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Issues of diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice are often confusing and frustrating to discuss. Part of the difficulty is the lack of clear, common language and meanings with which to communicate important ideas. In this chapter, we provide definitions for key concepts as they are discussed. First, however, we define several key terms.

Using the terms multiculturalism and diversity interchangeably when discussing group and individual differences may cause confusion (Arredondo et al., 1996). Within the counseling profession, the term multicultural most often refers to individual and group differences based on race and ethnicity (Flelms & Cook, 1999). Race is a categorization of individuals based on skin color and other physical attributes, historical geographic origin, and the perceptions of the dominant group, whereas ethnicity is an individual's identification with a group based on culture, nationalism, citizenship, or interactions of race, religion, and sociopolitical history (T. Smith & Kehe, 2004). More inclusive definitions of multiculturalism have been criticized for diverting discussion away from issues related to race and ethnicity to other issues when discussion becomes uncomfortable (Flelms & Cook, 1999; Sue & Sue, 2008).

Conversely, the term diversity is used to describe group and individual differences based on other dimensions of differences, as well as race and ethnicity (Arredondo et al., 1996). The dimensions of difference commonly discussed include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability status, age, religion, and spirituality (Adams, Bell, & Griffin, 2007), though other dimensions may also be relevant (Arredondo et al., 1996).

Discussions about counseling diverse clients often refer to cultural differences. Culture is the "characteristic values, behaviors, products, and worldviews of a group of people with a distinct sociohistorical context" (T. Smith & Kehe, 2004, p. 329). Cultural differences may be readily observable as differences in clothing, foods, customs or traditions, and languages, or as subtler but crucial differences in parenting beliefs, family structure, social hierarchy, gender role expectations, communication style, and relationship to time and space. Some do not consider diverse groups such as women or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons to have a distinct group culture (Sue & Sue, 2008); nonetheless, the experience of these groups within surrounding cultures is significant to the counseling process.

Discussing diversity also requires the use of terms to describe social or cultural groups that are numerically superior or hold more power and status than groups that have fewer numbers or less power and status. The terms majority, dominant culture, and agent refer to groups and members of groups who are more numerous or hold more power. The terms minority, nondominant culture, underrepresented, and target refer to groups and members of groups who have fewer numbers and/or less power. In this chapter all terms are used to reflect the literature from which the information was drawn; however, the term diverse clients is used to indicate clients who differ significantly in experiences, culture, or social identity from the counselor and/or who identify predominantly with minority, nondominant culture, underrepresented, or target groups.

It is difficult to work with diverse clients without an understanding of social justice, oppression, and what it means to be a change agent (Ratts, 2009b). The social justice counseling perspective has at its core the goal of full and equal participation of all groups in society (Bell, 2007). D. Goodman (2001) further described social justice as a process of seeking dignity, self-determination, and safety for all people by addressing issues of equity, power, and oppression. Thus, counselors for social justice facilitate client well-being by seeking to establish a more equal distribution of power and resources in society through macrolevel interventions, such as advocacy, as well as addressing client issues in session through microlevel intervention (L. A. Goodman et al., 2004). The premise behind the social justice counseling perspective is the belief that oppression is the root of many client problems. According to Hardiman and Jackson (1982), oppression is "simply not an ideology or set of beliefs that asserts one group's superiority over another. Nor is it random acts of discrimination or harassment toward members of the subordinate group. It is a system of domination with many interlocking parts" (p. 2). A change agent is "someone who strives to move against the status quo when [she or he] feels that it is hurting those individuals whom [she or he] is hying to help" (Baker & Cramer, 1972, p. 661).


The increasing diversity of the U.S. population is often mentioned in the rationale for increased attention to the impact of social and cultural differences on the counseling process (D'Andrea, 2000). According to U.S. Census Bureau (2000) projections, racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States will rise from approximately 30% to near 50% of the population by the year 2050. In the same 2000 census, persons over the age of 65 accounted for nearly 13% of the population, and 20% of the population identified as having a disability. And although the U.S. Census does not track sexual orientation, by some estimates people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual account for up to 15% of the population. These numbers, coupled with the relatively low status and power of the above groups and women in U.S. society (Sue & Sue, 2008), indicate that understanding diversity and working toward social justice are major issues facing this society.

Diversity has the potential to strengthen society, but it may also contribute to misunderstanding, conflict, and oppression (Bell, 2007). The counseling profession is often cited as a resource for promoting the well-being of diverse people; however, it has often failed in this capacity (Prilleltensky, 1994; Sue & Sue, 2008). More specifically, there are suggestions that racial/ethnic minority populations underutilize counseling services, terminate services prematurely, and suffer psychological harm when treated according to traditional models (D'Andrea, 2000), as well as contentions that counseling that does not acknowledge culture issues and societal power dynamics may promote an unjust status quo (Katz, 1985).

These criticisms are generally linked to cultural bias in counseling practice. Issues contributing to cultural bias include such counselor issues as adherence to culturally determined definitions of normal behavior, language and other differences that impede counselor-client communication, minimizing or ignoring the impact of client group sociopolitical history, and underutilization of client support systems and systemic interventions. The goal of addressing these limitations to provide competent counseling to diverse clients continues to be the focus of both the multicultural and social justice counseling perspectives (Ratts, D'Andrea, & Arredondo, 2004).


The need to address issues of diversity in counseling has given rise to two emerging but complementary perspectives. The multicultural counseling perspective has been the predominant perspective represented in the professional literature and organizations. As this perspective has developed and matured, critics have noted its limitations, and the social justice counseling perspective has gained credibility as a complementary perspective that answers the limitations (Vera & Speight, 2003). Although the two perspectives differ to some degree, they share many foundational values, concepts, and skills. For readers to more fully understand both perspectives, it is useful to review their history, similarities, and differences.

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