Not All Blacks Are African American: The Importance of Viewing Advisees as Individuals in a Culturally Mosaic Context

Mary M. Livingston
Louisiana Tech University
Latoya Pierce
Louisiana Tech University
Lou’uan Gollop-Brown
Louisiana Tech University

Volume: 15
Article first published online: August 15, 2013
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1561284

Keywords: advisees; african americans; blacks; context; cultural; individuals; mosaic

When an advisee walks through the door, it is important for an adviser to consciously refrain from making possibly fallacious assumptions about the advisee’s racial heritage on the basis of skin color. Of course, this is also a mistake that may also be made by the advisee. One author of this paper, who is from the Caribbean, was selected as a preferred adviser by many undergraduate African American advisees, because they felt, as one of them, she would know and understand their experiences. Initial impressions influence the adviser-advisee interaction. This is not to say that the adviser should eschew accurate cultural recognition, which may be an important part of an advisee’s identity and a key to understanding and communication. Instead, we should attempt to verify our assumptions since our suppositions may not be correct.

While it is of paramount importance to treat each advisee as an individual, regardless of race or national origin, it is also important to understand the cultural context and background students bring to the advising table. It is essential not to make implicit stereotyped assumptions that are misleading. Cultural and racial self-identifications can be as complex as they are important. Even if made as an innocent error, such mistaken identity can cause the advisee to feel misunderstood and not seen for who they are, thus resulting in some degree of alienation or unintentional microaggression. Sue et al. (2007) define microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Since assumptions of mistaken identity are neither hostile nor indignities, some people may consider them to be less severe than a microaggression and more in line with a micro-isolation or estrangement. In any case, these suppositions clearly interfere with rapport and the establishment of a productive advising relationship. Such implicit stereotypes extend beyond cases of mistaken identity. It is important to recognize that different individual background experiences influence members of the same racial or cultural and ethnic group. “Advisers need to understand that if they want to embrace diversity, they must do so while understanding that each student is different regardless of their specific racial or ethnic groups” (Deutsch, Doberstein, & White, 2008, ¶ 3).

Often in the United States there may be an implicit or automatic assumption that dark-skinned individuals are African Americans. African Americans are generally defined as people with ancestry from Sub-Saharan Africa who are residents or citizens of the United States. While African Americans are the largest racial minority in the United States, there are many other groups of people that have dark-skinned members. These include some people from the Caribbean (Jamaica, Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Martinique, etc.), Pakistan, South America, Europe, Southern India, Mexico, Cuba, and also dark-skinned Creoles, Native Americans, as well as mid-eastern groups from Sudan and Saudi Arabia, newly immigrated Africans, and a variety of multi-racial people. Advisers who are otherwise unprejudiced or who may be African Americans themselves are vulnerable to such suppositions. Perhaps the advisers extrapolate from their personal experience or infer from local or institutional numbers.

An additional issue is the racial identity of individuals who consider themselves to be biracial or multiracial. Biracial is defined asof, relating to, or involving members of two races” (Biracial, 2013). Multiracial is defined ascomposed of, involving, or representing various races” (Multiracial, 2013). When individuals are biracial or multiracial, our human tendency to fit them into one category no longer works. Numerous times, biracial or multiracial advisees have told stories about meeting a person, and during the conversation, racial identity came up. The multiracial student was almost always asked to readily identify himself or herself as a member of an established racial group. The acronym VREG coincides with this experience. VREG stands for visibly recognizable ethic groups, and the concept speaks to our need to classify and recognize people as such (Helms & Cook, 1999). It may be that cognitive schemata are designed in a way that is averse to new information that does not fit established categories. It may be that we have not adapted to the new landscape of the United States, which is more of a cultural mosaic than a melting pot. It may be that we do not holistically perceive people in all their dimensions. Whatever the case, what it does suggest is the need to be flexible and adaptable as advisers and consciously focus on the individual. McClellan (2006) advocated for active listening and empathy to facilitate successful advising. We authors agree and add the need for vigilance regarding expectations and our cognitive schemas.

A particularly salient example of complexity in racial self-identification occurs in Louisiana, where there is a percentage of the multiracial population who identify themselves as Creole. Plainly stated, Creole is a combination of French, Spanish, and African heritage. As noted by Brasseaux, Fontenot, and Oubre (1996), in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Creoles were sometimes divided into three categories: Colored Creoles (ancestors were the offspring of Black and White unions and were free before the Civil War), Black Creoles (ancestors were the offspring of Black and White unions but were slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation), and the descendants of French-speaking Colored Creoles or Black Creoles and English-speaking former slaves (Brasseaux, Fontenot, & Oubre, 1996). The term Creole also refers to a certain grade of hair texture that typically differs from Blacks whose heritage is not as mixed. In the Creole culture, there is a term referred to as passé blanc or passé pour blanc. The literal translation of the term is “pass for White” and was historically used by lighter-skinned Creoles to attain higher social and class statuses than Blacks and darker-skinned Creoles. To some extent, this hierarchical mentality still exists today. Although most Creoles identify as African American or Creole, some Creoles do not desire to celebrate their multiracial heritage and identify themselves and their family members as “White.” This phenomenon can cause strife among other relatives who have decided to recognize all parts of their multiracial heritage. This example highlights the necessity for sensitivity to a student’s self-identification. There are likely other examples of the complexity of racial self-identification in other regions outside Louisiana.

In addition to offending individuals through misidentification, misguided racial expectations may result in a collision of phenomenologies. Non-African American dark-skinned individuals who are misidentified as African American may have experiences in the United States that are at best confusing. One author of this article had a misfortunate advising experience as an undergraduate student. A White adviser became disgruntled at her intent to enter the field of Engineering, he slammed the table and regaled the advisee: “I don’t know why you people don’t stick with what you are good at.” The advisee did not know what the culturally encapsulated adviser meant by this statement, because she had no frame of reference with which she could understand “you people.”. Fortunately, the only harm done by this incident was confusion, as the advisee later stated to her dorm roommate, “I did not know that the adviser in a new department would be able to see my grades before I actually switched departments, but he must have seen them because he was really upset.” The advisee had a grade of “C” in math the prior semester. This advisee had been given an identity that she did not recognize as her own and for which she had no cultural referent. The adviser’s behavior was foreign to this student who was from a country where she was a member of the majority and there was little or no racism. The idea of racism or sexism was fortunately not a part of her worldview. While, hopefully an adviser would not make such a statement today, subtler assumptions regarding the scholarships for which a student qualifies or their background can prove confusing.

The experiences of Black individuals can be dramatically different depending on their national and racial heritage. Analogously, Negroni-Rodriguez, Dicks, and Morales (2006), in reference to Hispanics in the United States, emphasized importance of recognizing such differences as having impact on the person’s presence and experiences in U.S society. This is also true of the experiences of the variety of Black persons in this country. Origin matters tremendously, as it shapes the worldviews and cultural experiences of the individual. Negroni-Rodriguez et al. (2006) emphasized that differences exist in how members of Hispanic groups “identify, interpret, communicate, solve their problems and address needs” (p. 205). Understanding the heritage of the Black individual may be essential in an adviser’s ability to appreciate the cultural context of the advisee’s approach to problems and their solutions. Frequently in such discussions, counselors and advisers may refer to what they have learned about the Black identity model (Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991). When Black identity model is applied to the African American person, the identity process may be more or less appropriate. However, can we accurately apply this same model to every Black person in the United States?  The process of a racial identity may only begin for the person of color upon entering the United States; this is especially true for someone from a country of origin where Blacks are in the majority. After the individual begins to understand the meaning or symbolism of race to American society, including an understanding of the history of race in the United States, a shift in self-recognition may occur. This process will likely vary by individual based upon personal learning experiences in the new culture. Therefore, caution is warranted when well-meaning advisers look toward their knowledge of a racial identity development model to assist in cultivating multicultural competence. As Strommer (2001) pointed out, “… many aspects of culture are so deeply and subtly ingrained that one does not always recognize their source” (¶ 5). We currently live in a dynamic society that is constantly changing, and demands are being made upon the adviser to change strategies and challenge theories as well.

It is important that advisers recognize the obstacles facing students whose backgrounds and experiences separate them from the cultural experiences of mainstream America. African American advisers are not exempt from inappropriately assimilating non-American Blacks into their own African American cultural framework because of skin color. Often the African American culture is imposed on non-African American Black students without recognition of their non-American identity. In this case, students may feel forced to assimilate into or forge a fabricated identity, resulting in an unhealthy adjustment or alienation. According to Palmer (2009), some international students struggle with sociocultural problems that are likely ignored or minimized if the adviser has incorrectly identified the student.

Even when advisees are correctly perceived, an advisee’s individual needs may be best met in a variety of ways. Carter, Livingston, and Thomas (2008) pointed out meeting the needs of diverse advisees may involve offering “written materials or large-group sessions to meet the needs of advisees who are like all other advisees, coordinating small-group discussions for those who are like some other advisees, or sharing more individual time and communication with the advisee who is like no other advisee” (¶ 10). Advisees likely resemble each other in some ways and differ in others, and so the correct advising approach may vary from issue to issue. Group approaches may serve to create ties that increase perceived similarity and reduce alienation. Among the most effective individual strategies are those of Appreciative Advising. Appreciative Advising strategies include asking positive open-ended questions along with other “positive, active, and attentive listening and questioning strategies to build rapport with students” and engaging students in the advising process (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008, p. 11). Appreciative Advising identifies the stages in the advising process: Disarm, Discover, Dream, Design, Deliver, and Don’t Settle (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2009). During the Disarm stage, rapport is established. Bloom et al. (2009) further indicated that the Discover and Dream phases allow the advisee to reveal strengths and abilities and also their reveal future goals. Appreciative Advising is non-directive in the early stages and so allows advisees an opportunity for self-revelation and more latitude in defining the advising process.

In conclusion, our duty as advisers is to mentor and facilitate the growth of all undergraduate students. In doing so, it is important to be flexible in how we perceive students, exercising special caution in categorizing or making unverified assumptions regarding Black students. We must remember that though students may look similar, those from different cultures may have diverse worldviews and advising needs. As we model open mindedness, it will impact the attitudes of the students we advise and promote rapport.


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Mary M. Livingston, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA. She can be reached at

Latoya Pierce, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA. She can be reached at

Lou'uan Gollop-Brown, Psy.D., is an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA. She can be reached at