Racial and Cultural Dynamics in Group and Organizational Life: Crossing Boundaries


Mary B. McRae & Ellen L. Short

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  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated to our parents, who created the foundation that gave us the motivation and endurance to write this book.

    Hattie and Luther McRae

    Addie Louise Short and Louis Shields


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    Introduction: Basic Conceptual Framework of the Book

    The purpose of professional training in group work is to prepare counselors, psychologists, and other mental health professionals to help people from a variety of racial and cultural groups to function better interpersonally and in groups and organizations. If we see groups as a microcosm of the larger society (Yalom, 1995), then a focus on issues such as race and culture in the training literature for group counseling and psychotherapy seems to be crucial in the preparation of mental health professionals. When people from different racial and cultural backgrounds come together, racial and cultural dynamics always exist and can become more salient than other dynamics. Racial and cultural dynamics can also mask other difficult dynamics such as competition, envy, and jealousy, which are common human characteristics in groups. The task for mental health professionals is to develop the competence to acknowledge and work with racial and cultural differences rather than ignore or deny their presence. If such differences are not addressed, clients will feel unheard and unseen in their humanity, and they may wonder if the mental health professional can truly understand the context and nature of their concerns. Moreover, clients may not fully trust that they will be accepted for who they are and for their unique contributions to the group experience.

    Demographic transitions of the 21st century and the growing need for clinical group treatment in institutions serving diverse populations necessitates an understanding by mental health professionals of the influence of racial-cultural factors in interpersonal communication. Many books on group work have only one chapter on working with multicultural populations. Including multiple chapters on multiculturalism helps mental health professionals develop increased levels of multicultural competence. However, the authors of this text have found that race and culture are treated separately in many academic textbooks and thus not as an integral part of the counseling and psychotherapy process.

    The purpose of this book is to offer a theoretical framework that embodies aspects of race and culture and an understanding of the covert and overt processes in group and organizational life. We use psychoanalytic (interpersonal and relational) and systems theory, examining the whole group and the conscious and unconscious processes that occur as they relate to racial and cultural issues. Conceptually, the model offered focuses on the group-as-whole rather than the individual. The premise is that the individual acts on behalf of the group, given the group norms and culture. Within each group or system, there are boundaries, authority issues, roles, and tasks to be considered that will vary according to the culture of the group, the members of the group, and the larger environment in which the group exists. The authors draw from a conceptual framework called group relations theory, which focuses on the group-as-a-whole. We integrate best practices in working with groups where the members have different racial and cultural backgrounds. Finally, racial-cultural differences often present challenges in a variety of environments—academic, clinical, not-for-profits, and for-profit organizations. Unrecognized and unprocessed racial and cultural dynamics can impede productive functioning in group and organizational life. This book addresses ways of recognizing, understanding, and managing these challenges. Throughout the book, we use the terms racial-cultural groups and diverse groups interchangeably to refer to the broad multicultural spectrum of people from all groups. Race, which has no “consensual biological or physiological definition” (Helms & Cook, 1999, as cited in D'Andrea & Daniels, 2001, p.291), is commonly defined by physical characteristics related to skin color, hair texture, and facial features. Categorizations of race are based on socially constructed attitudes and beliefs that have their origins in positive and negative stereotypes related to access to power, privilege, and hierarchical levels of superiority and inferiority within society (D'Andrea & Daniels, 2001). Culture is defined as groups of people who share a common history, geographic region, language, rituals, beliefs, values, rules, and laws (Goldberger & Veroff, 1995). A contemporary definition of culture within a pluralistic society marks individuals with shared characteristics as members of a group. Thus, groups identified by race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and age may call themselves “cultures,” and be regarded as such by others, despite their membership in the larger culture and dissimilarities of histories, language, rules, beliefs, and cultural practices.

    Throughout this book, we use our combined 30-plus years of experience teaching group dynamics, working with groups in a variety of settings, and our extensive training in conducting group relations conferences both nationally and internationally to illustrate our perspective. In the past few years, the first author (M.B.M.) has videotaped small study groups during weekend group relations conferences that were held at a large university in the northeast. We use examples from these groups to demonstrate many of the racial-cultural dynamics that we have seen in groups that we have worked with over the years. We integrate examples from group relations conferences with ones drawn from teaching and other observations and experiences that we have had during our years of working with groups. We have developed some examples from our different experiences in groups, and we have edited the examples from transcripts to make the conceptual points more clearly. Thus, the transcripts are used more for educational than for research purposes.

    Group Relations Conferences

    Group relations conferences are temporary educational laboratories constructed for the purpose of studying group and systemic behaviors as they occur in the “here and now” of the experience. There are a number of experiential events that take place during the course of the weekend or the longer residential (5–14 days) conference. Although the term workshop is probably more appropriate, the term group relations conference is used nationally and internationally for both short weekend and longer residential temporary educational laboratories or institutions. The conference opens with a plenary session to introduce the staff, the primary task, and the goals, events, and parameters of the experience. During the course of the conference, there are small and large study groups with consultants that meet approximately four times during the weekend and daily in other instances. There is an Intergroup Event, designed to examine the representation and relatedness of groups formed by participants; a plenary session to discuss the Intergroup Event; review and application groups to help participants integrate their learning with their external worlds; and a conference discussion to review their overall learning and experience of the entire conference. After the conference, follow-up sessions are held, sometimes to help members process and integrate their experiences and apply their learning to their personal and professional environments.

    The examples presented in this book are from three conferences, all focusing on authority, leadership, and working with differences. The conferences had themes that focused on the exploration of racial and cultural differences as they related to authority, leadership, and transformation in group and organizational life. In the first conference, which was directed by the first author, there were seven small study groups that were configured with members from similar and diverse racial-cultural backgrounds. An African American man, who openly identifies as gay, directed the second conference (with the first author in the role of associate director). At this conference, one of six small study groups agreed to be videotaped for each of the four sessions held during the weekend. An African American woman directed the third conference. The second author (E.L.S.) of this text served as a consultant in all three conferences. Participants of the conferences were informed in the brochure for the conference that there would be a research or educational component to the conference that involved videotaping of the experience. Each person signed a consent form before participating. In the first conference, there were 83 participants, who were placed in seven groups, with 11 to 12 members. The conference director and the associate director assigned participants to small study groups according to how they self-identified in terms of color and culture. In the second and third conferences, one small study group was videotaped for each of the four sessions held during the weekend. There were 10 to 12 members in each of the small study groups.

    In the first conference, there was one group with all people of color, one group with half Latina/o members, another one with members half of whom were gay or lesbian, one with all white members, one with predominantly white members, one with Middle Eastern and European members, and, finally, one group, which was labeled a “rainbow mix,” with members from a variety of backgrounds. In this conference, each group was assigned a consultant with color and culture similar to half or the majority of members in the group. Therefore, African American women consulted to the people-of-color and the rainbow groups, a Latino man consulted to the half-Latina/o group, a gay man to the half-gay/lesbian group, a woman who was half Middle Eastern to the Middle Eastern/European group, a white man to the all-white group, and a white woman to the predominantly white group.

    In the second conference, there were 81 members in all. The small group studied consisted of two white men (one who identified as Jewish and heterosexual, the other as homosexual), two black men (one heterosexual, the other gay), one Latino man (gay), and five white women (one member identified as German, one Catholic; all identified as heterosexual). The videotapes were transcribed by a professional transcription service. The authors read the transcripts and identified segments to be used as examples for certain racial-cultural group dynamics. In some cases, the authors have edited the transcripts so that the statements are more understandable for the purpose of making a conceptual point in the text.

    Organization of the Book

    We have organized this book into 10 chapters. Chapter 1 provides an overview of groups as psychodynamic systems in the context of racial-cultural factors.

    Group work, via theories, application, and practice, has often failed to integrate racial-cultural factors. Our goal is to integrate multicultural concepts and traditional group relations theory. The exploration of racial-cultural factors in groups may be both parallel to and interactive with the processes of group dynamics (e.g., group norms, group membership and leadership, communication patterns, authority, power, dependency, interdependency, splitting, projection, and projective identification). The group relations approach to understanding groups seems particularly appropriate for the study of racial-cultural factors in groups. For example, in groups, the condition of invisibility, as it relates to racial-cultural dynamics, perpetuates the emergence of an “other” against which members and/or groups can differentiate and/or compare via the use of racist stereotypes and projections. The existence of the invisible other is currently, and has historically been, quite pervasive in a variety of professional environments, including academia. With regard to the academy, we hypothesize that an academic institution's inability to fully explore and embrace issues of race and culture within curricula, and particularly in group counseling and psychotherapy training programs, may be an example of reinforcing long held patterns of denial of the pervasiveness of these dynamics. Moreover, the hierarchical composition within these environments can represent the power differentials that exist in society. Despite the existence of these conditions, however, academic and training institutions are often reluctant to assess their internal racial and cultural climates. A reluctance to explore and discuss racial-cultural factors can lead to the development of curricula and training models that are etic and ethnocentric in content (Highlen, 1994). In light of the rapidly changing demographics in client/patient care, the perpetuation of curricula that ignore the importance of racial-cultural factors is not only harmful to emerging professionals, it is also unethical.

    In Chapter 2, we focus on the ethical considerations of working with differences in groups. Competencies for group and organizational consultation developed by the A. K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems (AKRI, 2003) are used as a framework to discuss the development of competent group practitioners. Guidelines for ethical behavior from multiple organizations, including the American Psychological Association (APA, 1993, 2002) and the American Counseling Association (ACA, 1995), are reviewed. Ethical issues concerning the use of experiential methods in group training are addressed, as well as a review of the importance of role clarity, leadership values, dual relationships, and informed consent. Ethical behavior related to racial-cultural dynamics in groups and the importance of developing competencies that include awareness, knowledge, and skills in working across differences are examined. Issues of confidentiality, supervision, and training are also discussed.

    Chapter 3 focuses on the racial-cultural dynamics that affect group formation, specifically aspects of entering and joining. The chapter provides a basic understanding of the concept of group formation, focusing on boundaries, paradoxes of belonging, and the meaning of group membership, cognitively and emotionally, for members from different racial-cultural groups.

    Chapter 4 explores the phases of group development and how racial-cultural factors affect a group's development. A brief review of the models of group development is provided as a way of understanding the anticipated events and patterns in which groups develop. The chapter outlines three phases of group development—boundaries, power, and relationships—and discusses how racial-cultural dynamics affect each phase. A review of the limited literature on group development of racially mixed groups is provided, as well as examples of some of the underlying issues that emerge in racially and culturally diverse groups during the phases of the group's life.

    Chapter 5 explores the racial-cultural aspects of group dynamics, using psychoanalytic and systems theory as a foundation. The chapter outlines the defense mechanisms of splitting, projection, and projective identification. Group-as-a-whole (Wells, 1985, 1990) and embedded intergroup relations (Alderfer, 1997; Alderfer & David, 1988) theories are also outlined and explored as they relate to group functioning. Five types of basic assumption functioning (Bion, 1975; Hayden & Molenkamp, 2004) are defined and applied to group behavior. In this chapter, the authors also expand on existing theories and incorporate the racial-cultural factors that play an important role in group interactions, using case vignettes and tables to illustrate their perspective.

    An examination of social roles in groups is the content of Chapter 6 and focuses on understanding the social roles in groups, specifically as they relate to phases of group development and racial-cultural factors. There is also a focus on the significance of social roles as they relate to group-as-a-whole, such as Leader, Follower, Mediator, Rebel, and Scapegoat. The impact of social roles in international contexts is examined.

    Chapter 7 explores and defines authority, leadership, and power in groups. In many groups and organizations, the race and culture of individuals affect perceptions about their capacity to take up the role of leadership, the ways in which they are authorized in the role, and the power available to fully take up leadership. The impact of the internalized and the external messages pertaining to race and cultural values are examined.

    In Chapter 8, strategies for working with groups are discussed using the AKRI training competencies as a framework for group work in a variety of types of groups. The chapter discusses the importance of assessing the needs of the group and the members’ awareness and understanding of racial-cultural issues that may surface during all developmental stages of the group.

    The mature work group is discussed in Chapter 9. The chapter focuses on the coexistence of the mature work group with the basic assumption group, making the point that a group that functions effectively is one that has learned to contain its anxiety or developed ways to mobilize its anxiety in the service of the group's goal or work task. Examples are provided to illuminate aspects of the mature work group when members are from different racial and cultural backgrounds. Finally, Chapter 10 explores the complexities of termination in groups. An application of cultural factors concerning the ending of groups is examined.

    The lack of an abundant body of literature and research concerning race and culture in group work for training of mental health professionals is disturbing and unfortunate. The situation can, however, be viewed as an opportunity to expand on existing theories and create new models for the future. The goal of our book is twofold: (1) to offer a theoretical framework for understanding covert and overt processes in group and organizational life and (2) to present race and culture as integral parts of the counseling and psychotherapy process for mental health professionals who work with groups. If the profession of counseling and psychology is to continue serving society in meaningful ways, it is imperative that academic and other programs serving diverse populations develop and implement curricula, group counseling, psychotherapy training, and treatment programs that foster a perspective embodying a breadth of knowledge and sensitivity to the complexities of race, ethnicity, and culture in group life.


    We would like to thank Robert Carter, who encouraged us to write this book; Leo Wilton and Zachary Green for their careful reviews and comments; and our many friends and colleagues who provided so much support during the time we were writing. We are also grateful to Sarah J. Brazaitis, Teachers College, Columbia University; Christopher J. McCarthy, University of Texas at Austin; James J. Messina, Argosy University, Tampa and Sarasota Campuses; and Brenda Frechette, Argosy University, San Francisco Bay Area, for reviewing this book.

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    About the Authors

    Mary B. McRae is an associate professor of applied psychology in the Department of Applied Psychology, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University. Presently, she teaches a course in Group Dynamics, Cross-Cultural Counseling, and Practicum in Counselor Training. Her scholarship involves a psychoanalytic and systemic study of authority and leadership in groups and organizations with a focus on issues of difference such as race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and culture. She is a licensed psychologist with a private practice. She is the founder of and has directed the annual experiential group relations conferences at New York University, educational laboratories created to study the life of the group and organization as they develop. They have been noted by the A. K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems as the most innovative adaptation of the Tavistock model in working with issues of diversity. These conferences provide participants the opportunity to learn about authority and leadership as related to issues of difference in the “here and now” of the experience. She has worked as the associate director for group relations conferences at the Tavistock Clinic in London and as a consultant at other conferences in the United States, London, and Peru. She has been a member of an international team of consultants at the International Management Development business school, applying the Tavistock model to leadership and team building with managers and executives from international corporations. She is a fellow in the A. K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems. She received her EdD in counseling psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

    Ellen L. Short is currently an assistant professor at Long Island University, in the School of Education, Department of Human Development and Leadership, Counseling Programs. Her areas of specialization in teaching, scholarly research, and publishing are group dynamics focusing on race, ethnicity, gender, and culture; multicultural assessment of intelligence and aptitude tests; and substance use/abuse and high-risk behaviors among HIV-positive, heterosexual populations. She has served as a consultant at group relations conferences in the United States and internationally. She has also directed group relations conferences at Teachers College, Columbia University and New York University. She is a member of the A. K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems and the New York Center for the Study of Groups, Organizations and Social Systems. She received her MA in counseling psychology from Northwestern University and her PhD in counseling psychology from New York University.

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