Our country has been roiling through two major pandemics. The first, COVID-19, is still relatively new, and with a vaccine, the incidences of this miserable disease should decrease and diminish over time. In contrast, the pandemic of White racism and White supremacy has long been at the heart of the persistent psychological, emotional and behavioral racial tensions and injustices that we face in the United States. The senseless killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens has raised awareness once again of the violence of White racism and police brutality in many sectors of society.
The National Institute of Mental Health recently published a report indicating that between 17 million and 22 million adults in the United States are in need of professional mental health services each year. It was further determined that only 41% of these individuals receive such services. The fact that a majority of adults in need of mental health services do not receive this important care represents an ongoing health care crisis in our country. And, of course, COVID-19 stressors are only compounding mental health distress.
When researchers focused on the racial disparities linked to this pandemic, those from African, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous backgrounds were found to be substantially overrepresented among those adults not receiving or not having access to mental health care. This finding reflects what supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and many social justice advocates in general are talking about when they point to disparities resulting from systemic racism and White privilege in this country.
Institutional racism in the profession
In 1982, nearly 40 years ago, Derald Wing Sue wrote, “Counseling is the handmaiden of the status quo.” This phrase relates to the ways that many counselor educators, practitioners, supervisors and students are inextricably linked to perpetuating White racism and White supremacy by remaining silent, noncommittal and inactive in the face of so many forms of structural and institutional racism.
Sadly, this situation is still a reality as unintentional and covert forms of racial injustice continue to be manifested in counselor training, research and practice. For example, how prepared are counseling students to work with those who speak English as a second language, those who are recipients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, families in poverty and so forth? When are counselor training programs requiring community service to link to social justice principles and competencies endorsed by the American Counseling Association? How do counselor training programs prepare students to talk about racism with clients? If counselor educators and counseling programs were to take on these three queries, they would find opportunities to unmask racism and decrease their behavior as a “handmaiden of the status quo.”
Professionals and students alike must commit themselves to move toward bold, courageous and morally grounded actions. We must go beyond our favorite mode of operating, which often involves the overuse of intellectual analysis of these social pathologies. As we critically analyze the mental health impacts of these injustices on our clients’ lives, let us be reminded that Martin Luther King Jr. warned us that an overemphasis on such intellectualization without substantial social justice actions too often results in the paralysis of analysis.
Challenging the counseling status quo
In 1992, Michael D’Andrea, one of the co-authors of this article, wrote a column in Counseling Today (then named The Guidepost) titled “The violence of our silence: Some thoughts about racism, counseling and human development.” In that column, he asserted that if they continued to operate as witnesses and bystanders to various forms of institutional, societal and cultural racism, counseling professionals and students would become guilty of being racists themselves through their silent complicity.
Some progress has been made as a result of a minority of counselor educators, practitioners, supervisors and students taking courageous action to boldly and routinely describe the ways that White supremacy and White racism adversely affect the counseling profession and the racially diverse clients we serve. However, it is apparent that much more needs to be done in these areas. Today, there are education and training programs guiding professionals in moving away from bystander behavior and toward action. The #EquityFlattensTheCurve initiative is offering a Bystander Anti-Racism Project.
Identifying areas of urgency in the counseling profession is also part of unmasking racism. Just take note of the contemporary counseling profession. In doing so, you are likely to see the following: counselor educators, graduate students, supervisors in counseling centers, textbook authors, the theories studied, the research methodology applied in studies, CACREP site visitors, and the leadership in ACA, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and other professional associations all seeming to have a homogeneous identity.
Little has substantially changed over the past 50 years. A majority of White counseling students continues to be taught by a majority of White professors. Multicultural counseling is still a one-semester course. Theories of counseling, career development and human development are Eurocentric in nature and dated. Furthermore, counseling research has not advanced knowledge about racism, White supremacy and the well-being of people of color. Samples of convenience continue to be normative, with many research participants coming from White, Western European, English-speaking and often Christian backgrounds.
All of this leads us to assert that the counseling profession has stagnated. This perpetuation of persistent Eurocentric conformity will soon be irrelevant and contribute to greater inequities in the preparation of counselors and the delivery of mental health care. This professional irrelevance will occur as a result of the unprecedented demographic transformation occurring in our nation. As one example, in 2013, for the first time, the percentage of Latinx high school graduates going on to college was higher than that of any other group, as reported by the Hispanic Research Center, and this representation in colleges continues. How many counselors are aware of this demographic shift?
Moving to action: Applying the MCCs
In 2003, the ACA Governing Council approved the Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC), originally published in 1992 by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo (one of the co-authors of this article) and Roderick McDavis. The awareness, knowledge and skills paradigm remains as vital today as it was in 1992 when the MCC were published and in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. The MCC, the subsequent document on operationalization of the competencies that promotes intersecting identities in sociohistorical contexts (1996), and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (2015) remain anchors to lean on during these times for needed change, increased awareness, more expansive knowledge and bold actions in the counseling profession. The 1992 competencies addressing racism are cited here for further application.
- Culturally competent counselors possess knowledge and understand about how oppression, racism, discrimination and stereotyping affect them personally and in their work. This allows them to acknowledge their own racist attitudes, beliefs and feelings. Although this standard applies to all groups, for White counselors it may mean that they understand how they may have directly or indirectly benefited from individual, institutional and cultural racism.
- Culturally competent counselors are constantly seeking to understand themselves as racial-cultural beings and actively strive to develop a nonracist identity.
- Culturally competent counselors are knowledgeable of sociopolitical influences that impinge upon the life of racial and ethnic minorities. Immigration issues, poverty, racism, stereotyping and powerlessness all leave major scars that may influence the counseling process.
- Culturally competent counselors become actively involved with [ethnic/racial] minority individuals outside the counseling setting (via community events, social and political functions, celebrations, friendships, neighborhood groups and so forth) so that their perspective of minorities is more than an academic or helping exercise.
- Culturally competent counselors strive to eliminate biases, prejudices and discriminatory practices. They should be cognizant of clients’ sociopolitical contexts when conducting evaluations and providing interventions. They also continually attempt to develop greater sensitivity to issues of oppression, sexism and racism especially as they affect their clients’ lives.
Racial reckoning: If not now, when?
The country has entered a period of racial reckoning. New incidents of racism and anti-Black behavior are reported on a daily basis on city streets, on college campuses and in stores. The challenge to not be bystanders persists, and as counselors committed to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, we must be activists and advocates for social justice. We must rise to the task of unmasking White supremacy and White racism in both our professional training and practice as professional counselors.
We need to ask ourselves, if not now, when will we take these actions? If not us, who will make the changes to have the counseling profession move beyond the “violence of our silence” and the role many educators, supervisors and students play as “handmaidens of the status quo”?
Patricia Arredondo is a past president of the American Counseling Association and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and a founding member of Counselors for Social Justice. She partners with organizations to address diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives through the Arredondo Advisory Group. Contact her at email@example.com.
Michael D’Andrea is an associate professor at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is one of the founders of Counselors for Social Justice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Courtland Lee is a past president of the American Counseling Association and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. He is a professor in the counselor education program at the Washington, D.C. campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact him at email@example.com.
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