A supervisee committed to a multicultural counseling practice approached me feeling distressed and self-critical. In my capacity as a doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision, I had worked with this supervisee for several months and had also worked with him the year prior. At this point, he expressed uncertainty about his most recent session, including a fear that he had pushed the client, a young black female, away.
In watching the recording of the session, I observed an authentic and rich conversation. The client expressed appreciation at having the opportunity to speak so freely about her experience as a black college student. I asked my supervisee what he thought he had done to distance the client. He responded, “Talked too much about race.”
Another counselor-in-training disclosed that a client had expressed a desire for a referral because of the counselor’s noticeable accent. The counselor, a brown Latina, was feeling distraught because this was not the first such incident she had experienced. I recommended that she read through the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC) and become familiar with the effects that privilege and microaggressions can have on counseling relationships. I also suggested that she broach a conversation with the client about the discrepancy between the client’s concern and the counselor’s apparent mastery of the English language. The counselor was reluctant, however, explaining, “I was told not to bring up the language issue unless the client brings it up first.”
A client, a middle-aged woman of color, shared her frustration and anger about previous counselors and her lack of confidence in the counseling process. According to her chart, she has issues managing her anger and has been diagnosed with an unspecified psychotic disorder. According to the client, her previous counselors and other service providers were faithless and always assumed she was angry. When I asked how her lack of success with previous counselors might be related to her devout religious beliefs and strong identity as a Latina, she responded, “I’ve thought about that a lot, but no one’s ever asked.”
Broaching privilege in professional counseling
These illustrations are composites, each drawn from a multitude of individual stories that I have participated in or been consulted about. The MSJCC were discussed at different stages of the supervision or consultation in each of these situations. Each time, the counselor-in-training, supervisee or colleague identified the MSJCC as nonessential to their case.
As a queer, cisgender, brown Latino male and critical race feminist counselor, educator and supervisor, I have been involved in critical diversity and anti-oppression work for almost a decade. My undergraduate studies in Hawaii woke me up to Native rights, colonialism and sociopolitical activism, setting me on the path of sociocultural critique and advocacy. I advocated for minoritized clients and resisted colorblind human service practices throughout my graduate training and clinical experience. I have had the privilege of serving on diversity enhancement committees, facilitating anti-microaggressions workshops and participating in activism in the academic and community spheres. Throughout these experiences, my passion and radical love for the practice of professional counseling have only grown and strengthened.
At the same time, I have been discouraged by continued encounters with narratives that minimize and decentralize the importance of critical multiculturalism and social justice activism in counseling. Narratives, for example, that cast the MSJCC as a supporting character and not in the leading role, holding firmly to exhausted and culturally clumsy theories of human functioning.
The MSJCC call for professional counselors to be ready, willing and able to challenge injustice and oppressive ideologies in the work that we do. The MSJCC framework compels counselors toward action, or an embodied competency that exists in the ways we move through our world and manifests through our behaviors both inside and outside the counseling room. In the Counseling Today article “Social justice counseling: ‘Fifth force’ in the field,” Manivong Ratts, Michael D’Andrea and Patricia Arredondo described the counselor committed to social justice as one who recognizes power, privilege and oppression and their detrimental effects on client mental health and well-being. For counselors, this recognition means taking risks, including choosing conversations that destabilize social injustices despite the potential for discomfort.
The choice not to discuss power, privilege and oppression is in itself a privileged one. Derald Wing Sue defines social privilege as the ability to freely and successfully avoid interactions with those social identities that differ from our own. For whites, this means avoiding people of color and being able to comfortably choose to interact almost exclusively with lighter shades of skin. For men, this means passively dismissing women while paying special attention to the contributions and authority of men.
But privilege expands far beyond this definition. Privilege is the ability to disregard or be apathetic toward not only social identities but also indigenous concerns, cultural differences and issues of inequality when they don’t affect us (at least on the surface). Counselors also carry social privilege and the ability to choose between perpetuating or uprooting oppressive ideologies.
As counselors, we are trained to be aware of the power and privilege inherent in our roles and our responsibility in advocating for cultural and social justice. In their groundbreaking piece for the Journal of Counseling & Development (JCD), “Broaching the Subjects of Race, Ethnicity and Culture During the Counseling Process,” Norma Day-Vines and colleagues called for us to broach difficult subjects and discuss the sociocultural underpinnings inherent in clients’ counseling concerns, even when doing so generates discomfort. On the other hand, nonintersectional and colorblind counseling — counseling that disregards the importance of social identities in a politicized, racialized and sexualized world in order to appear unbiased — function not only to avoid broaching but also to reproduce and reinforce inlaid ideologies and perceptions that have come to be known as implicit biases.
Through multicultural training, counselors may become aware of the privilege they carry. But as avid blogger and radical queer black feminist Mia McKenzie says, “It is not enough to acknowledge your privilege. Acknowledging it will never make it better, will never, ever change anything. At some point, you must act against it. This is that point.”
Decision-making in a critical counseling practice
In a time of great social unrest and political uncertainty, doing more than acknowledging privilege becomes essential. For counselors, our privileged position is revealed when we choose to disregard ideologies of oppression or domination that manifest within counseling spaces. Instead, we focus on individuals’ presenting problems — the areas of clinical concern that our clients disclose at the beginning of our work. The debate over a counselor’s responsibility to honor the presenting problem or address implicit issues of justice and equity is long-standing. The MSJCC make evident that the way forward is both/and, not either/or.
For example, my client presented with social anxiety and severe panic at the start of our work together. A brown South American woman with a distinct accent, she was also the sole woman of color in an otherwise all-white and predominantly male workplace. The question was, should I focus on her symptoms of social anxiety or her experience of being a racial, ethnic and gender minority? Could I do both?
In another memorable session, a client — a white North American cisgender man — exclaimed that most women and people of color were just too sensitive. He said that their complaints of mistreatment and discrimination were just subjective interpretations and not based in objective fact. I have heard this line many times in my life. I was not surprised, but it still made my blood boil.
As a queer counselor of color, I had a choice that I needed to make:
1) I could say nothing, maintaining mutual comfort by reflecting the client’s frustration and moving on (broach avoidance).
2) I could challenge only the obvious generalizations in this belief, perhaps asking how helpful this belief was in helping the client connect to others (colorblind counseling).
3) I could call into question the ideology of oppression (as critical pedagogue Paulo Freire termed it) couched in such a statement (i.e., the world is just and equal; women and people of color just cannot handle the real world). This choice would express not only the effects of the client’s statement on me but also challenge the oppression the client might enact on others by embodying this ideology.
Behind closed doors with only the MSJCC to hold me accountable, the choice was mine. All my own.
Herein lies the paradox. The most comfortable choice brings about the least therapeutic change and potentially the most social damage. The most uncomfortable choice carries as much risk as it does potential for therapeutic change, while possibly preventing the most social damage. This is one of the reasons that these are called difficult but crucial conversations.
I do not disclose how I chose to respond to these scenarios because it is not my goal to teach “do as I do.” My goal here is to point out the implicit contradictions in the three choices and the consequent effects of perpetuating social injustices in two of the three choices — regardless of intention.
Moving toward radical wellness
Multiculturalism is a deeply contested term. Nancy Fraser, critical theorist and feminist, points out that traditional multiculturalism has too often functioned to essentialize differences while failing to recognize the interplay between social politics and identity. This is to say that simply recognizing that differences exist between individuals or groups is not enough to make visible the structures that make those differences the basis for injustice and inequity.
Whereas traditional multiculturalism calls for us to be aware and appreciative of cultural differences, critical multiculturalism demands that we respond to issues of injustice and oppression that affect individuals on the basis of those differences. This reorientation ties together critical multiculturalism with social justice, producing a practice that affects the wide-reaching work that counselors perform.
In Towards Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman point out that “critical consciousness involves decoding the social lies that naturalize the status quo, while searching for alternative interpretations of one’s situation.” As counselors, when we embody a critical practice through ways of being in our work, we are attentive to both dismantling dominant ideologies and providing a reinterpretation (or reframing) of social dynamics among the individual, their clinical concerns and the world around them.
Through these reinterpretations, we begin to model a radical wellness that is characterized by an emotional and mental health simultaneous to critical social consciousness. In the JCD article “The Wheel of Wellness Counseling for Wellness: A Holistic Model for Treatment Planning,” Jane E. Myers and colleagues defined wellness as “a way of life oriented toward optimal health and well-being in which body, mind and spirit are integrated by the individual to live more fully within the human and natural community.”
I define radical wellness as a way of life that is oriented toward optimal collective health and well-being, which consequently feeds individual health and well-being. The individual integrates critical consciousness into the body, mind and spirit for the purpose of working against inequality and social injustice that is deeply rooted in societal communities. As counselors, we are uniquely positioned to embody and model this radical wellness by broaching conversations that illuminate the inextricable relationship between Watkins and Shulman’s “social lies,” societal problems and individual issues.
The MSJCC do not require that counselors be wholly comfortable in having these conversations but rather that they internalize the importance of taking the risk. Conversations about sociocultural and intersectional issues help to bridge the roles of counselor, advocate and activist. Creating an environment that helps clients trust us enough to express fear, share doubt, reveal uncertainty and risk exposing biases is critical to this endeavor.
Yes, these conversations can be hard, and they may fall short of their aim at times, but they are conversations that spark deeper individual and social change. When clients and counselors situate themselves as inextricably linked to the greater social fabric, they can experience their lives in shared space with those whom they may have previously judged as “other.”
Javier F. Casado Pérez is an assistant professor of counselor education at Portland State University and a national certified counselor. He is seeking colleagues to form a group blog on subjects such as critical theories, multiculturalism and social justice in counseling practice and epistemologies. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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