Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Cultivating social class awareness in the counseling profession

Derrick L. Shepard and Eva M. Gibson January 31, 2020

As professional counselors, the two of us often engage in the  reflection process to gain an understanding of ourselves and our clients. As African Americans raised and living in the South, both of us have to navigate through our share of “isms.” Derrick, a black doctoral candidate and practitioner from an urban Southern community, has faced some striking experiences that draw attention to issues of intersectionality. Eva, a black counselor educator and former practitioner, has also acquired some interesting stories over the years.

In our discussions of similarities experienced due to our race and even differences due to our gender, an additional topic emerged that is not as apparent — issues of class. Whereas racism and sexism are subjects that receive much attention, classism is often overlooked in the counseling profession. Our goal is to start an intentional conversation by bringing attention to social class (outside of objective measures) in the therapeutic relationship. We initiate this conversation with our personal stories.   

Derrick’s story: My path to the counseling profession was unconventional. Raised with an older brother in a low-income, single-mother household, I understood and valued what the American dollar can do for an African American male. Even though we did not have substantial economic capital, my mother did possess the innate ability to move between social classes through hard work and education. As a child, I saw this, and it shaped my life moving forward.

After high school, I pursued a degree in business administration. As is often the case with others from lower-class backgrounds, I sought riches from a lucrative major. I did graduate with a degree in business administration; however, my dreams of financial security did not materialize. Instead, I struggled financially after college. I was able to ascend the social class ladder by obtaining a college degree and the cultural capital that comes with it, but I did not achieve the middle-class lifestyle I envisioned. For years after college, I relied on my lower-class knowledge to stretch a dollar to balance all of the financial debts I incurred while obtaining my degree. I, however, was not happy in the world of business.

As I eventually learned in researching the intricacies of social class, individuals from lower social class standing have a propensity to rely on one another for everyday needs and survival. With this propensity also comes a sense of serenity. For me, at that time, this was a natural way of living. So, I felt at home and at ease. In addition, others from similar backgrounds encouraged me to further my education. With this encouragement, I decided to pursue a graduate degree, but not in the world of business. Instead, I landed in the field of counseling.

My natural inclination to help others was an intuitive fit in the counseling world. Even so, I felt a sense of incongruence. As a doctoral candidate, others view me in a particular light — a light enhanced by the cultural capital associated with the aforementioned status, working in higher education, and networking with others who share similar values in education. And yet, when I return home, that cultural capital gets washed away by hometown acquaintances (and even some family members) because it does not have the same value as the American dollar. And at times, I tend to agree with them.

This experience has shaped my approach with clients. I engage clients with a sense of gentleness surrounding their unique social class identity while understanding the systemic barriers in place (e.g., transportation issues) that may prevent some of them from fully engaging in the therapeutic process.

Eva’s story: My husband and I decided to do premarital counseling before we got married. During that process, I came face-to-face with some of my classism issues. Although I was in graduate school at the time and knew the benefits of counseling, it felt different sitting in the client seat. I felt this urge to “put on my best face” because I did not want to present as a client with problems but rather as a responsible, proactive citizen. I felt as if the counselor needed to see the best of me, and because I fell in the middle-class, college-graduate category, I needed to behave accordingly.

To be completely honest, I am not sure to what degree these feelings were due to my identity as a middle-class client and to what degree they were due to my identity as an African American woman. As a professional black woman, I constantly feel as though I have to wear a mask. I fear letting my vulnerabilities and struggles show because I represent not only myself but also my people. Because I am often the minority in professional settings, I tend to stand out, and I feel a responsibility to showcase this positive, professional, accomplished representative to combat all of the other negative stereotypes that are often attributed to black women or to black people in general.

Let me tell you, this is exhausting. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou and W.E.B. Du Bois illustrate this concept so well in their analyses of the masks we wear and the double consciousness of black people. These efforts are draining but necessary for my survival.

As is often the case with intersecting identities, it is difficult for me to isolate the influence of social class pressures versus the influence of race-related stressors, but I am certain that both played a role in my response to counseling. Although the goal of premarital counseling is to explore issues that may affect the relationship, I was acutely aware that I would not dig too deep — not because I did not desire a strong marriage, but because I was concerned about how the counselor would view me. Although we completed four sessions, they were superficial because my issues with appearances (both as a middle-class woman and as a black woman) acted as a barrier and prevented any real work from being done. The process of sharing this story was difficult for me (again, I do not like to feel exposed), but I highlight it to bring attention to issues that we need to consider as clinicians.

Social class and counselor considerations

As we examine social class with a stronger lens, we discover this construct is shaped by one’s environment. Just as we cannot claim to be “colorblind” practitioners, neither can we claim “social class blindness” in working with our clients. In attending to the social class identities in the room, we develop a holistic view of the client, which leads to better outcomes. In contrast, if we do not value the intersectional identities of our clients, we are not providing the best care. In essence, we are arguing for the inclusion of social class in the therapeutic alliance.

At this point, we ask readers to do what counselors do best — reflect. How do you define your social class status? Do images of money, clothing and your home come to mind? Has your social class status changed over the years? Were you able to climb the social class ladder after completing a graduate degree? From that perspective, has your worldview of social class changed? Are you now less prone or more prone to noticing the social class microaggressions that take place every day? Counselor educators and researchers Caroline O’Hara and Jennifer Cook liken social class microaggressions to the racial microaggressions experienced by ethnic minority groups. How do you see this playing out in your professional practice?

You might also ask why such a reflection exercise is important. As counselors, it is our ethical responsibility to acknowledge and respect the multicultural identities of our clients in the counseling relationship. Equally important, we need to acknowledge our own multicultural identities. Acknowledging and respecting the various identities in the therapeutic relationship guides our decision-making process as it relates to diagnosis, treatment and interventions. However, it is not uncommon for counselors to bring middle-class bias into the room and to form negative impressions of clients on the basis of their lower-class social status.

The perception of social class differences between counselor and client could lead to a negative experience for the client, especially when the counselor lacks awareness surrounding social class issues. This often results in early termination or lower quality services. Ultimately, developing one’s multicultural competency as it relates to social class is an ethical responsibility of the practitioner. 

The social class worldview model

Humans live within systems. These systems can be as simple as one’s immediate family or as complex as working at a large university. Embedded in each of these systems is a unique economic culture with its own unique set of values, beliefs and expectations.

For instance, think about a prison black market for cigarettes. Within this system, the economics are not aligned with traditional forms of currency such as coins and dollar bills. In this environment, cigarettes, considered contraband, are highly valued and often sought during exchanges. However, outside of this system, the value of cigarettes is diminished because they can be easily purchased from a store.

To better understand subjective measures in economic cultures, William Ming Liu developed the social class worldview model (SCWM). The SCWM serves as a tool that counselors can use to understand social class from a systems perspective and on a more individual level instead of using objective measures such as education and salary. The SCWM considers saliency, consciousness, attitudes, relationships with material objects, behaviors and lifestyle. It also introduces the concept that individuals internalize class values on the basis of environmental feedback. In this process, clients and counselors bring sets of values that cannot be ignored into the therapy room.

Classism consciousness

Counselors have an ethical responsibility to have an awareness of their personal values and to avoid imposing these values on clients. With this responsibility in mind, the American Counseling Association continually educates its members on various “isms” through professional development and chartered divisions focused on various aspects of diversity. Even with the efforts ACA makes to promote diversity education, we believe awareness surrounding classism in the counseling profession can be enhanced.

Classism is the marginalization of an individual on the basis of his or her perceived social class identity, and it can be conceptualized into different forms. Consider the case of upward classism. This form of classism involves marginalization of individuals perceived to be in a higher social class. Now consider how this might materialize in your professional life. Do you have negative personal views of clients you perceive to be of a higher social class than you? Sometimes this might take the form of minimizing their presenting issues if you believe that their resources exceed those of your own. If you have struggled with similar experiences, take time to reflect on the impact this had on the therapeutic relationship.

What about lateral classism? How might this affect you? Lateral classism reinforces expectations of individuals perceived to be in a similar social class. Have you found yourself in situations in which you were attempting to portray a certain status in the professional setting? What might some potential negative consequences of those efforts be?

Downward classism is the most familiar form of classism and comprises prejudicial treatment of individuals perceived to be in a lower social class. This may also involve negative perceptions of clients due to physical appearance, an apparent lack of resources, or even differences in mannerisms and experiences. Although we seek to treat our clients in an equitable manner as counselors, we also must acknowledge and attend to any personal biases we may hold.

Finally, we must internally examine the potential of internalized classism, which is not as frequently discussed. Internalized classism manifests itself in negative feelings (e.g., depression, anger) related to not being able to keep up with one’s economic culture. This can affect clinicians’ feelings of competence or “worthiness.”

All things considered, have your “ism” issues ever unintentionally affected the counseling relationship from a social class perspective? Now put yourself in the client’s shoes regarding upward, lateral, downward and internalized classism. How might the client’s experience of these issues affect the therapeutic relationship? Although we are highly trained professionals who are well-equipped with specialized clinical skills, we must use intentional techniques that adequately integrate the individual, social and environmental factors within this context.

Suggestions for practice

After engaging in reflection centered on your and your clients’ social class, it is time to consider how to implement this newfound knowledge into practice. The following suggestions are not all-inclusive, but they can serve as guideposts to assist you along your journey. It is imperative that we incorporate social class considerations from the beginning of the therapeutic relationship and continue to integrate this lens throughout the therapeutic process.

When we first meet clients, we often make assumptions about their visible identities, including race. Even so, we are trained to inquire about how clients view themselves in relation to race. On the other hand, we are less inclined to have open conversations regarding social class with our clients even though we often make assumptions about our clients on the basis of their dress, income and material resources. How can we rectify this?

Start by asking clients how they perceive their current class standing. Do they consider themselves financially fortunate, even though they may reside in an economically distressed neighborhood? Or might they consider themselves impoverished, even though their income is higher than that of most of their peers? By gauging clients’ social class worldviews during the intake process, counselors gain a better understanding of how clients conceptualize their economic culture. This serves as a first step in developing a deeper therapeutic alliance that appreciates each client’s unique social class lens.

As the therapeutic relationship continues to advance, counselors’ intentionality in understanding and respecting all aspects of clients’ worldviews is paramount in providing culturally competent services. But how do counselors intentionally address clients’ social class worldviews in the therapeutic alliance?

Let’s return to the stories offered at the beginning of this article. In our stories, we described the expectations associated with our socioeconomic worldviews. We both shared an awareness surrounding our social class identities. We became conscious of the impact of addressing (or not addressing) the expectations associated with our social class worldviews. It is from this consciousness that we learned to value our social class identities and the impact these identities have on providing services to a diverse clientele. We believe this is an important consideration because our goal is to provide culturally competent counseling. To accomplish this, we need to be aware of our personal values as practitioners.

Now is a good time to return to the reflection questions posed earlier. From those questions, what values were you able to identify as a practitioner? Although it is second nature to examine constructs from our own lens, we may miss critical aspects because our personal experience guides our interpretation. The use of concrete interventions may be a helpful strategy to engage. For example, goal exploration is a good starting point. What is your goal as a counselor? What is your client’s goal? Do the goals complement or conflict with one another?

Value exploration is another important part of this endeavor. Write down a list of your values, and compare those values with your client’s perceived social class status. Do they match up? Are there incongruences that you could address?

Need more ideas? Let’s say that you have a client who comes from a lower socioeconomic status. You notice that the client’s value of acquiring material possessions constantly strains their finances, yet they are not willing to make concessions. Even so, they continue to express concern about their financial situation. This conflicts with your values. Although intentions can be noble, they can also lead to a rupture in the therapeutic relationship.

We recommend engaging in the supervision process with an intentional lens on social class to process this dissonance. A practical intervention is for the supervisor to create notecards with various identities (e.g., race, gender, social class) in the supervision triad and as the supervisor and supervisee conceptualize the client. By using this intervention, both parties intentionally bring social class into the room.

Our next recommendation might be a heavier lift, but we believe the effort will bear fruit. As practitioners, it is our ethical responsibility to engage in continuing education to maintain our skills and to learn new best practices to serve diverse clients. With that in mind, we encourage readers to submit and present on issues related to social class and the counseling profession. These presentations can be given at the local, regional or national level. Regardless of how the continuing education process occurs, we need to see more social class awareness within the counseling profession.

As counselors, we serve a diverse clientele. To improve our service to them, we should be engaging in a reflective process to better understand ourselves and, in turn, to better understand our clients. We challenge our counseling colleagues after reading this piece to take the time to examine their own social class values, backgrounds and histories. From there, contemplate how your social class identity affects your work with clients. Finally, we encourage you to continue developing an understanding of social class and the counseling profession. Yes, what we call for is challenging. But as African American icon Cicely Tyson notes, “Challenges make you discover things about yourself that you never really knew.”

 

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Derrick L. Shepard is a doctoral candidate and TRIO counselor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His research focuses on social stratification issues in society and the impact these societal issues have on the therapeutic alliance. Contact him at dshepar3@utk.edu.

Eva M. Gibson is a counselor educator at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her research focuses on marginalized populations. Contact her at drevagibson.weebly.com or gibsone@apsu.edu.

 

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conference.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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