We are living through a historic era that many people describe as divisive, polarizing and disheartening. The world of social media never sleeps, and we are bombarded with images of pain and strife. The visible presence of neo-Nazi groups marching, the increase in arrests and deportations of immigrants from sanctuary sites, the killing of unarmed Black boys and men, the senseless deaths from domestic terrorism in Las Vegas and Orlando, the increased incidence of school shootings and the devastation of natural disasters in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico have led many of our students and clients to wonder aloud: What is going on? Will access to guns continue to bring violence into our schools? Will North Korea bomb the United States? Will we have a new civil war in our country? Will our access to health care be compromised because of tax breaks to wealthy corporations? No counselor is immune to this sociopolitical climate of tension and uncertainty.
Though not always verbalized, these questions are on the minds of many individuals, creating both cognitive and emotional dissonance, much as similar events did 25-30 years ago. In 1991, we witnessed the brutal beating of Rodney King, a Black man, by Los Angeles police officers. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened and eventually taken down. Also during this time period, following the CIA’s involvement in Central America, refugees who had been forced to flee from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras were denied asylum in the United States. Today we witness the disruption of families through deportation and the incarceration of children, separated from their parents and often left to languish indefinitely.
Today, three essential living documents continue to call the counseling profession to action. The Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC, 1992), the operationalization of those competencies (1996) and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC, 2015) help counselors, educators and supervisors navigate our tumultuous times and provide guidance for ethical and effective practice — clinical, educational and advocacy. These guides prove useful and applicable for contemporary challenges.
The MCC, developed by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo (one of the authors of this article) and Roderick J. McDavis, were the impetus for change in the counseling profession and continue to hold relevance in today’s national discourse. Then and now, we see:
a) Increasing racial and ethnic diversification of the country, with the U.S. becoming a majority/ethnic minority country
b) Legislation being promoted to oppress persons of color, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals and other underrepresented groups
c) The pervasiveness of White supremacy and White privilege
d) Eurocentric models in counselor training that ignore intersecting identities and the sociopolitical context that introduces barriers and oppression
e) Ethical issues resulting from the failure to consider cultural differences and variabilities, particularly in practice and supervision
In this article, our intention is to call attention to stressors in U.S. society and to discuss how the MCC can continue to be catalysts for inclusion and social justice advocacy.
The MCC framework
During the past 25 years, the needle has not moved with respect to the composition of counselors-in-training and counseling faculty. We are still a predominantly White profession, although our clients are increasingly diverse and with intersecting identities.
Now more than ever, the MCC and the Dimensions of Personal Identity (DPI) model provide guidance for understanding ourselves and our clients through an examination of cultural worldviews in a sociopolitical environment. They invite us to examine privileges and unconscious biases that may be detrimental to teaching and counseling. They also point out the harm of neglecting the environmental conditions that benefit or adversely affect individuals.
The DPI model presents an intersectional approach to identity and includes numerous dimensions, such as predetermined characteristics that serve as a profile (e.g., age, ethnicity); our experiences and opportunities (e.g., educational background, income); and a contextual dimension that shapes our experience (e.g., historical and sociopolitical events). This model communicates several premises:
a) We are all multicultural individuals.
b) We all possess a personal, political and historical culture and biases.
c) We are affected by sociocultural, political, environmental and historical events.
d) Multiculturalism also intersects with multiple factors of individual diversity.
The MCC and subsequent MSJCC are about change, requiring counseling professionals and graduate students alike to reflect on their own lenses and those of their clients/students, the role of power and privilege, and how the MCC can support respectful responses and engagement in times of political divisiveness. National incidents during the past few years remind us of the need to know facts, engage in perspective-taking and examine our personal beliefs and feelings to engage in ethical and effective counseling.
When former President Barack Obama was elected, many people and organizations stated that we were moving into a post-racial era. However, even following his election, assertions about the president’s birthplace persisted (including allegations perpetuated by our current president, Donald Trump). This action propagated doubts about Obama’s legitimacy and arguably subjected him to more scrutiny than previous presidents faced.
Following Obama’s 2008 election, there was an astounding increase in hate groups in the country, accompanied by a rise in hate crimes. For example, hate crimes against Muslim Americans rose 67 percent in 2015. During the national election campaign season and subsequent election of Donald Trump in 2016, the number of hate crimes increased again dramatically. In October 2017, 25.9 percent more hate crimes were reported than in October 2015. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are now 954 hate groups operating in the United States. In addition, 623 “patriot” organizations were classified as active, extreme anti-government groups in 2016.
The White nationalist march that sparked violent conflict and led to the death of one counterprotester this past August in Charlottesville, Virginia, provides a high-profile example of the increased visibility of hate groups. This event is a vivid reminder that hate thrives in many sectors of our society, including among neighbors, friends and family. Trump’s comment that there was fault on both sides minimized the killing of Heather Heyer, a peaceful demonstrator.
Another example of great divisiveness and misunderstanding from 2016 involved the controversy surrounding athletes “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, initiated this action to call attention to racial biases among police forces, the killing of young Black men and the subsequent acquittal of White police officers. As the movement grew, so did the hostility verbalized by the current presidential administration and a segment of the public. A failure to dialogue, inflammatory assertions and the blaming of athletes only exacerbated a national divide. We wonder why these peaceful protests could not be tolerated. Framing this as a “patriotism” issue and a Black-White divide rather than a human-rights and freedom-of-speech issue further polarized the public. As counselors, we may see clients with a range of opinions and perspectives on this and other issues, and we too have to examine our beliefs on these divisive issues.
The #MeToo movement cannot be overlooked in this discourse. Thankfully, the voices of privileged women brought this center stage, yet it was Tarana Burke, an African American woman, who coined the term and brought issues of oppression among working-class women in the South to light. Women across the life span, but particularly girls, women of color, older adult women and economically disadvantaged women, continue to be victimized in a heteropatriarchal society. Although the majority of counseling professionals and counselors-in-training are women, we must be intentional about addressing sexism in the classroom, therapy room and institutions in which we work. We are privileged, but many of our students and clients may not know how to negotiate spaces of harassment and sexual assault.
There is no time for complacency if we, as counselors, consider ourselves to be ethical and multicultural and social justice advocates. The impact of a dissonant national climate and visible expressions of hate on clients and communities must inform our work.
Counselors possess critical competencies to facilitate and support clients, peers and family members who require advocacy. To this end, we must use critical thinking, seek accurate information and develop understanding of sociopolitical contexts. Collective responses and calls to action for justice have been framed politically within the context of a racialized history. For example, assertions that the Black Lives Matter movement is parallel to White supremacy groups misconstrue the purpose of the organization. Black Lives Matter is a collective response of peaceful marches that began in response to the killings of Trayvon Martin and other young Black men, whereas, White supremacy is a movement based on the belief that the White “race” is superior. These are very different premises and have very different purposes.
The “March for Our Lives” and “March Across America” were spearheaded by high school students in response to deadly school shootings. These young people raised their voices to challenge legislators and school officials to make schools safe. These marches were visible nationally and brought the issue of gun control to the forefront. School counselors and educators nationally supported the power of these voices. Within the framework of the MCC, we can critically understand the racialized context in which these voices are heard. In the process, many have recognized that youth of color have been raising the issue for some time.
Legislation and policy affecting human rights
There are a number of examples of policy and legislation that endanger human rights and, thus, the well-being of clients and communities.
The website I Am an Immigrant (iamanimmigrant.com) posts empowering messages detailing personal stories of perseverance and success from immigrants from various countries. Contrast this with scenes of individuals being taken from their homes by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — families torn apart, children witnessing their parents being handcuffed, individuals and communities living with new fears and trauma. Hate-based trauma is a critical clinical issue and one that is directly connected to current sociopolitical events and policies.
The MCC guide us to examine our attitudes about immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. If we subscribe to, or neglect to refute, statements that all Latino men are “rapists and drug dealers,” as stated by the president, or that immigrants in low-paying jobs are taking opportunities away from American citizens, then counseling and teaching relationships will be harmed. We must become knowledgeable about the facts concerning immigrants’ historical and current contributions to U.S. society and recognize the shadow of illegitimacy that is cast with harmful rhetoric.
Legislation proposing to ban transgender individuals from the military, limit the access of transgender persons to school bathrooms and remove protections for LGBTQ individuals in the workplace have also reemerged as contentious human-rights issues. These issues should encourage us as counselors to take a moment for self-examination to ensure that we understand our responsibilities. The MCC acknowledge that we all have biases and assumptions based on personal values, but in our professional role, we are expected to uphold the ACA Code of Ethics, including the requirement to pursue nondiscrimination.
With the spate of 2017 hurricanes — including Harvey, Irma and Maria — we witnessed people’s resilience despite the extensive loss of homes, lives and livelihood. What was equally striking was the differential response of federal agencies to the victims of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico. The damages were anticipated, but the slow engagement by the U.S. government was inadequate on many accounts. Many months later, a lack of safe drinking water, electricity to fuel hospital generators and internet access to check on loved ones are among the persistent examples of neglect. There were also many blame-the-victim taunts by the U.S. president. These were noted by many Puerto Ricans, human-rights advocates and others as indications of double standards, raising questions about the role of biases in federal response to disasters.
As counselors informed by the MCC, we must ask ourselves about this differential treatment of U.S. citizens and the lack of basic historical knowledge concerning Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens. This example of marginalization cannot be overlooked.
Awareness and guidance from the MCC, MSJCC
In addition to providing guidance regarding multicultural counseling interactions, the MCC, its operationalizing document and the MSJCC give guidance that is useful in contextualizing and responding to the impact of these traumatic and life-ending events — for clients, for communities and for counselors themselves. We will provide just a few examples but encourage readers to invest in a more thorough examination.
One overarching dimension, implicit in the MCC and explicit in the MSJCC, is that of privilege and marginalization. This dimension calls on counselors to examine their position and power within institutions and society in relation to clients. For example, the current U.S. presidential administration and economic power structures reflect White, Christian, male, heterosexual norms, and numerous legislative and judicial decisions are reinforcing values associated with beliefs about the superiority of those identities. The position of the counselor in relation to those decisions and identities is relevant in terms of beliefs and socialization, as well as what the counselor might represent to the client. Are we seen as trustworthy or “handmaidens of the status quo” (Sue et al, 1992).
In any constellation of the counseling relationship (i.e., whether the counselor is of a similar background to the power brokers and the client is similar to communities being targeted for oppression, whether those roles are switched or whether the counselor and the client are of similar identities), the DPI model highlights the ways in which these identities may be relevant. The dimension of privilege and marginalization should be considered in each of the three arenas of MCC: counselor awareness of own values and biases, client worldview, and culturally appropriate interventions and advocacy.
Counselor awareness of own cultural values and biases: As a critical component of multicultural counseling, current political, social and global events present opportunities for examining counselors’ perspectives and how those perspectives contribute to the counseling environment. These beliefs may support clients experiencing marginalization or they may interfere with best practices and the amelioration of systemic oppression.
Differences based on political or economic views, unexamined racial bias, beliefs about immigration or other stimuli may promote assumptions about clients, their choices and the epistemology of their concerns. Furthermore, divisiveness in communities, the media and families can contribute to conflict that is not easily resolved. There are some who see student advocacy for school safety as opposite to Second Amendment rights. These are intrinsically related issues.
One example of an observable indicator of cultural self-awareness (as quoted from the 1996 MCC operationalization document): “Can identify specific social and cultural factors and events in their history that influence their view and use of social belonging, interpretations of behavior, motivation, problem-solving and decision methods, thoughts and behaviors (including subconscious) in relation to authority and other institutions and can contrast these with the perspectives of others.” In the current political climate, in which legislation limits the rights of entire segments of the population (e.g., members of the LGBTQ community, women, Muslims, immigrants, refugees), this statement suggests the importance of counselors examining their own history in relationship to authority, institutions and beliefs.
Counselor awareness of client worldview: Many current events require us to reflect in terms of the sociopolitical climate and biases. Power differentials between clients and counselors are always present. Differences in the counseling dyad based on a client’s underrepresented identity status require the counselor to attend even more intently.
For example, in counseling, college students who were protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program may now be preoccupied with concerns about remaining in the U.S., the possible deportation of loved ones and harassment by others who consider them to be undocumented immigrants. Trust issues may also inhibit these clients from fully disclosing out of fear that the counselor might break confidentiality because of the student’s status.
Understanding clients’ worldviews includes understanding the sociopolitical reality in which they live, their fears, the reality of the bias they may face and the impact of immigration policies and practices on their families and communities. Regardless of immigration status, or beliefs about immigration, when the current presidential administration makes broad statements disparaging immigrants and connecting that to cultural identity markers such as ethnicity, it affects entire communities. In the example involving DACA, it is important to understand the policies, rights and resources available to students and to understand the climate of their peers and institutions.
Moving beyond DACA, since the 2016 presidential election, expressions of hate against immigrants, Muslims, Black students and others have increased. Multicultural practice requires an understanding of that climate and how it affects clients. As counselor educators, it is our responsibility to check in with our students to support and hear them out. This is a small gesture of advocacy.
Culturally appropriate intervention strategies: Culturally appropriate counseling interventions include work with clients and on behalf of clients. The MCC advise counselors to consider the cultural contexts of clients and counseling approaches that are congruent for clients’ developmental level, familial and cultural beliefs, and acculturation. Understanding the client’s cultural and sociopolitical context should help determine culturally appropriate interventions and support systems. In the MSJCC, the Advocacy Competencies are also integrated as interventions. The ACA Advocacy Competencies provide valuable guidance for advocating with clients and on behalf of clients to address many of the difficult issues affecting their well-being.
In the DACA example, counselors could advocate through individual interventions, organizational interventions and policy or legislative actions. Individually, counselors could provide students with campus resources to assist with documents that need to be submitted and with identifying DACA-informed immigration attorneys.
DACA clients may also be facing hostility either from fellow students or, in some cases, from staff or faculty. Counselors, as charged by the ACA Code of Ethics, are responsible for bringing discrimination to the attention of their employers and for acting in the best interests of clients. This is an example of an intersection between advocacy and ethical imperatives and would represent organization-level advocacy.
Patricia Arredondo is president of the Arredondo Advisory Group and faculty fellow at Fielding Graduate University. She has published extensively on multicultural competencies and guidelines, Latinx mental health and immigrant identity challenges. She is a past president of the American Counseling Association. Contact her at email@example.com.
Rebecca L. Toporek is a professor in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University. She has written extensively on multicultural counseling, social justice, engaged empowerment of communities and advocacy. Her counseling specialties are focused
on career and college counseling.
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