Using race and gender as a counseling intervention in the Buffalo Soldier.
Subject: African American soldiers (Health aspects)
African American soldiers (Psychological aspects)
African American soldiers (Social aspects)
Health counseling (Psychological aspects)
Health counseling (Demographic aspects)
Health counseling (Research)
Masculinity (Demographic aspects)
Masculinity (Research)
Author: Goodrich, Kristopher M.
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: International Journal of Men's Health Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1532-6306
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 8 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research; 290 Public affairs Canadian Subject Form: Health counselling; Health counselling; Health counselling
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 214526902
Full Text: For many years, scholars of the men's movement have struggled to understand what it means to be a man. Numerous cultural variables and perspectives have been explored in the hope that one day the many issues and crises that men face can be understood so that counselors can better respond to their needs. The character of Alfred, ah African American foster child in Chris Bohjalian's novel The Buffalo Soldier, is offered as a "case" to suggest how a counselor might understand and intervene with such a "client" to address the needs of the child, in particular his understanding of what it means to "be a man" in his community.

Keywords: gender, race, masculinity, ecological counseling, identity, use of fiction


In the novel The Buffalo Soldier, Alfred is a ten-year-old African American child who has been moved from home to home through the foster care system. His current placement is different then previous ones in that he is moved from the city of Burlington to rural Cornish, Vermont. Alfred is then forced to confront a number of issues, including differences in environmental conditions (urban to rural), lack of ethnic diversity, as well as building relationships in a new home. Many of the issues Alfred faces can be seen through the lenses of the face and gender, which serve both as an organizer and a source of possible interventions for a counselor.

Looking at the character of Alfred using the traditional psychological model of Erikson (1950) might suggest that Alfred is struggling with issues of identity, specifically who he is as ah African American male. Counselors working with Alfred would be interested in how he could appropriately individuate while still forming secure attachments with significant individuals in his life. The work of Bronfrenbrenner (1979, 1986) and others who have taken a systemic perspective (Berry, 1995; Marotta, 2002; Neville & Mobley, 2001) would challenge that Alfred is not solely an individual in the world, but that his development and transition is also mediated by the communities and systems in which he lives. They would argue that to appropriately address the issues that Alfred faces throughout the course of his story one needs to consider the systems in which be lives and how these systems affect his life.

This article will explore how gender and race are present in the "case" of Alfred in The Buffalo Soldier. It will offer a number of interventions a counselor might use to assist Alfred and his community as he navigates life in a new town and tries to understand what it means to "be a man."

Setting the Stage: The Cultural Context

When Alfred is moved to Cornish to live with his foster family, his foster father, Terry, reflects:

Sometimes he wondered what the hell those SRS people were thinking when they sent a black child to live in rural Vermont. He'd look at the boy over dinner as he and Laura talked about what they had done with their days at their jobs, and he'd realize he didn't have the slightest idea what he should be telling this kid about the black experience. (Bohjalian, 2002, p. 43)

Alfred's transition to Cornish was not just a new experience for Alfred, bur for everyone in that community. Throughout the novel, we see Alfred attempting to navigate through this community noticing that he is the only Black individual in town. Others struggle with this as well, which can be best captured in the scene when Terry's boss speaks to him about his newly acquired foster child: "Bur what do you and Laura really know about a kid like that-or, for that matter, raising a kid like that? You ever done anything more with a black person than bust one?" (p. 43).

The theme of cultural difference across the experiences of men's lives is central in the men's movement. As many authors have argued, there is not one singular experience for "being a man," but many, based on different cultural variables, including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious and moral values, and political ideologies (Jandt & Hundley, 2007; Kimmel & Messner, 2006; Messner, 1997). To understand a man's experience as a man, one must consider a number of these variables, as well as the social position of the man (Kimmel & Messner; Messner). For Terry, as well as Laura, Alfred's foster mother, there appears to be genuine concern about how to "raise Alfred right." However, due to their lack of experience as foster parents, especially a child who is racially different, they struggle to understand just how they can do that with Alfred.

Wester, Vogel, Wei, and McLain (2006) found a mediating effect for racial identity development when they measured levels of gender role conflict and psychological distress in an African American male college student population. Self-hatred, as measured on the Cross Racial Identity Scale, mediated the relationship between gender role conflict and psychological distress. This research provides some support for the notion that there is a complex relationship between racial and gender identity, and that both may affect later psychological health. A counselor would want to be cognizant of Alfred's multiple levels of identity development when shaping interventions and forming strategies to work with both Terry and Laura to better learn how to relate to their adoptive son.

A related issue is the community's reaction to African American men. African Americans have not been present in the community and one hears Alfred wondering how his race and gender may influence his interactions with others. Although a number of individuals such as Terry's boss think about this, conversations on the topic are lacking throughout this novel. One wonders how race, and more specifically, cultural stereotypes of African American males, may influence how significant members of the community will view or interact with Alfred, thus affecting Alfred's adjustment to his new home and his later identity development (Wester et al., 2006). Some of this can be viewed with Alfred's interaction, or lack thereof, with his teacher (pp. 88-90). Having conscious awareness of the messages one receives about race and internalizes throughout life is important for this community. It would allow them to adjust to better serve Alfred with his transition to the community, as well as understand his own identity.

Parental Relationships

An emerging literature has shown that a father's engagement with his family has implications for every member of the family system. In a national cross-sectional study of family process, Harris and Morgan (1991) found that mothers appeared to feel greater levels of support and lower levels of frustration in family systems when fathers spent more time with their children. Ina meta-analysis of related literature, Marsiglio, Amato, Day and Lamb (2000) supported Harris and Morgan's findings, and also found this to be true regardless of whether or not the father assists the mother in other household activities. It appears that just the mere presence of the father in the family system can bring greater stability and reported satisfaction from others in the system (Raley & Bianchi, 2006).

A number of variables have been found to influence the relationship between the amount of time fathers spend with children and the reported quality of those interactions. Ina series of regression studies, variables such as gender, number of children, age, and bioiogical status have been shown to significantly affect the level of paternal engagement in a family (Harris & Morgan, 1991; Marsiglio, 1991 ; Marsiglio et al., 2000; Starrels, 1994). It appears that fathers are more likely to invest greater time in activities with male children (Harris & Morgan; Raley & Bianchi, 2006; Starrels, 1994). Bradley and Corwyn (2000) found that fathers with sons reported greater socio-emotional investment in their family, were more likely to marry, and were more likely to stay married when compared to those fathers in families with only daughters (Raley & Bianchi, 2006).

Part of the hypothesis around fathers' engagement with biological children is a sense of "ownership" the father has about the child (Marsiglio et al., 2000). Shared interests between father and son have also been found to be influential to fathers' investment in the family (Harris & Morgan, 1991; Marsiglio et al.). This is important to the child, as studies have demonstrated that a father's relationship with his son has been shown to have a positive correlation with the child's process of separation/individuation (Blazina, 2001,2004; Blazina, Eddins, Burridge, & Settle, 2007; Kazura, 2000), emotional receptivity and later intimate relationships (Balcom, 1998), overall wellbeing (Mackey, 1998), as well as a negative correlation with the son's later feelings of isolation and loneliness (Blazina, Eddins, Burridge, & Settle, 2007).

In the novel there are a number of missed opportunities between Terry and Alfred. As previously stated, it appears that as newcomers to the role of father and being this man's son, the two lack ah awareness of one another and how best to engage in a relationship. This leads Alfred to question his place in the home and the Cornish community. In moments throughout the novel, however, Terry and Alfred do appear to be communicating on the same level. One of these examples includes their journey to find a Christmas tree:

In this moment, Terry feels very connected to Alfred, and one can see him acting like a parent, guiding Alfred in how to use a man's tool, the bow saw. Through such experiences, Terry could continue to expose Alfred to the tools of masculinity and develop a sense of Alfred as "my child." This might engage Alfred more fully with the family and community systems as well as aid the family in healing from the loss of their twin biological daughters.

Expression of Emotion

Historically, the literature on emotionality in men has centered on the question of if and how men experience emotions (Wong & Rochlen, 2005). The assumption in this literature is that men are emotionally restricted, regardless of the situation or context (Robertson, Lin, Woodford, Danos, & Hurst, 2001). Messages from the time of one's youth which challenge the congruency between "manliness" and the expression of certain emotions have also been cited as possible reasons for the men's inability to or fear of expressing emotion (Abell & Gecas, 1997; Cassano, Perry-Parrish, & Zeman, 2007; Heesacker et al., 1999; Wong & Rochlen, 2005). This assumption appears often in the literature, with many examples of men fighting against expressing emotion (Kimmel & Messner, 2006; Messner, 1997), perhaps due to the minimization of emotion expressed by their parents (the men's inability to or fear of expressing emotion (Cassano, Perry-Parrish & Zeman, 2007).

The assumption of emotional restrictiveness in men is reinforced by a number of examples within the novel. Terry might be interpreted as fighting against expressing his emotion in the scene where he grieves over the death of his twin girls (p. 69) and his father (p. 197), as well as within the context of his work (pp. 137-145). It is seen in passages where Alfred is unable to express emotion. This has been passed down to him in messages about what it means to be a man:

An emerging literature about men's emotionality questions these patterns. Robertson et al. (2001) explored physiological as well as psychological variables related to men's emotions. Their sample was divided into two groups, one with high gender role-related stress (defined as a strict adherence to traditional gender roles), and one with low gender role stress. These researchers found no significant differences between the groups of men in terms of experiencing the physiological measures of emotional reaction. This means that regardless of the level of gender role stress, the men in this study experienced emotion-inducing events the same way physiologically, as measured by skin temperature and electrodermal response. Differences were found in the way in which these men expressed their emotional reactions. Those with low gender-related stress were significantly better able to verbally express their emotional experiences with little prompting from researchers. This was much more difficult for men in the high-stress group. Those men with high gender-related stress were significantly more able than the low stress group to express their emotional reactions to emotion-inducing structured experiences. When emotional words were listed in a paper-and-pencil assessment, men with higher gender-role stress rated their emotional reactions as having greater intensity when compared to the scores of the low gender-role stress group. Across subjects, anxiety was the most reported emotion experienced, which surprised researchers given the "traditional masculine response" which tends to minimize fear. From this, the researchers concluded that providing men with multiple avenues of responding may allow them to acknowledge their emotions, even if they go against traditional masculine socialization experiences. Similar results have been found by other researchers (Wong & Rochlen, 2005; Wong, Pituch, & Rochlen, 2006). It appears that men do experience emotions, and provided suitable outlets, men will express what they are feeling.

This is significant for thinking about the novel since throughout it one can reads about intense emotions that male characters are feeling. Terry was emotionally affected by the deaths of his daughters, his father, as well as by incidents he experienced at work. The reader is able to feel the emotions that Alfred experienced. As a counselor, one may be able to provide a number of different methods to access such emotions, including introducing structured exercises which could allow male clients to experience and express their affect. By doing this, the counselor may also be able to join family members in their shared affect and allow each individual the opportunity to process what is occurring in them. A counselor would be moving away from a more traditional counseling intervention, which is free-flowing and verbally expressive (Rochlen, 2005), to more structured interview, which may more appropriately meet these male clients' needs.

Peer Relationships and Social Support

In a review of the literature, Trautner, Ruble, Cyphers, Kirsten, Behrendt and Hartmann (2005) found that gender schemas and stereotypes develop very early in life for children of both sexes. These schemas are believed to develop in the home since children's schemas closely match those of their parents (Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2002). They solidify as children move into middle childhood (McHale, Crouter, & Tucker, 1999) and through adolescence (Crouter, Manke, & McHale, 1995). A cross-sectional study supported the idea that gender stereotypes intensify from early to middle childhood (Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990). Socialization school and other social environments has also been shown to affect the development of children's gender related stereotypes (Bigler, 1995).

Childhood gender-related stereotypes become an important variable, as they form the basis for the development of children's prosocial behavior and peer-related engagement in preschool (Tisak, Holub & Tisak, 2007) and on through middle childhood (Trautner et al., 2005). Failure to act in socially endorsed ways has been found to lead to peer disengagement and lack of acceptance across age groups (Sebanc, Pierce, Cheatham, & Gunnar, 2003; Sy, DeMeis, & Scheinfield, 2003; Watts & Borders, 2005). Egan and Perry (2001) found that childhood adjustment (as measured by self-esteem and peer acceptance) was positively related to gender compatibility (measured by perceived gender typicality or contentment with biological sex). Adjustment was negatively related to pressure and inter-group bias.

In the novel, Alfred's transition to the Cornish community was hampered by the lack of acceptance by and engagement in his peer community. Although he made many attempts to befriend many of the boys in the local community, including Tim Acker, he found himself feeling isolated and alone. A possible reason for this is illustrated in the following scene:

Prior to this scene, Alfred had begun taking up horseback riding lessons with an eider neighbor, Paul Hebert. Alfred was open with the other boys about his horseback riding lessons before he found out that this hobby was a form of gender deviation in the Cornish community. By riding a horse, and making this known to the other boys, Alfred further isolated himself from the experiences of these boys and from acceptance by the greater community. Alfred had to find other ways to engage with boys in the community if he wished to be accepted by this group.

An intervention that a counselor may have used with Alfred and his peers would be to suggest that Alfred inform or educate the boys about the Buffalo Soldiers. Buffalo Soldiers were African American troops who fought during the Civil War, as well as federal war with Native Americans. They were given this name by Native Americans, the legend goes, because the Native Americans believed the dark curly hair of the African Americans resembled a "buffalo's coat." Offering the Buffalo Soldiers as an example might reinterpret individuals who ride horses as masculine. This would be an exception to the rule that horseback riding is a female sport and would re-narrate the story about what it means to ride horses. This has been termed producing a "unique outcome" (White & Epston, 1990). A second effect of such re-narration would be to externalize Alfred from the horseback riding by focusing on the history of the African American troops, their strengths and experiences. Finally, the activity might begin to introduce some cultural differences to the other children, who would have a better grasp of some of the experiences Alfred was facing in the small, white community of Cornish.

Intersection of Issues and Identities

It is difficult to separate the components of one's identity when addressing a client and their concerns. The intersection of race, gender schemas held by the community, and Alfred's status as a foster child all affected his experiences in Cornish. The lack of "ownership" and interaction that Alfred faced both within his foster family, as well as in the broader community, may have been triggered by Alfred's status as a foster child, since all other children in the community were biological children who had lived in the community their whole life. Alfred's status as the only African American individual in the community appears to have significantly added to the isolation and misunderstanding that he experienced. Therefore, if a counselor were to successfully intervene with Alfred, his foster family, and the greater, he would have to attend to these identity statuses as a gestalt. all separate identities coalesced to create a "perfect storm" of issues for Alfred to face. The multifaceted case of Alfred mirrors what men's studies scholars of identity have come to view as a puzzle of interconnected parts, integrating aspects of race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and spirituality which together form one's broader identity as a man (Jandt & Hundley, 2007; Kimmel & Messner, 2006).

Many studies referred to above are correlational in nature, and thus lack the empirical claim of causation (Wong & Rochlen, 2005). Many assumptions made in the literature about gender and masculinity lead one to question whose voices have been heard within the traditional academic canon (Rochlen, 2005; Wong & Rochlen). Currently, race and childhood are under-researched, and thus an essential voice is missing to understand the experience of children similar to Alfred (Jandt & Hundley, 2007; Kimmer & Messner, 2006). Finally, there is a not a large foundation of research exploring the specific experiences of men. Therefore, continued empirical studies which connect issues of masculinity to the fields of counseling and psychology should be pursued so that these issues could be further understood.

Social Justice and the Counseling Profession

Alfred struggled in his relationship with his foster father and the greater community. By exploring the many issues of identity and connecting these to issues within ecological counseling, the effectiveness of using race and gender as counseling interventions has been suggested by imagining Alfred as the identified client. This was an exercise to suggest how counselors can treat an individual in view of his larger cultural systems and to create social justice in his community (Zalaquett, Foley, Tillotson, Dinsmore & Hof, 2008). Counselors would then also be challenging communities to move beyond the legacy of oppression and inequality of people based on their race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, spirituality and other forms of diversity (Shin, 2008). The counselor would challenge the family and broader community to explore the inequities and unchallenged stigmas, including traditional gender roles. Social justice-oriented interventions would be facilitated as in the imagined interventions with Alfred.

Refocusing of the field of counselor education will help to serve to demonstrate how important the counselor is in not only facilitating change within individuals but also in families the larger communities and systems in which he or she lives and serves. In this way, a counselor can become an active agent of change (Sue & Sue, 2007) to ensure that the world will be a more inclusive and accepting place.

One might argue that intervening for social justice is a major issue for any human service professional. It is important to understand how a counselor intervening with members of an individual's family and community can foster greater client "buy-in" to the therapeutic process. Counselors are taught to "meet clients where they are at" and then, once the relationship is developed and trust is built between therapist and client, promote second order changes (Cormier & Hackney, 2008). This is because the therapeutic relationship, and specifically the client's perception of the therapeutic relationship, has been found to be the most influential factor in later therapeutic outcome (Wampold, 2000). Once that trust and rapport are built, the counselor can move on to the family and community to facilitate larger second-order changes. In this way, counselors can meet the needs of their clients, as well as build the trust and relationships required to challenge the supporting systems.


As with all clients, there would be many levels at work within Alfred's life. His family, peers and the greater cultural understanding of what it means to be a man all interacted to influence Alfred's life experience. I have suggested that a counselor who would work with this fictional character could provide greater assistance to Alfred across his many life experiences by looking at the multiple systems in which he is embedded. By being open and facilitating, a counselor would have assisted Alfred to find more opportunities to connect with others and to understand his lived experienced in a small rural town.

DOI: 10.3149/jmh.0803.191


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Southern Arkansas University

Kristopher M. Goodrich, Southern Arkansas University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kristopher M. Goodrich, Southern Arkansas University, Slot 24, 100 East University Ave, Magnolia, AR 71754. Email:
That's the one, all right, he tried to reassure Alfred, that's
   definitely the one. He jogged up to the boy to show him how to use
   the bow saw, and perhaps make the first cut in the tree so that it
   would be easier for the kid to keep the blade in the groove. He
   realized be was smiling: He never expected he'd have the privilege
   of showing a boy how to use a bow saw in the woods, and he was
   surprised by how lavish the small moment was with its pleasure. (p.

He [Alfred] swallowed and blinked, because he had begun to fear he
   might cry. And he wouldn't do that, not now, that was for sure. The
   worst thing was that he understood his eyes weren't close to
   welling with tears because he was scared of Terry, or because the
   grown-up had misunderstood completely why he'd taken a little food.
   Rather, he realized with a pang that almost made him shudder, this
   might mean he wouldn't get to stay here much longer. (p. 251)

But ... then he [Alfred] began to understand that it was actually
   because they viewed horses as a hobby for girls. Joe had gone out
   of his way to inform him that his older sister had taken riding
   lessons for years at an outdoor stable in Middlebury, and he had
   dreaded being dragged there by his mother when he was seven and
   eights years old-too young to stay home alone after school, and so
   he's have to accompany his sister to her lessons. The problem-an
   opinion Joe made clear to Alfred in front of both Schuyler and Tim
   Acker-was that only girls were interested in horses, and so there
   was never a boy to be found at the stable. Lots of girls, no boys:
   a bad combination when you're eight. (p. 289)
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