultural factors including gender, socioeconomic status, and age. In this article, Black cultural identity is inclusive of both racial and ethnic identity. The terms racial and ethnic identity will be specified when citing research particular to the given construct. The following sections review the content and functions of Black identity.

Content of Black Cultural Identity

Several models exist that describe how individuals incorporate race/ethnicity into their self-construals. This section briefly describes both racial and ethnic identity models. The reader is referred to other publications for extended discussions of racial and ethnic identity theories and related measures (Cokley, 2007; Helms, 1991; Phinney, 1990).

Cross (1971) originally articulated the process of nigrescence for African Americans from which subsequent racial and ethnic identity theory emanated. Nigrescence describes a conversion experience wherein African Americans are psychologically transformed from non-Black worldviews to Black-oriented worldviews by progression through five statuses relative to racial identity attitudes. Although Cross and his colleagues (Vandiver, Cross, Worrell, & Fhagen-Smith, 2002) have revised his original 1971 theory and related measure of Black racial identity, no vocational scholarship has been published using these revised resources. Thus, the literature cited herein is based on Cross’ original work and the related measure developed by Parham and Helms (1984) to assess Cross’ theory which only included four of the statuses.

The first status, Preencounter, is a race-dissonant state typified by a pro-White/anti-Black worldview. In the second status, Encounter, an African American person’s existing worldview is challenged by a critical personal experience, often prompting the individual to acknowledge the salience of his or her racial heritage within the social environment, seek out a new identity and establish identification with Black culture. The third status, Immersion/Emersion, is characterized by an increased pro-Black/anti-White orientation. The fourth status, Internalization, reflects a secure pro-Black identity and sense of self-fulfillment with acceptance of non-Blacks as well. Other articulations of racial identity development exist, including Sellers, Smith, Shelton et al.’s (1998) Multidimensional Model of Racial Identity that conceptualized racial identity as varying across four dimensions: racial salience, racial centrality, racial regard, and racial ideology.

How relevant a person’s race is to a given context is a function of both the given situation as well as the person’s tendency to define himself or herself in terms of race (Sellers et al., 1998). It follows then that racial identity may interrelate with the racial context of various occupational fields and environments. For example, being African American pursuing or employed in a science or engineering field where African Americans are underrepresented may make racial identity salient for one individual and yet may not be as salient for another. In this vein, both “person factors and situational cues” (Sellers et al.) give rise to individual differences in racial identity salience within the same vocational context. Racial identity salience informs how individuals interpret a situation and their subsequent behavioral responses to that situation. Accordingly, individuals’ racial identity should not be considered a static aspect of their self schema.

Ethnic identity deals with self-identification as an ethnic group member, sense of belonging to an ethnic group, involvement in ethnic group activities, and positive regard for the ethnic group (Phinney, 1990). In a process that changes over time and context, individuals’ ethnic identity develops in a progression from attitudes of non-interest and low exploration of their ethnicity, to increased involvement in exploring and understanding what ethnicity means for them, and achieving a clear and confident sense of their ethnicity (Phinney). Thus, like racial identity, ethnic identity is also assumed to operate in a dynamic manner.

Functions of Black Cultural Identity

To understand the differing ways in which identities function, it is useful to consider how they permit efficiency in organizing, utilizing, and referencing cultural information in one’s environment. Cross and Strauss (1998) postulated three functions of Black identity that operationalize how cultural identity helps African Americans adapt to their environment: bonding, buffering, and bridging.


Social identity theory postulates that individuals are driven to achieve a sense of belonging with in-group members, such as one’s racial and ethnic group(s) (Taijfel & Turner, 1986). The feeling of connectedness or belonging to one’s referent racial-ethnic group motivates individuals to behave in ways that are congruent with the groups’ values and norms. Thus, individuals who positively identify with their racial-ethnic group are likely to feel a strong sense of pride in the groups’ traditions and history. Further, behaving in culturally-congruent in-group ways promotes not only identification with the in-group but recognition by the in-group as being a “good” member. This recognition, in turn, may increase African Americans’ access to culturally-relevant in-group support, whether directly received and/or indirectly perceived.

Research indicates that self-construal variables such as self-concept, self-efficacy and self-esteem are positively influenced by a grounded racial-ethnic identity (see Phinney, 1990). The notion of bonding relative to Black cultural identity illustrates how strong cultural attachment to one’s referent racial-ethnic groups serves as a guidepost for culturally-congruent behavior and even situating personal achievement within the context of cultural group advancement (Oyserman & Harrison, 1998).


Research has documented the persistent experience of racism in the lives of African Americans illustrating how it makes them psychologically and physically ill, restricts opportunities, and compromises their self-perceptions (Barnes, 2000; Clark, Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999; Nyborg & Curry, 2003) and occurs in subtle forms across personal, vicarious, and group levels (Essed, 1991). Many discriminatory situations are embedded within larger nonracist/nondiscriminatory contexts (Cross & Strauss, 1998). As such, Black individuals must be able to sort out the stigmatizing or discriminatory elements of a given context, distinguishing their self-knowledge about their abilities from being the target of discrimination or stereotypes as a consequence of being a member of a socially marginalized racial group.

The buffering function of Black cultural identity can be facilitated by recognition of racism’s occurrence within the context of being Black (high racial salience) or by deemphasizing racism and stressing a colorblind perspective (low salience) (Cross, Strauss, & Fhagen-Smith, 1999). Oyserman and Harrison (1998) noted that an awareness of obstacles arising from racism (based on group membership) allows individuals to retain their personal sense of competence by providing “non self-denigrating explanations” for challenges or barriers. Black cultural identity can influence individuals’ perceived ability to (a) manage institutional and social challenges (e.g., getting a job) and (b) retain hope and motivation to realize their career aspirations (Hackett & Byars, 1996; Jackson & Neville, 1998). Indeed, racial identity has been shown to moderate the effects of discrimination, perceived racism and stereotype threat (cf. Davis, Aronson, & Salinas, 2006). In short, Black cultural identity can bolster African Americans’ everyday resiliency against everyday racism, whether in an educational or occupational context or elsewhere.


Although a large percentage of African Americans live and receive k-12 education in predominantly-Black environments (Orfield, 2001), many work in predominantly-White environments. Thus, comfort with interethnic interaction can be especially adaptive for individuals from minority cultural groups as they operate within a dominant society (Smith, 1991). Black cultural identity informs ways of bridging with non-Black individuals and institutions (Cross & Strauss, 1998). Research indicates that individuals who are secure in their own racial-ethnic identity have more positive attitudes toward other groups compared to those with less secure racial-ethnic identities (see Phinney, Ferguson, & Tate, 1997).

Cross et al. (1999) emphasized that Black individuals can interact with and immerse themselves into other racial-ethnic groups’ experience without losing their connection to or sense of Blackness. The psychosocial process of individuals retaining their personal racial-ethnic identity while interacting with others outside of their racial-ethnic group reflects the notion of biculturality. This process requires a blending of adaptive values and roles of both one’s native culture and the culture that surrounds them (LaFromboise & Rowe, 1983). LaFromboise and Rowe argued that a competent, bicultural lifestyle includes skills to effectively communicate and cope with interactions across groups and skills to determine appropriate behavior across groups and contexts. A belief that facilitates biculturality is bicultural self-efficacy (BSE), the perceived confidence to interact with a cultural out-group, maintaining one’s in-group cultural identity without assimilating into that of the out-group. BSE facilitates competent navigation of multicultural situations across multiple domains (e.g., school, work) (Soriano, Rivera, Williams et al., 2004).

Although operating in different cultures may result in bicultural stress if there are clashing values and self-concepts across those cultures (Smith, 1989), Berry (1998) argued that bicultural individuals may benefit from operating in and valuing both cultures rather than choosing one or the other. The positive benefit of a bicultural self for African Americans is supported in research (Bell, 1990; Soriano et al., 2004).


The content of identity statuses reflect African Americans’ attitudes about how race and ethnicity fit into their self-construals. The three functions of African Americans’ Black identity inform their sense of belonging, interpretations of and coping with cultural contexts, and interactions with out-group members. In sum, the three functions of Black identity encompass the varying content of racial and ethnic identity and permit efficiency in referencing these cultural self-construals across diverse contexts (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Functions and Content of Racial-Ethnic Identity

Self and Cultural Conception of Career Problems

As African Americans form conceptions of the self in relation to culture (e.g., racial and ethnic identity), they also form conceptions of the self in relation to work (e.g., self-efficacy beliefs) (Smith, 1991). Many researchers have theorized about the role of Black identity in career development (Cheatham, 1990; Griffith, 1980; Helms & Piper, 1994; Parham & Austin, 1994) pondering the question: What is the vocational significance of African Americans’ cultural identity to career-related cognitions and behavior? This section explores this question vis-à-vis vocational research on racial and ethnic identity, career cognitions, and career choice indicators.

Racial Identity, Career Cognitions, and Career Choice Indicators

Extant research on African Americans’ career development and racial identity has primarily investigated career exploration, vocational maturity, vocational identity, career decidedness and career aspirations with college students. In general, medium effect sizes have been estimated for the influence of Black racial identity on career issues (Ihle, Fouad, Gibson et al., 2005). Specifically, results indicate relationships between (a) Preencounter attitudes and a low tolerance for career undecidedness, (b) Immersion/Emersion attitudes and positive career exploration attitudes, and (c) Internalization attitudes and consideration of fewer career options and Internalization and vocational identity (e.g., career-related goal planning) for African American women only (Jackson & Neville, 1998; Manese & Fretz, 1984; Thompson, 1985). Positive relationships were also found between pro-Black racial attitudes and career interests and endorsement of attitudes emphasizing integration into the mainstream was associated with expecting positive returns from one’s educational and career investments (Byars-Winston, 2006).

These findings suggest that earlier racial identity statuses (e.g., Preencounter) are associated with less confidence in making career decisions and later statuses of racial identity (e.g., Immersion/Emersion and Internalization) correspond to more advanced career development including career exploration, positive career outcome expectations, and narrowing of career options. It appears that career cognitions may parallel the maturation level of an individuals’ racial identity. A few studies, however, did not yield statistically significant relationships between racial identity and career decidedness, career maturity, or traditional African American career aspirations (Alston & McCowan, 1998; Carter & Constantine, 2000; Evans & Herr, 1994), highlighting the need for further research into how these variables relate across different African American samples (e.g., educational level) and contexts (e.g., predominantly-White, predominantly-Black).

Ethnic Identity, Career Cognitions, and Career Choice Indicators

In contrast to the study of racial identity and career belief variables, ethnic identity research has primarily investigated self-efficacy variables and career interests. Results from these studies support a positive relationship between ethnic identity and efficacy beliefs related to career decision-making for high school samples that were largely female (Gushue & Whitson, 2006a; O’Brien, Martinez-Pons & Kopala, 1999; Rollins & Valdez, 2006). In a high school sample inclusive of African American males and females, no significant relationship was found between career decision-making self-efficacy and ethnic identity (Gushue & Whitson, 2006b). One study with an African American college sample (male and female) found that those with high ethnic identity had broader career interests and considered a wider range of possible careers (Byars & Hackett, 1995). These findings suggest that integration of ethnicity into one’s self-understanding may enhance perceptions of career possibilities, career interests, and confidence in one’s ability to successfully negotiate career-related tasks.


Taken together, these findings indicate that racial-ethnic identities that emphasize high racial-ethnic salience and pro-Black cultural attitudes correlated with higher levels of career-related attitudes. The differential relationships of Black cultural identity to career constructs suggest that the content and function of racial-ethnic identity is dependent upon the career-related process or outcome being examined. In some instances, African Americans espousing cultural identities with low racial-ethnic salience (e.g., Preecounter) may experience career concerns like intolerance of career indecision due to a lack of understanding of their (cultural) self. In other instances, an integrated Black cultural identity (e.g., positive ethnic identity) parallels exploration of career options and increased confidence in making career decisions. Black women may also differ from Black men on career variables, like vocational identity (Jackson & Neville, 1998); thus, gender may influence the relationship of cultural identity to career beliefs and attitudes Overall, the statistical relationships between racial-ethnic identity, career cognitions, and choice indicators indicate that there are shared underlying processes of self related to career development and culture. Thus, how African Americans conceptualize career problems is associated with their cultural identities.

Self in Cultural Context

The characteristics of the environments in which African Americans’ self-construals form influence their career development process (Watson, Stead, & DeJager, 1995). Therefore, it is imperative to understand an individual’s psychological function in the cultural context in which it developed (Lonner & Adamopoulos, 1997). Cultural contexts such as the restricted occupational and economic opportunities and higher unemployment rates for Black Americans point to barriers that systematically exclude individuals from optimal career development and full participation in the labor market. Indeed, African Americans are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to report experiencing discrimination (Kessler, Mickelson, & Williams, 1999).

Because of the residue of multiple oppressions in the lives of African Americans, they may experience compromised opportunities to develop realistic self-appraisals relative to careers. Access to a restricted range of career role models, occupational stereotypes about what ethnic groups “fit” particular career fields, and outright discrimination may limit Black individuals’ exposure to culturally-relevant career information. Consequently, their efficacy beliefs may be thwarted, which in turn, can restrict the range of career options they perceive as available to them (Hackett & Byars, 1996).

The more access individuals perceive they have to the world of work, the more likely they are to exert effort in realizing their career goals, to be motivated to persist despite career barriers, and to believe that their goals are attainable. Conversely, anticipated barriers may decrease motivation and persistence toward goal pursuits. Fouad and Byars-Winston’s (2005) meta-analytic study revealed no racial group differences in career aspirations but racial and ethnic minority individuals did anticipate more career barriers than White individuals. Racial and ethnic minority students in Luzzo and McWhirter’s (2001) study also expected more academic and career barriers and had lower confidence to cope with those barriers than did White students. In light of these findings, how is cultural identity related to barrier perceptions?

Byars-Winston’s (2006) study with African Americans at a historically-Black institution revealed that individuals who strongly espoused racial attitudes that emphasize the importance of being Black perceived significant career barriers to choosing and performing a job. Similarly, Byars and Hackett (1995) found that African American college students’ ethnic identity was positively associated with perceived career barriers. Yet, a positive relationship was observed between endorsements of a secure, pro-Black identity (i.e., Internalization racial attitude) and coping self-efficacy (i.e., confidence to cope with academic and career challenges) for African American college women (Byars, 1997). These findings indicate that African Americans for whom race and ethnicity are central to their self-concept have greater awareness of career barriers but may also experience more confidence to cope with these barriers. Therefore, increased barrier perceptions may not necessarily dissuade them from pursuing their goals; some serve to motivate while some serve to deter goal pursuits (Byars-Winston; Lent et al., 2000). Black identity may serve as a protective factor against potentially deleterious contextual experiences like racial discrimination by enhancing coping efficacy, a variable found to mediate the negative effect of barrier perceptions on career goals (Lent et al.).

Although existing research suggests that perceived career barriers play a significant role in career development processes, few vocational studies have employed this construct alongside measures of Black cultural identity. Further research needs to be conducted on the potential impact of intervening variables, like cultural identity, on the degree to which perceived career barriers hinder career choice behavior.


How contextual factors affect individuals’ career behavior is dependent upon how they appraise and react to them. The research cited herein illustrates cultural identity’s role in African Americans’ appraisal of both the self (beliefs and perceptions of one’s aptitudes, abilities) and contexts (perceptions of barriers). Does the possible interaction between cultural identity and barrier perceptions explain African Americans’ vocational patterns, such as their overrepresentation in education and social science fields? That is, does cultural identity influence African Americans’ perceptions of the vocational opportunity structure (i.e., the relative openness of various careers)? Future research may provide answers to that question. Bandura (1997) asserted, nonetheless, that individuals’ level of motivation and actions are “based more on what they believe than on what is objectively the case.” Thus, Black cultural identity is posited as one influential factor in how the self is appraised and how environments are perceived and interpreted by African Americans.

Cultural Dynamics in Therapeutic Relationship

Career counseling intersects career interventions and personal counseling; both are psychological in nature and occur within the context of a client-counselor relationship (Swanson, 1995). Empirical support exists for the similarities between: clients seeking help for career and noncareer issues; process variables (e.g., working alliance) in career and noncareer counseling; and effectiveness and client satisfaction with career and other personal counseling (Swanson, 2002). Unfortunately, there is a lack of empirical studies on how different cultural variables, like cultural identity, in the therapist and client affect the career counseling process (Heppner & Heppner, 2003). Given the parallels between career and personal counseling, however, some research from general counseling may shed light on cultural dynamics in career counseling.

Grier and Cobbs (1968) identified how the degree to which African Americans trust White Americans in various situations interacts with their mental health and the counseling relationship. In general personal counseling, research supports a relationship between cultural mistrust and level of suspicion, willingness to self-disclose, counseling expectations, and counseling termination rates for Black clients (see Watkins & Terrell, 1988). Is Black cultural identity of the client associated with cultural mistrust? Although no vocational research has investigated this question, Phelps, Taylor, and Gerard’s (2001) study with ethnically diverse African American students showed significant positive relationships between cultural mistrust and measures of ethnic and racial identity. Thus, cultural identity may inform clients’ perceptions of the counseling process and fit between themselves and the counselor. For instance, African Americans who are highly bonded to their in-group and have low interest or experience in bridging with out-groups may find it difficult working with non-Black therapists. Conversely, those who are highly bonded to an out-group (non-Black) or have high bridging (bicultural) skill may be comfortable working with non-Black therapists.

The cultural identity of the therapist is also critical to the therapeutic relationship, significantly influencing her or his cultural competence to appropriately assess, diagnose, and provide care for clients. Byars-Winston and Fouad (2006) asserted that career practitioners’ ability to generate clinically-relevant insights for the client is dependent upon the practitioners’ understanding of salient cultural contexts and cultural identity in their own lives. The APA Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists (2003) state that therapists’ “self-awareness and appreciation of cultural, ethnic, and racial heritage may serve as a bridge in cross-cultural interactions” (p. 25). Multicultural competence is more than a notion for the therapist. Indeed, what gets recognized and assessed as a career problem is influenced by the cultural lenses of the therapist, as well as those of the client. Byars-Winston and Fouad expanded the Culturally Appropriate Career Counseling Model (Fouad & Bingham, 1995) to focus on therapists’ multicultural competence, providing reflective questions to guide clinicians’ assessment of their cultural knowledge and awareness throughout the career counseling process.

Overall Cultural Assessment for Diagnosis and Care: Case Illustration

The scholarship on the significance of cultural identity for African Americans suggests that diagnosis and care of clients must include both a content analysis and functional analysis of Black cultural identity. Whereas a content analysis includes assessing levels of clients’ Black cultural identity (using racial-ethnic identity models), a functional analysis includes assessment of the three operations of Black cultural identity. The integration of content and functional analyses provides the therapist with a multidimensional Black cultural identity profile of the client, considering how various racial-ethnic identity statuses operate in clients’ lives to support their affiliation with Black people (bonding) and non-Black people (bridging) and protect them from discriminatory encounters (buffering). As an example of the interplay between content and function of racial-ethnic identity depicted in Figure 1, if a client is in the Immersion-Emersion racial identity status, she might have an intense desire to be involved with Black people (high bonding), have generally ineffective interactions with non-Black people (low bridging), and be more vulnerable to the negative effects of discriminatory experiences on her self-construals (low buffering). A content and functional analysis of cultural identity within Leong et al’s adapted CF model may (a) increase clients’ critical understanding of the interaction between their career-related self-construals and culture, (b) promote clients’ resistance against academic and career disruption due to sub-optimal environments, and (c) increase therapists’ understanding of clients’ academic and career problems within their cultural contexts.

This article first presented cultural identity research within a vocational adaptation of the CF model. The discussion now turns to clinical applications of cultural identity content and function and their relevance to the first four CF dimensions: (a) Self and Cultural Identity, (b) Self and Cultural Conception of Career Problems, (c) Self in Context and (d) Cultural Dynamics in Therapeutic Relationship. The four dimensions are each organized around the three functions of Black cultural identity: bonding, buffering, and bridging.

Case: Renee, a 19 year-old sophomore, has come to the counseling center because she’s seriously considering switching from engineering to another major. The reason she came to this university, which is predominantly-White, was because she was aggressively recruited. She had heard of the minority engineering program, “but I don’t think it exists…I found there’s just a minority retention office over on the main campus.” Renee often goes through an entire day without seeing another Black student. In her classes, she is usually the only Black person and she does not feel at ease to voice her own opinions. This is especially true in her study groups, where she feels like her intellectual capacity is always in question. She reports feeling “tired of the hassle of justifying my existence every other day” in response to others’ stereotypes relating to her presumed academic weakness. Although she wants to switch out of engineering, she really likes the field. Renee also feels that if she were to pursue a different major she would let people down, as well as herself, and confirm others’ belief that she is incapable of earning an engineering degree.

Self and Cultural Identity


Renee appears to be highly identified (bonded) with being African American as evidenced by the distress stemming from her social displacement from other African Americans. The therapist may want to assess the evolution of her cultural identity including critical incidents in her pre-college and college experiences around race and ethnicity. For example, how has she experienced being Black in previous academic settings and how similar were those experiences to current experiences?

In addition to standardized assessments of racial and ethnic identity (see Cokley, 2007), qualitative tools like the Career-in-Culture Interview (CiCI; Ponterotto, Rivera, & Sueyoshi, 2000) may prove useful in exploring cultural self-construals with Renee, such as a variation of CiCI question #11, “Tell me about your ethnic background and what is most significant to you about being Black.” Combining standardized and qualitative identity assessments encourages both content and functional analysis of Renee’s cultural identity.


The distress stemming from Renee’s visible racial-ethnic minority status in a predominantly-White institution (PWI) can be described as a survival dilemma (Smith, 1981), wherein one’s “endurance and survival come at a price which often includes adapting to ongoing, high levels of stress…moving from crisis to crisis with little respite” (Greene, 1985, p. 63). Supportive therapy is needed to reduce Renee’s vulnerability to on-going stressors in her environment. To assess the buffering function of Renee’s cultural self-perception, the therapist may explore her family’s “cultural story” (McGill, 1992) which narrates a group’s collective story about how to cope with life, how to respond to discrimination and other challenges, and how to thrive in a multicultural world. For instance, what did she learn from family members, especially female figures (e.g., mother), in dealing with academic and career dilemmas and responding to negative environments? Examining lessons learned and guiding values reflected in her family story may, in turn, become sources of inspiration to help Renee develop “good survival behavior” (Smith, 1981) in order to thrive in her current environment.


In assessing the bridging dimension of Renee’s cultural identity, the therapist should attend to the degree of interracial contact she has previously experienced and how it is similar to or different from her current level of interracial contact. If she has been in other settings where she was the only or one of a few African Americans (e.g., high school science course), how has she responded? How did she persist in engineering during her first year in college? Examining how she coped with previously un-affirming experiences and chose to pursue engineering nonetheless may give insight into Renee’s coping self-efficacy to manage current academic and career-related barrier perceptions. More so than developing new bridging skills, Renee may benefit from re-valuing and understanding preexisting skills and coping resources (McWhirter & McWhirter, 2007).

Self and Cultural Conception of Career Problems


Studies indicate that a sense of belonging to other Black people and to campus correlate with achievement and retention of African Americans at PWIs (Sedlacek, 1999). Understanding the context(s) in which Renee’s engineering-related efficacy beliefs were formed and how those beliefs are influenced by her sense of belonging to African Americans may suggest ways to recreate, support, or extend those influences to bolster efficacy beliefs (McWhirter & McWhirter, 2007). It may be that distance from those sustaining forces has left her engineering efficacy beliefs vulnerable to erosion.

The therapist should also assess how Renee’s cultural identity may be influencing her perception of others’ expectations for her to earn an engineering degree. For instance, who are the “people” she fears she would let down if she pursued a different major (e.g., her Black community, non-Black people) and what is fueling the fear (e.g., disproving negative stereotypes about Black people in engineering)? The notion of being a “credit to the race” wherein an individual’s performance reflects on the potential of the entire racial group (see Harlow, 2003) may result in some highly-bonded African American people feeling pressure to prove individual competence and be a good representative of their whole race, especially in engineering fields where they are sorely underrepresented. Awareness of such concepts may be instrumental in guiding the therapist’s exploration of Renee’s cultural identity and career concerns.


Being at a PWI, Renee will likely continue to be a visible racial-ethnic minority student regardless of her selected major. Thus, it is important that she not to make academic and career decisions based largely on current un-affirming experiences and understand how such experiences affect her interest-choice congruence. In addition to examining her coping efficacy to manage bicultural contexts, the empirical link between African Americans’ cultural identity and career-related beliefs suggests that the therapist would do well to bolster Renee’s career self-efficacy beliefs, regardless of her persistence in engineering. Hackett and Byars (1996) provided several applications of how Bandura’s (1997) four sources of efficacy might be used as culturally-relevant strategies to enhance career beliefs of Black women.


Renee’s consideration of an academic major change may be influenced by compromised bicultural self-efficacy (BSE) beliefs. Following LaFromboise and Rowe’s (1983) bicultural skills training program, the therapist might consider using behavioral rehearsal and modeling techniques to build Renee’s BSE for managing negative encounters. Consistent with social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1997), an emphasis should be on promoting coping rather than mastery skills, supporting Renee’s confidence in her ability to effectively use her coping strategies and resources to advance her academic success.

Self in Context


Across racial-ethnic groups, engineering majors tend to have the highest attrition rates with racial-ethnic minority students often citing cultural isolation as a contributing factor (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997). Critical awareness of how such attrition trends (e.g., “I’m not expected to succeed”) and negative social conditions (e.g., “I’m not valued here”) in engineering affect her personal and career functioning may help Renee resist these conditions imposed on her. Critical discussions may help her view her current vocational issues within the larger context of prejudice and racism and thereby depersonalize her negative encounters on campus. It may be useful for Renee to explore how she can achieve a reclaimed and redefined view of herself, regardless of others’ perceptions of her. This affirming self-view may be reinforced by affiliation with other Black people in engineering or elsewhere.


Nasim et al. (2005) found that availability of an academic support person and ability to understand and deal with racism were strong positive predictors of African Americans’ academic achievement at PWIs; conversely, racial identity attitudes that de-emphasize the significance of race were negatively correlated with academic achievement. Therapy may help Renee develop specific strategies and supports for dealing with discriminatory and negative cultural experiences. In addition to finding actual campus support personnel or peer models who are thriving in PWIs, the therapist may incorporate vicarious supports, including bibliotherapy (Byars, 2001). Bibliotherapy sources may range from profiles of African American engineers in publications by organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers to works of non-fiction (e.g., Shifting; Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2003).


Solo status, or being one of very few or the only representative of one’s social group, can lead to lowered performance expectancies (see Thompson & Sekaquaptewa, 2002). Thompson and Sekaquaptewa discussed the value of individuals with solo status forming a “common in group identity” with majority groups. Accordingly, how might Renee emphasize her shared identity of an engineering major with other engineering students, while maintaining her identity as an African American? And how might she develop or draw on supports from non-Black sources to promote her academic success?

Cultural Dynamics in Therapeutic Relationship


Group therapy may be a useful option for Renee, particularly with other Black students. If traditional group therapy is unavailable, small group discussions have been effective in helping African American clients learn how to negotiate their college environment (Smith, 1981). Bandura’s (1997) concept of collective efficacy proposes that individuals’ perceived competence can be enhanced by their perceptions of their in-groups’ competence to be successful at a given task (e.g., academic persistence).


Attending to the buffering function of Black cultural identity encourages the therapist to actively draw upon Black cultural traditions of strength and resistance to address Renee’s vocational needs. Accordingly, the therapist must be conversant with the Black experience and its traditions (Greene, 1990; Smith, 1981). The therapeutic relationship can provide Renee an opportunity to discuss her cultural identity in (a) developing agency for shaping her environment and making informed decisions, (b) setting appropriate priorities for responding to her environment, and (c) addressing impaired self-perceptions or self-appraisals due to others’ cultural expectations and/or prejudice.


Consideration of Renee’s skill and comfort to bridge with Black and non-Black people as well as therapists’ skill and comfort to bridge with Black individuals is important. If the therapist is not African American, interethnic transference and countertransference issues may emerge. For example, Renee may feel that she has to prove her competence or wonder whether the therapist holds views of her similar to those she perceives from other non-Black people in engineering. If the therapist is African American, intra-ethnic transference and countertransference issues may emerge. The therapist may be seen as having “made it” in the PWI and Renee may wonder if she can be vulnerable to explore her dilemma in engineering in the presence of a “successful” Black professional. In either scenario, the therapist must be open to explore the range of Renee’s experiences assessing culture-specific (e.g., dealing with racism, stereotypes) and non culture-specific (e.g., academic/career commitment, vocational interests, efficacy beliefs) dimensions.


Causes of motivations and behavior often interact and are, thus, not easily isolated or extracted. Often, the best therapists can do is collaboratively examine with clients different aspects of experiences and feelings, letting clients decide which aspects are most salient and what they may mean in terms of their career development. The preceding discussion provided a mostly social cognitive therapeutic approach and may be limited in counseling. Therapists must exercise clinical acumen to distinguish between cultural and intrapsychic features of clients’ career concerns.


Vocational research with African Americans on racial-ethnic identity provides initial grounding on which to apply Leong et al.’s (this issue) adapted CF model to career assessment and career counseling with African Americans. This line of vocational research also suggests directions for future investigations into the role of Black cultural identity in career development. For example, does cultural identity have a direct effect (i.e., antecedent, independent variable) or indirect effect (i.e., moderator or mediator variable) on career variables? The nature of the largely cross-sectional research designs of studies cited herein does not allow for inferences on the directional relationships between Black cultural identity correlates and vocational correlates. Notable, too, is the relative absence of studies that investigate actual career outcomes, such as career entry, beyond choice intention variables (e.g., career aspirations, career consideration). Thus, the existing evidence supports a relationship between Black cultural identity and primarily pre-career entry variables. Further, how and when gender moderates the relationship between Black identity and career development variables remains unclear. Additional vocational analysis into the cultural diversity within African Americans is needed, including, for instance, how cultural identity functions for and how the CF might apply to bi/multi-racial and ethnic African Americans’ career concerns.

The mutual constitution thesis (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998) asserts that culture determines self and the psychological processes of self, in turn, inform and transform cultural practice and meaning (C ↔ S). Thus, therapists would do well to design interventions that advance both career development and cultural identity development for African Americans (Hackett & Byars, 1996; Jackson & Neville, 1998). Leong et al.’s (this issue) expanded articulation of the DSM-IV Cultural Formulation Model (APA, 1994) provides one useful approach in which cultural identity can be conceptualized to advance multiculturally competent career practice with African Americans.


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