MaskThe demographic profile of the United States is undergoing rapid transformation as a result of factors such as immigration and the fertility/mortality rates among the various population groups. According to the 2008 Pew Research Center actuarial projections, the percentage of the White population will decline from approximately 67 percent to 47 percent between the years 2005 and 2050. Minority groups such Asians are projected to increase from 5 percent to 9 percent of the U.S. population during this time, while individuals residing in the United States but born outside the country will increase from 12 percent to 19 percent of the population. Hispanics are currently the largest minority group in the United States. By 2050, it is estimated that individuals of Hispanic or Latino origin will make up approximately 29 percent of the U.S. population.

After seeing these statistics, a question may pop into readers’ minds: What implications does the changing population landscape have for mental health professionals?

An obvious response is that mental health professionals will increasingly come into contact with clients who are racially and ethnically different from them. But what may miss our attention is the increased interaction between mental health counselors and supervisors who are racially and ethnically different.

Supervisors are fewer in number than counselors, which limits the choices that counselors have in selecting supervisors relative to the choices that clients have in selecting counselors. Moreover, counselors who work at agencies are usually assigned to a supervisor, which means they may have little or no choice regarding with whom they are paired. Supervision is provided by more experienced counselors, and the current cadre of experienced counselors is predominantly White. This means that as greater numbers of minority individuals become trained as mental health professionals, they will likely interface with supervisors who are racially different from them.

What information would be useful in helping the counseling profession to address this changing racial landscape? Greater attention has been paid to multiculturalism in the counseling literature during the past few decades. This was buoyed in part by the declaration in the 1990s that multiculturalism was the fourth force in psychotherapy (after psychoanalysis, behaviorism and humanism) and the publication of the article “Multicultural Counseling Competencies and Standards: A Call to the Profession” by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo and Roderick J. McDavis in the Journal of Counseling & Development in 1992. At about the same time, racial identity development theory was being fine-tuned. This theory caught the attention of educators, researchers and practitioners who were heeding the call to explore effective strategies for enhancing the multicultural competency of counselors.

Racial identity development theory has since become a common feature in the course work for training mental health practitioners, particularly as a tool for developing multicultural competency. This article examines the tenets of racial identity development theory and its utility for providing practical strategies that can be integrated into the repertoire of supervisory techniques when the supervisor and supervisee are racially different.

Racial identity overview

Racial identity theory has its roots in the work of psychologist William E. Cross Jr., who documented his personal experience in scholarly publications such as The Negro to Black Conversion Experience in 1971 and Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity in 1991. The mid-1980s and early 1990s can be considered the watershed period in racial identity development theory, thanks largely to Janet Helms, who expanded on Cross’ seminal work concerning racial identity with the publication of Black and White Racial Identity: Theory, Research and Practice. Helms’ work focused on Black racial identity development (BRID), Person of Color identity development (POCID) and White racial identity development (WRID) specifically from the perspective of social and political influences and the assertion that, as a society, the United States had not reached a post-racial status. Other scholars have expanded on and critiqued racial identity theory, but Helms’ work continues to be the most frequently cited in the literature.

The main premise of racial identity development theory is the evolution of an individual’s racial identity on a continuum that ranges from being oblivious to the impact that race has on everyday interactions to a heightened awareness of its impact. This continuum is depicted by four statuses in the BRID and POCID models and six statuses in the WRID model. In the initial development of racial identity theory, stages were used, but this was soon replaced by statuses, implying that racial identity development is not a linear process and that individuals can vacillate between phases of development. The four statuses in the BRID model are pre-encounter, encounter, immersion/emersion and integration/commitment. The POCID model is similar, with the four statuses being conformity, dissonance, immersion/emersion and integrative awareness. The six statuses in the WRID model are contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudo-independence, immersion/emersion and autonomy.

From the perspective of the BRID and POCID models, a person’s racial identity development evolves from denigration of his or her own race and the idealization of the dominant racial group (the pre-encounter or conformity status) to a sense of belonging to one’s own racial group and an acceptance of others who may be racially different (integrative awareness status). In the same vein, the WRID model summarizes the White person’s racial identity evolution from a lack of awareness of racism and White privilege (contact status) to confronting racism and oppression and forming alliances with individuals who may be different racially (autonomy).

In these models, as individuals move from the beginning phases of racial identity development (pre-encounter, conformity, contact) to the more advanced phases (integrative awareness, autonomy), their multicultural competency skills are enhanced. For a comprehensive review of the statuses and racial identity theory, see the resources listed at the end of this article.

The intersection of supervision and racial identity

Supervision is a tripartite relationship between the supervisor, supervisee and client. In 1979, Janine Bernard developed the discrimination model and described a supervisor as taking on the roles of teacher, counselor and consultant in addition to being a gatekeeper, evaluator and the monitor of client well-being. In relation to racial identity development, various permutations are possible between the supervisor and supervisee, with each holding a similar or different racial identity status.

In 1994, Donelda Cook overlayered Helms’ racial identity development theory with the relationship between the supervisor and supervisee and described the dyads that formed as progressive, regressive and parallel. Progressive refers to when the person in power (the supervisor) is further along the racial identity development continuum than the supervisee. Regressive refers to a relationship in which the supervisee is further along in the racial identity continuum than the supervisor. Parallel refers to when the supervisor and supervisee are at similar racial identity statuses. The parallel relationship is further subdivided into parallel relationship (high) — when the supervisee and supervisor occupy similar identity statuses at the higher end of the racial identity development continuum — and parallel relationships (low) — when supervisors and supervisees occupy similar statuses at the lower end of the continuum.

The hypothetical case that follows highlights how these relationships may manifest in the supervisory dyad when examined through the lens of racial identity development.

Adán is a 29-year-old Puerto Rican male who recently qualified as a mental health professional. He completed his graduate work at a predominantly Hispanic university in New Mexico and accepted a counseling position at an agency in southeast Ohio. He chose to accept this position because the agency specializes in treating individuals diagnosed with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) and major depressive disorder (MDD). Adán’s desire is to gain the relevant experience so that he can return to his community in New Mexico where T2DM is on the rise among Hispanic groups.

Adán is assigned to Jimmy, a 55-year-old Caucasian who is an experienced supervisor and mental health professional. He has worked at the agency for more than 10 years. Adán and Jimmy meet weekly for clinical supervision and discuss Cynthia, among other clients. Cynthia is a 62-year-old Caucasian woman who has chronic T2DM and is diagnosed with MDD. Adán reports to Jimmy that he is frustrated with the client and does not think the sessions are going well, especially because Cynthia questioned his credentials in the prior session.

The key points from the perspective of progressive, regressive and parallel relationships that may occur between the supervisor, supervisee and client are:

Progressive relationship 

  • The supervisor is at an advanced phase of the racial identity development continuum and is more likely to examine the role that race is playing in the relationship between the counselor and the client. He addresses this in supervision.
  • The supervisor takes on the role of a teacher and educates the supervisee about racism and how this may manifest with certain clients. For example, he brings it to the supervisee’s attention that the client may perceive the supervisee as inept because of her prejudice or bias toward Hispanics.
  • Because the supervisee is at an earlier phase of racial identity development, he may be oblivious to how racial prejudice on the part of the client may be playing out in their therapeutic relationship.
  • Rather than viewing the impasse with the client from the perspective of the complexities of racial identity development, the supervisee may internalize the poor therapeutic alliance as being his fault, which may negatively affect his confidence as a beginning professional counselor.
  • The supervisee may look entirely to the supervisor for guidance — idealizing the supervisor on the basis of race — and may underestimate his own abilities, especially when working with Cynthia.
  • The supervisee may resist challenging the client’s lifestyle — which may be exacerbating her symptoms of depression — because of an inferior-superior complex. This could negatively influence the client in working toward her goals of treatment.

Regressive relationship

  • The supervisor in this relationship may be oblivious to White privilege and the role that racism may be playing in the supervisee’s relationship with the client.
  • If the supervisee brings up the issue of race (because he is more attuned to issues of racism than the supervisor), the supervisor may dismiss the importance of addressing race and attribute the conflict with the client to differences in age or gender.
  • The supervisor may construe the supervisee’s response as resistance, which may affect the objectivity of his formative evaluation of the supervisee.
  • If the supervisee interprets the client’s perception of his lack of competence to racism, he may become further frustrated by the dismissive posture of the supervisor.
  • Alliance and rapport with the supervisor may be adversely affected, which may in turn compromise client welfare.

Parallel relationship (high)

  • Both the supervisor and the supervisee are aware of the role that race may be playing and its effect on the therapeutic relationship.
  • The supervisor and the supervisee explore strategies that the supervisee can use to address the impasse with the client.
  • Client welfare is enhanced when all facets of the client’s function are considered in the conceptualization of the client’s presenting issues.


Parallel relationship (low)

  • Both the supervisor and the supervisee may be oblivious to the influence that race is having on the therapeutic alliance.
  • The poor rapport between the counselor and the client may be attributed to other factors such as age or gender, and the “incompetence” alluded to by the client will remain unaddressed.
  • Client care may be compromised
  • if the client is stuck on the notion that the supervisee is incompetent because of his race.

Practical suggestions 

Supervisors and supervisees can use the following practical steps to enhance the supervision experience. These suggestions also intersect with the three tenets of multicultural competencies — namely awareness, knowledge and skill — advocated by Sue, Arredondo and McDavis.

  • Supervisors and supervisees would benefit from understanding where they are located on the racial identity development continuum because this information may shed light on the dynamics of the supervisory relationship. Excellent resources for racial identity assessments can be accessed through the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture (see list of resources at the end of this article).
  • An important step in understanding racial identity development is recognizing that racial identity in the United States is a sociopolitical construct influenced by power and dominance. By familiarizing themselves with the history of race in the United States, supervisors and supervisees can increase their awareness of privilege and/or dominance as it relates to their specific racial group affiliation in the context of the broader racial landscape. This will contribute to moving from a state of naïveté about the influence of race on interpersonal interaction to actively exploring the influence of race, especially if one is situated at the beginning phases of racial identity development.
  • In a progressive relationship, the supervisor can take on the role of teacher/consultant/counselor to aid supervisees in becoming aware of and confronting how their racial identity may be influencing their efficacy with clients. In the hypothetical case of Adán discussed earlier, it would be important for the supervisor and Adán to explore the role of racial identity and whether Adán’s internalized “historical racial baggage” may be projected as “frustration” with the client.
  • Given the power dynamics that exist in the supervisor-supervisee relationship, regressive relationships can be trickier to navigate. This is especially true because the supervisor is the “gatekeeper” who plays an evaluative role in determining whether the supervisee meets a specific set of professional standards. In the case of Adán, if the supervisor becomes aware (say by taking a self-assessment) that he is at the beginning stages of racial identity development, then an important step would be for the supervisor to become knowledgeable about the race-influenced experience of Hispanics in the United States. Naïveté or obliviousness of the experiences of others on the part of individuals from the dominant culture is often attributable to a lack of contact with individuals who are racially or ethnically different. Contact is one of the most effective tools in tackling prejudice and bias toward others. In Adán’s situation, Jimmy (the supervisor) might temporarily immerse himself in the Hispanic culture to get a sense of their day-to-day experiences and become familiar with their cultural practices and norms. This might be a challenge in southeast Ohio, where Jimmy is a supervisor, because there are fewer Hispanics in the region. However, multiple resources are available on the Internet. For example, videos such as A Class Apart and Chicano! PBS Documentary — Fighting for Political Power can be viewed on YouTube and are useful alternatives in the absence of opportunities for actual immersion experiences.
  • The supervisee in a regressive supervisory relationship can also assume the role of cultural educator/consultant if the supervisor is not addressing issues of race or ethnicity. Given the aforementioned power dynamics, this can be a challenging endeavor for the supervisee, but it is important to place the issue of race on the supervision agenda by broaching the topic. For example, Adán could ask Jimmy, “Do you think that my Hispanic heritage is playing a role in my frustration with the client?” Or in more established supervisory relationships, supervisees who are further along in their racial identity development might articulate their perspective on the role of possible racism in the relationship with the client. These strategies will encourage the supervisor to examine an aspect of the counselor-client interaction that has not been previously considered. These actions may also serve as a catalyst for the supervisor to begin paying attention to variables that are race/ethnicity based in other supervisory relationships.

Conclusions and resources

Racial issues are an integral facet of the social fabric of the United States, and as demographic actuarial data suggest, it behooves us as mental health professionals to attend to race and the accompanying issues surrounding racial identity in counseling and supervisory relationships. The supervisor-supervisee-client relationship is complex. A variety of factors can affect the quality of the supervisor-supervisee relationship and, concomitantly, the client’s well-being. Moreover, the racial identity development of the supervisor, the supervisee and the client can take on various dyadic permutations, but these may be overlooked as factors influencing the supervisory relationship and the therapeutic alliance.

Racial identity development is not necessarily an issue with all supervisor-supervisee-client dyads, but it remains an important consideration, especially when supervisors, supervisees and clients are different racially. It is highly recommended that supervisors and supervisees become aware of where they are located on the racial identity continuum. Awareness of self and knowledge of others can serve mental health professionals well in advancing our skills with clients and adding to our toolbox of multicultural competencies.

I have found the following resources to be particularly helpful:

  • A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being A White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life by Janet E. Helms
  • Handbook of Multicultural Counseling edited by Joseph G. Ponterotto, J. Manuel Casas, Lisa A. Suzuki and Charlene M. Alexander: A good resource in general that includes a chapter by Helms updating her WRID and POCID models.
  • The Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture ( is an excellent resource. The institute is located at Boston College under the direction of Helms and offers a wide range of resources and links for assessment, trainings, conferences and other tools related to racial identity development.

Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Associations conferences.



Yegan Pillay is a licensed professional clinical counselor with supervisor endorsement from the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage & Family Therapist Board. He is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Ohio University-Athens. He has spent several years nationally and internationally as a counselor educator, researcher and clinical mental health professional. Contact him at

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