You are on page 1of 15

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development


Sazshy Valentine
Wake Forest University

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

Abstract
Sazshy Valentine, a first year Masters in Counseling student at Wake Forest University provides
an analysis of her cultural development and identity. The paper details her level of interaction
with other diverse groups different from her own throughout her life, personal encounters with
racism, family views and values, and how this understanding will play into her life as a
counselor. Sazshy writes of moving through Helms (1984) Whites racial consciousness model,
beginning with the Contact stage and moving through to Pseudo-independent and Autonomy.
The paper concludes discussing Sue et al.s (1982) Tripartite Model of Multicultural Counseling
Competence and the importance of continuing incorporation of awareness, knowledge and skill
development when counseling diverse individuals.

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

Interaction. In order to fully analyze my interaction with members of diverse groups other
than my own, I think it important to look at my life from a narrative perspective. Growing up,
my world revolved around going to school, being at home with my family and attending my
church. I was shaped as an individual by these settings. Within each of those categories existed
my social networks and daily interactions. Because of these settings, for the first eighteen years
or so of my life I did not interact much with members of other diverse groups different from my
own. I attended a private, Episcopalian, all girls, day school from age five to eighteen in
Richmond, Virginia. Every Sunday, my family worshipped at St. James Episcopalian Church, a
predominantly White church where many of my friends from school attended as well. When I
left Richmond for college, I traveled only seventy miles away to the University of Virginia,
where I connected with other first years like me, many of them children of my parents UVa
friends, the major difference between all of us being from which state we hailed. At twenty-two
I entered the working world in Washington, DC. For a year and a half I worked for a commercial
real estate firm, Cassidy Turley, dominated by White men still not much diversity in my life.
After Cassidy Turley I worked for two years at a catering company where I was grateful to be for
the most part in the ethnic minority. In this section of the paper I will discuss these stages of my
life, my lack of exposure to diverse groups different from my own until age twenty-three, and
how it has shaped my personal and cultural identity.
After attending an Episcopalian preschool, I started my thirteen year tenure at St. Catherines
school in Kindergarten. My two brothers went to our brother school, St. Christophers, right
down the street, where my dad and grandfather both went as children. It was at these two
schools where I received a first class education and formed friendships that will last a lifetime.
My class started with fifty girls, and was up to seventy-four by the time we graduated. A

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

predominately White class, the only racial diversity we had was a handful of Black classmates.
In Upper School, we shared classes with St. Christophers, and welcomed boarding students who
hailed mostly from Virginia, North Carolina, or Korea. Sadly, in my junior year the school shut
down the boarding program due to lack of interest, so we lost what little regional diversity we
had. I did love my classes at St. Christophers and the opportunity to interact with men on a
daily basis. Senior year, I felt extra special because my friend Ashton and I were the only two
girls in Mr. Shaias second period math class. Also in our class was every Black male student in
our grade at St. Christophers. All eight of them. The diversity of our Algebra class was openly
discussed and laughed about.
I loved the opportunity to get to know these young men better in an approachable classroom
setting. We had a fun in class that year and all became very supportive and close friends.
Simultaneously, the realization that being in a class with every Black male in my grade was
something to be noted, thought about, and talked about made me sad. I had trouble identifying
and explaining the sadness at the time. What I think lied beneath the feelings was excitement
over being granted the chance to interact more with individuals of a different race, and the fact
that it took me this long and was for the most part out of my control, made me feel heavyhearted. I remember being constantly told by my teachers growing up that we were privileged
and sheltered. Constantly yearning to break this mold, being in this class helped me feel more
open-minded, and I thought perhaps my teachers would see it as well.
Never have I felt overwhelmed by female oppression and therefore am not deeply called by
the feminist movement. I think a lot of this has to do with attending St. Catherines. There I
excelled as a female where gender barriers were non-existent. When running for a leadership
position, planning fundraisers, or making speeches I never felt the pressure of competing with a

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

male peer. Without a doubt experiencing the aforementioned stages of development at an allgirls school helped me have a more can-do and confident attitude.
Going to work at Cassidy Turley, a male-dominated commercial real estate firm in
Washington, DC, straight out of college hypothetically should have ignited my feminist fire. I
enjoyed working with a mostly male group of colleagues, and if anything being in that
environment made me more driven. As someone who stood out there, I tried to make the most of
the situation, and help people realize that adding a woman to their team could be to their
advantage. I did not fail at Cassidy Turley, but ended up choosing to move on after a year and a
half. I think of myself as a strong-willed woman with steely determination. (Apparently thats
what makes me a good fisherwoman according to my dad). Due to this mindset, at times I am
too loose on my views regarding the feminist movement probably because I myself have not yet
felt discriminated against. I hope as a counselor to consistently recognize these emotions, and
also to become more sensitive to the struggle women often face due to discrimination.
After leaving Cassidy Turley, I worked for a catering company called Susan Gage Caterers,
also in Washington, DC. The company was divided between office, kitchen, warehouse, and
onsite staff. The office staff was fairly evenly divided in terms of race, sex, and generational
diversity. The kitchen, warehouse, and onsite staffs were all predominantly Latino immigrants.
Early on in my time there my boss took a three week vacation and they decided to have me rotate
between all the departments. During that time, though as a non-Spanish speaker the language
barriers were intense, I had the wonderful opportunity of bonding with the many different
talented and incredibly hard working individuals in the kitchen, warehouse, and onsite at events.
I could probably write a book on the profound effect these individuals had on my life I truly
cared about each of them, and appreciated them allowing me the opportunity to learn more about

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

their cultural identities. Making the choice to return to school and leave Susan Gage was an allaround difficult decision. The hardest part though, was the day I left and having to say goodbye
to my Latino friends. One baked heart-shaped breadsticks for me, Jesuss wife prepared
handmade empanadas, Juan Carlos with many others had Christian translate a goodbye message
into English for me; I was overcome with emotion. I continue to miss them all, and in particular
I miss the knowledge and awareness of Latino heritage that I was able to foster at Susan Gage.
I adore being back in school, but from a racially diverse perspective, I feel as though in a way
I have returned to St. Catherines. My one non-White classmate, Charmayne, has become a
close friend and confidant; however, so far all of my professors are White, the friends I have
made outside of school in Winston-Salem resemble my White friends from home, and my
colleagues at my practicum are all White. Perhaps it is the reality of being back in a town with
deep-seeded southern roots, but I cannot help but feel a sense of loss for the slight bit of diversity
I was able to experience while in DC. In response to the feelings of loss, I keep in mind the
progress I have made in my own racial consciousness, and will continue to make as I work
through this class and my career. In the next section, I will discuss becoming aware of racism at
an early age, and what I have learned about myself based on these experiences.
Encounter. Some of my first memories as a child are offending my parents best friends,
Ranjit and Inge Sen. Ranjit immigrated to the United States from India, and Inge emigrated from
Germany. Ranjit, possessing the normal dark-skinned physical attributes of an Indian-looking
male, also had a beard that scared the living daylights out of me. Before I could talk, every time
he entered our house saying hello, hello! I would start sobbing crying. Ranjit always laughed
his infectious laugh and it did not bother him at all. I cannot explain why my adolescent self was
scared of dark men with beards, but for some reason, I was, and most likely it was due to

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

inherent racism. In one specific incident at age four, my mother held me in our kitchen while
talking with my dad, Ranjit and Inge. I interjected, Inge, why are you and Ranjit married if his
skin is dark and yours is white? Luckily for my parents, everyone laughed and explained to me
that skin color doesnt matter, even though, apparently as a four year old it appeared to me that
only people of the same race married.
Another encounter I had with racism, meaning me personally being racist, not another
individual acting racist toward me, was with our housekeeper, Scilla, when I was about six years
old. I hate calling her our housekeeper. Scilla, a Black lady who is my mothers age, wore
many hats, acting as part of my parents team: she babysat, picked us up from school, took care
of our friends, occasionally cooked dinner, made sure I drank my milk every night, provided
moral support and consistent praise, and also cleaned our house when I was growing up. Scilla
started working for my parents when my older brother was born, so was in essence a second
mother-figure to all of us. I remember around age twelve when my parents told us that Scilla
would no longer be coming to our house every day, and instead she would come once every two
weeks, and go every day to work at the local nursing home. My brothers and I cried asking,
Does she not love us anymore? It took me time to realize that Scilla and my parents mutually
agreed that this transition was best for her and our family. Still to this day, Scilla is one of the
most important people in my life.
Back to the incident around six years old, when Scilla and I were goofing around one
afternoon in our kitchen. I remember it was a bright, warm, spring afternoon. I wore shorts and
a t-shirt after school. Scilla was holding me trying to get me to do something, it might have been
a chore or a homework assignment, I cannot remember. I giggled, and probably did not realize
that Scilla was actually trying to be strict. I kept saying Im not going to do it! No! in between

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

laughs. At some point in the confusion, I spit out the gum I chewed mid-laugh. Scilla practically
dropped me to the floor exclaiming, Did you just do that? Still laughing, childish Sazshy
replied, Yes! I remember Scillas destroyed face as she quietly grabbed her pocketbook and
left. The details are all a blur to me, but my mom must have called her and gotten the full
emotionally-charged story. Needless to say, I was in huge trouble; but, the problem was I did not
understand why the situation was such a big deal that Scilla had to leave our house, perhaps for
good. Even though it was explained to me, I had trouble explaining myself.
A six year old spit on an adult. A White six year old spit on a Black adult. A White six year
old spit on her Black adult employee. I did not know that letting my gum go was spitting. I
honestly did not understand the ramifications of spitting, much less a White individual spitting
on a Black individual. Scilla, understandably, understood my spitting as a sign of disrespect.
Scilla threatened to never return to work at our house. My parents agreed with her, and let it be
known that if she did not come back that it was my fault. Everyone was mad at me, and as a six
year old I did not have the communication skills to explain myself; I thought we were just
playing around. Luckily for my family, the situation was resolved and Scilla returned to our
house a few days later.
Looking back and critically analyzing this incident, feelings of shame and horror for both
Scilla and my family re-emerge in a newer culturally sympathetic perspective. Arminio (2001)
wrote, Many authors, however, acknowledge racism as power plus privilege. Racism is made
up of individual acts, institutional advantages, and cultural practices. Whites, as the dominant
group in the United States, collectively have power to oppress other groups (p. 240). In
employing Scilla, my family possesses power and privilege, and lives according White cultural
practices that are the norm in Richmond. As a member of our family, I individually acted racist

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

toward Scilla, bringing everyone involved into contact with racism that was too obvious not to
name, unlike the employment situation. The shame I feel surrounding this event still hurts me
today. My relationship with Scilla shows no scars of the spitting incident, but I hope to gain the
strength one day to bring it up and apologize.
Richmond, Virginia, a city aware of its deep-seeded racially divided history, is a place where
Whites often shy away from discussing racism. The curriculum at St. Catherines sought to
combat this trend and make the students very aware of historical racism. My friends and I
remember often feeling that they missed the mark. I cannot speculate on whether this was a
lackluster effort on behalf of the administration, our immaturity as children, or a combination of
the two.
For example, every Martin Luther King Jr. day we got the day off of classes to participate in
special activities to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. One year we walked to the
movie theater down the street to watch six hours of a civil rights documentary made by local film
makers. Another year, we ventured downtown where we did a mile long, blindfolded, slave
walk along the James River. It was below freezing, and at age thirteen all we did was complain.
After the infamous slave walk, we went to the IMAX Theater where instead of viewing a film,
we watched two live actors act out scenes of slavery for a few hours. After the slave walk year,
the school decided to keep us on campus to host a birthday party in the gymnasium for MLK
Jr. We arrived to buffet of mini muffins, and a soulful version of Happy Birthday to You sung
by a Motown singer blasted on repeat over the speakers. We ate pie for lunch. Lasting positive
memories of these days are few and far between. Looking back I admire the teachers attempts
to be creative and engage us in activities to gain greater awareness of Black history in America
and in Virginia; however, that does not change the fact that we did not think we needed the

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

10

experiences since we had black classmates and history class every year. Once again a theme to
my encounters emerge: feelings of shame and regret regarding my childhood ignorance.
My memories of my personal encounters with racism, or racial issues, help me to relate to
Helms (1984) initial stages of his White racial consciousness model. He describes the first
stage, Contact, as when a White individual becomes aware that Black people exist. For me, this
realization was more about the recognition and forced realization that there are more than just
surface level differences in races. When I pointed out the difference in skin color between Ranjit
and Inge I was expressing curiosity and interest. The simple fact that two people with different
skin colors were married did not make sense to me, so I needed it explained. Similarly a few
years later my experience with offending Scilla was a Contact example. I obviously knew Black
people existed, but I did not yet understand the racial and prejudicial differences and implications
of specific actions toward a Black person.
These instances, as Helms (1984) would say, sent me into the Disintegration state. Helms
(1984) wrote that coupled with the realization of entering this stage are, feelings of guilt and
depression as the person becomes aware that racism exists and that if he or she conforms to
White racial norms, then he or she may be denying Black peoples humanity by treating them in
a racist manner (p. 156). Reflecting back, this model helps me apply an explanation to my
emotions after these instances, particularly with Scilla. I behaved in as a stereotypical White
racist individual by spitting my gum at Scilla. I was horrified realizing racism does exist and I
was an active participant. The humanity piece also strikes a chord with my heart. Thinking
about Scilla as someone who might be treated with racial hostility destroyed me. For a long
while, I felt helpless and had nightmares while sleeping of White people hurting Scilla.

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

11

Luckily, in the long run my racial encounters as a young child did not have lasting negative
ramifications with Ranjit or Scilla. Helms (1984) wrote, Positive resolutions should be
associated with greater personal adjustment and better interpersonal relationships with people of
other races (p. 155). His point rings true for me: I feel that I am very fortunate that I have been
exposed to both Ranjit and Scillas cultures, and feel hopeful that my relationships with them
have made me a more open-minded individual.
Currently I consider myself to be in between the Pseudo-independent and Autonomy stages
(Helms 1984). I am aware of racial and cultural differences, particularly from a structural
standpoint in the United States, but I also still possess some naivety about the reality of
prejudicial barriers in our country. Taking an active role in learning more about racial
similarities and differences, not just with Blacks but all cultures, greatly interests me, especially
since I desire to work with individuals from all different backgrounds. I do not consider myself
fully in the Autonomy stage (Helms, 1984) because I still get defensive about my cultural
identity, which to me means I have not yet reached full acceptance of racial differences and
similarities. Full acceptance of cultural diversity and confidence in my racial identity are
interwoven values and lifelong goals of mine.
Family Beliefs. In this section I will discuss my familys beliefs regarding discrimination,
and how they affected my worldview developmentally. Throughout my life I remember my
parents always trying to be as open-minded as possible about people different from us. Being a
generation behind me though, my modern day idea of being open-minded differs from theirs.
My father grew up in Richmond, and my mother in Roanoke, Virginia, another old Virginia town
with Southern roots and evident racial divide. As much as they want to be open-minded, they are
still quick to laugh at jokes made about homosexuals or classic Black jokes which embarrasses

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

12

me. Neither have any homosexual or Black friends outside of work acquaintances. Our
neighborhood is all White, and besides occasional homeless worshippers, so is our church. I do
feel appreciative that when the Episcopalian church had a crisis when I was younger because a
Bishop came out as gay. Many members left our church, but my parents felt it important to stay,
unbothered by having an openly homosexual leader in the church. From a developmental
standpoint, growing up in a household where we interacted mainly with others who were just like
us made being truly open-minded about different people difficult. Below I will discuss a few
specific examples of my parents beliefs inevitably shaped my personal cultural identity.
Both of my parents also grew up with their own Scilla. My fathers familys housekeeper
was named Gertrude, who was an instrumental figure in his childhood, and remained in all of our
lives until she died in 2009. My mothers housekeeper, Lilly, played a particularly important role
in her life. When my mother was thirteen years old her mother died suddenly of a heart attack.
A few days later, Lilly showed up at their door saying, I heard at church theres a White man
alone with four kids needing help. The rest was history. When I was younger, Scilla, Gertrude
and Lilly all seemed completely normal to our families. We did not realize we perpetuated
institutional barriers for Black individuals; the fact that all of our families had Black employees
was never even discussed.
I can remember one instance where my mother, regrettably, expressed blatant racism.
Scillas ex-husband, Charles, was incarcerated for the first ten years of my life. When released,
he asked my parents for work. My mother hesitated because she did not trust him, but eventually
came up with some yard work and repair tasks he could do. At some point while working,
Charles stole my mothers checkbook and made out three 500 dollar checks to himself. The
business where he tried to cash the checks called my mother for verification, and she told the

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

13

clerk to have him arrested. The incident was a violation of his parole; Charles has been in jail
ever since with a release date of this August. My mother verbalized a lot of negative feelings
about Charles after this incident that I would rather not write. Her anger and frustration towards
him was ridden with stereotypes that remind me of earned reputation theory (Wagstaff, 2005).
Charles stealing the checkbook provided my mother with kernels of truth (Wagstaff, 2005) on
which my mom could base her prejudices.
Lately my mother and I have started to have more realistic and honest conversations about
the White-Black, employer-employee relationship. She feels similar shame and embarrassment
that having underprivileged Black employees was at one time the norm for our family. I also
can relate to her defensiveness when she says, But they were part of our family and we took
care of them too. The reading and discussions in our class help me to recognize my defensive
feelings as part of my racial identity development. It is necessary for me to accept that as a child
in my family I was an active participant in the institution of racism whether I like it or not. I
really truly hope to move away from defensiveness and toward acceptance that this was my
reality, but as I move forward in my life I can change that reality.
Relation to Counseling. Helms (1984) discussed models of cross-racial counseling
relationships and what the models lack. One of his points about the deficiencies particularly rang
true for me; Helms (1984) wrote the models express, (b) a view of minority clients as so deviant
that the counselor must possess the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job if he or she is
ever to establish a cross-racial relationship (p. 153). It is so true. As a counselor, in order to
relate to minority clients, it seems the models tell me I am supposed to possess some
transcendental wisdom. How am I possibly ever supposed to achieve that? My emotional
response is overwhelming. Born a White individual, I face a moral dilemma. According to

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

14

theory and literature, I am forced to accept I am privileged, powerful, and racist. I am part of the
dominant group in the United States that structurally oppresses minority races.
After letting the dust settle, I become more accepting and appreciative of how I as a
counselor can benefit from the theories. I understand that I will never possess the wisdom of
Solomon or the patience of Job. What I can do, based on Sue et al.s (1982) Tripartite Model of
Multicultural Counseling Competence, is cultivate awareness, knowledge, and skills. I believe I
am on the right path to accomplishing this. The biggest piece for me so far has been awareness
of how the institution of racism was woven into my development; this is something I will most
likely work on accepting and not defending the rest of my life. Knowledge of differing cultural
factors and identities is also crucial to my development as a counselor; I must always seek to
learn more about others, and be open-minded about not only what my clients cultural identities
means to each of them, but also what biases those identities bring out in me. The ability to form
relationships and have rapport with culturally diverse clients are skills that I will continue to
cultivate throughout my career. At times I might fail at building rapport, or a client might be
unwilling to accept me as an understanding individual. I can only hope to remain undeterred,
open-minded, and determined when these inevitable failures occur. The message here to me is
clear: multicultural awareness and my own cultural identity are innate parts of me as a human
being that must continue to evolve and grow throughout my career and life in order to be an
effective counselor.

Cultural Analysis and Identity Development

15

References
Arminio, J. (2001). Exploring the nature of race-related guilt. Journal of Multicultural Counseling
and Development, 29(4), 239.
Helms, J. E. (1984). Toward a theoretical explanation of the effects of race on counseling: a black and
white model. The Counseling Psychologist, 12(4), 153-64.
Sue, D. W., Arredondo, P., & McDavis, R. J. (1992). Multicultural counseling competencies and
standards: a call to the profession. Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD, 70(4), 477486.
Wagstaff, G. (2005). Understanding prejudice. Psychology Review, April, 20-23.