The history of racial inequality in the US is a part of the background for identity development of all men, but African-American men have a unique struggle in this context. Slavery, overt/covert racism, negative stereotyping, and ongoing oppression can create a deep sense of cultural mistrust, beliefs that one’s worth and abilities are overshadowed by stereotypes, and sensitivity to subtle acts of racism. These are elements of “invisibility syndrome” (Franklin, 1999). This work was originally created to address the experience of African-American men, but has been expanded to Asian-American and Latin-American men as well. The following is a brief overview of the concept, and what can be done with it.
Experiencing racism has recently been conceptualized as a traumatic psychological injury (Carter, 2007). It has been shown to affect how people approach their lives and has an impact on mental health. As American culture has changed, racism has moved from more overt forms to more covert (subtle, silent, and underground), making the experience of this more difficult to explain and find support over.
“The invisibility syndrome evolves when persons feel that they live in a racialized or depersonalized context in which who they are as a genuine person, including their individual talents and unique abilities, is overshadowed by stereotyped attitudes and prejudice that others hold about them.” (Franklin, 2006, p118)
People that experience invisibility syndrome often have a daily experience of feeling like that are being discriminated against, often in very subtle acts that are perceived as racially motivated. The “invisibility” is that one’s being is not seen, only one’s skin color, and all ideas attached to it are. The energy required to deal with all of these interactions can be exhausting, and can reinforce propositions such as “black people have to work twice as hard as white people to get ahead.” It can interfere with goal development, sense of accomplishment, and motivation for success and relationship. At worst it can lead to depression, a distortion of how one exists in the world, and intense anger.
The subtle incidents of racism noted above are referred to as “microaggressions” (Sue, et al, 2007). Often, the person doing the microaggression is unaware that the act is offensive or perceived as racist, or is unconscious of the act itself. An example of a microaggression is when someone is put in a position to be the “spokesperson” for all members of his or her group.
Moving beyond invisibility in a society that works against this process can be very difficult and stressful. After bringing consciousness to the process, seeking places of acceptance and recognition are vital. Franklin (2000) notes that becoming involved in the African-American community and seeking support with friends that have a similar struggle can be therapeutic. Additionally, becoming defiant and strong in the swirl of microaggressions and racism is not only adaptive, but can lead to a sense of self and potency that is extremely powerful.
- Carter (2007). Racism and psychological and emotional injury: Recognizing and assessing race-based traumatic stress. The Counseling Psychologist 35(1), 13-105.
- Franklin (1999). Invisibility Syndrome and Racial Identity Development in Psychotherapy and Counseling African American Men. The Counseling Psychologist, 27, 761-793.
- Franklin & Boyd-Franklin (2000). Invisibility syndrome: A clinical model of the effects of racism on African-American males. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 33-41.
- Franklin (2006). Gender, Race, and Invisibility in Psychotherapy With African American Men. In Dialogues on Difference: Studies of Diversity in the Therapeutic Relationship (Muran; Ed.). American Psychological Association.
- Sue et al (2007). MIcroaggressions in everyday life. American Psychologist, 62, 271-287.
- Wester (2007). Male Gender Role Conflict and Multiculturalism: Implications for Counseling Psychology. The Counseling Psychologist.