Counseling Today, Dignity, Development & Diversity

Embracing the deep structure of multicultural counseling

Michael D’Andrea and Judy Daniels January 7, 2006

The multicultural counseling movement has taken center stage in the counseling profession. In doing so, it is transforming the way many persons think about their roles as professional helpers and the types of competencies they need to acquire to foster the healthy development of larger numbers of people from diverse groups and backgrounds.

While the movement continues to revolutionize the mental health professions in general and the counseling profession in particular, it is disconcerting to note how many people who view themselves as multicultural advocates have lost sight of or perhaps never really understood the deep structure of the multicultural counseling movement. In this month’s column, we discuss that deep structure and include a description of both the goals and purposes of many of the pioneers of the multicultural counseling movement.

We proceed by examining how the trend toward human diversity, diversity counseling and human relations training has led many counselors to a more comfortable and superficial understanding of the deep structure of the multicultural counseling movement.

Last, we outline specific recommendations that will help counselors reconnect with the spirit and principles underlying the deep structure of this revolutionary movement.

Building a more sane and just society 

The genesis of the multicultural counseling movement can be traced to the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a time of great change in the United States, as many traditional social institutions, policies and practices were challenged by people in oppressed groups, especially African-Americans, who took part in the civil rights movement, and feminists, who supported the women’s rights movement.

It was during this time that Black counselors and psychologists, as well as feminist advocates and persons from other oppressed groups, described the many ways in which gender, cultural and racial biases were embedded in all the theories of human development, counseling and psychotherapy. The early multicultural and feminist counseling pioneers provided a strong and consistent voice that protested overuse of these theories by helping professionals. These theories were noted to result in ineffective and even harmful psychological outcomes in many instances when utilized among women and persons of color.

The early multicultural-feminist counseling pioneers underscored two major factors to substantiate their arguments. First, many of these pioneers pointed out that the cultural/racial/gender-biased theories were harmful to persons in oppressed groups. The professional practices reflected a set of values, biases, preferences and worldviews that were in conflict with those held by persons from oppressed groups. Persons from oppressed groups were already psychologically vulnerable because of the stresses they experienced in their everyday lives. By imposing their conflicting cultural/

racial/gender biases, it was believed that counselors further undermined the individual and collective strengths that women and culturally/racially different persons brought to the counseling setting. This observation led some of the early multicultural counseling pioneers to refer to counselors who insisted on using culturally and racially biased theories in their professional practices as “tools of oppression” and “handmaidens of the status quo.”

That action underscores a second important observation made by pioneers of the multicultural counseling movement. Many counselors, they noted, seemed most interested in helping clients make personal changes that would enable them to more effectively adjust to the status quo. In so doing, it was thought that individuals would experience more satisfying and productive lives within the context of the existing social order.

From a multicultural perspective, there is a problem with this biased approach to helping. Namely, many aspects of the status quo are not just; these aspects continue to perpetuate various forms of racism, sexism and cultural oppression that are antithetical to the mental health and psychological well-being of culturally and racially different persons. The consistent assertion that it is unethical to use culturally and racially biased helping theories to assist people in adapting to a status quo that is fundamentally in opposition to their well-being is a key element of the multicultural counseling movement’s deep structure.

Biases built into society

The deep structure of the multicultural counseling movement is grounded in a clear understanding of the various ways in which racism, sexism and other forms of cultural oppression are built into all the social, educational, professional, economic, religious and political institutions that constitute our contemporary society. These forms of cultural oppression are reflected in:

  • Increasing levels of racial segregation in housing and public education
  • Disproportionate annual incomes of persons from different racial/ethnic groups
  • The continued violence that is imposed on women
  • Inaccurate and negative ethnic/racial images in the media
  • The disproportionate number of persons of color in our nation’s prison system and on death row
  • Significant health disparities among persons in different racial groups

This list contains only a few examples; there are many others.

From the inception of the movement to the present time, some multicultural counseling advocates have understood how the previously mentioned issues represent deep structural problems that adversely affect the development of millions of people in our society. These individuals also recognize that an extensive and coordinated effort by large numbers of persons in the counseling profession is required to effectively address these complex problems. This understanding has led some persons in the multicultural counseling movement to acknowledge that these structural problems are maintained by what noted Black psychology scholar Asa Hilliard calls “pillars of dominance.” Hilliard points out that these pillars of dominance continue to negatively impact every institution in our society, including the fields of counseling and psychology.

Pillars of dominance

Contrary to what many people would like to believe, the mental health professions have not made the sort of substantial progress that early multicultural counseling pioneers had hoped would occur during the past 35 years. There is no doubt that progress has been made, both in the mental health professions in general and in the counseling profession in particular. This progress has left many counselors pleased with the accomplishments of what is now commonly referred to as the “diversity counseling movement” (a term many counselors seem more comfortable using than “multicultural counseling movement”).

Much of the success of the diversity counseling movement is tied to an increasing awareness of, sensitivity to and respect for human diversity. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Helping people gain a better understanding of why it is offensive to use culturally and racially offensive terms in public
  • Promoting a better understanding of the types of competencies that counselors need to acquire to work more effectively with persons in diverse groups
  • Establishing various activities in schools and communities that affirm the cultural integrity of culturally different persons in our society. This is notably reflected in the celebration of Black History Month in our schools and an increasing number of Gay Pride parades in our communities

While these and other similar efforts are useful in promoting human dignity through diversity, we agree with Hilliard’s assertion that such achievements represent relatively superficial accomplishments that fall far short of the deep structure of the multicultural counseling movement. Specifically, such achievements fail to substantially affect the pillars of dominance that continue to encapsulate our nation in general and the counseling profession in particular.

If multicultural counseling advocates are to more substantially impact the mental health and psychological well-being of larger numbers of persons who continue to be adversely affected by the pillars of dominance, they must acquire a clearer understanding of the movement. Gaining this understanding of the deep structure of the multicultural movement and the pillars of dominance necessitates expanding our vocabulary and conceptual understanding of other related issues. To assist counselors, we briefly discuss two terms that are beginning to gain greater attention among some multicultural and social justice counseling advocates.

Exploring hegemony, hegemonic structures and multicultural counseling

The term hegemony is defined as the “dominant influence of one state or group over all others.” Cultural critics such as bell hooks, Cornel West and Noam Chomsky have documented the many ways in which White, European, heterosexual, physically abled, middle class and Christian cultural/racial values, beliefs, preferences and worldviews underlie the hegemonic thinking that characterizes our contemporary society. This sort of thinking leads to the development and maintenance of “hegemonic structures.”

Hegemonic structures refer to how hegemonic thinking leads to the creation and maintenance of institutions that make up the infrastructure of a given society to maintain the pillars of dominance that are fueled by a particular set of cultural values, biases, preferences and worldviews. Although some progress has been made in understanding how the counseling profession continues to perpetuate hegemonic structures within our professional ranks, this understanding is limited to a relatively small number of persons who are cognizant of the multicultural counseling movement’s deep structure.

A few of the many ways that hegemonic structures and thinking still exist in our profession:

  • Continued use of culturally biased counseling interventions in clinical practice
  • Ongoing publication of counseling textbooks that provide a superficial analysis of the cultural implications of counseling and human development theories
  • Professional training programs that continue to use culturally biased entrance examinations in their selection processes
  • Professional accreditation and licensing bodies that continue to direct insufficient attention to cultural/racial issues
  • The tendency of counseling professionals to overgeneralize research findings that are not representative of persons from culturally and racially diverse groups

Further embracing the deep structure of the multicultural movement

Recently, the American Counseling Association has made significant progress in acknowledging the pillars of dominance that adversely affect the mental health of millions of culturally different and oppressed persons in our nation. This progress involved the advocacy efforts of leaders in Counselors for Social Justice who successfully secured the formal endorsement of the ACA Governing Council for eight multicultural-social justice resolutions. These resolutions acknowledge the adverse impact that ableism, ageism, racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and war and violence have on healthy human development.

The resolutions also state the important role counselors can play in ameliorating these unhealthy pillars of domination. To accomplish this, counselors will have to address the hegemonic structures that sustain these pillars of dominance and, more fundamentally, the hegemonic thinking that underlies the creation and maintenance of these structures.

In doing so, counselors will more fully realize the deep structure of the multicultural counseling movement and more effectively foster the dignity and development of larger numbers of persons from diverse groups than ever before.