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KEY CONCEPTS OF COUNSELING WITH DIVERSE CLIENTS

Becoming a counselor who is competent in diversity and social justice means learning to view self, others, and the world in new ways. The process of stepping outside one's life experience to understand and interact differently with others is inherently difficult. Counseling theories assist counselors in this process by providing a framework for understanding clients and their concerns, defining the counseling relationship, suggesting the goals and overall process of counseling, and describing interventions and strategies to achieve these goals. Although no comprehensive counseling theories exist that address all aspects of diversity, we review in this section a range of useful theories, concepts, and suggestions for understanding and working with diverse clients.

According to Constantine (2001), counselors need to be able to understand diverse clients and their concerns in terms of sociocultural and systemic factors to adequately treat them. However, most traditional counseling theories do not account for these factors and contain culturally determined assumptions about behavior that tend to skew judgments of abnormality toward diverse clients (Sue & Sue, 2008). Fortunately, the diversity, multicultural, and social justice counseling literature provide theories and concepts that help integrate sociocultural and systemic factors into the understanding of diverse clients and their concerns. The following sections describe three such concepts: the oppression model, social identity development, and worldview.

Understanding Diverse Clients Through the Oppression Model

Both multicultural and social justice counseling perspectives stress the importance of understanding clients and their concerns in terms of the systems in which they develop and live. This type of understanding allows counselors to see themselves, their clients, and the counseling relationship as part of societal systems; envision external barriers to client wellbeing; and implement systemic interventions such as advocacy. One way to conceptualize societal systems is through the oppression model (Bell, 2007).

Social identity groups are a collection of people who share physical, cultural, or social characteristics within one of the categories of social identity. The common social identity group categories included in discussions of diversity are race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, age, and religion (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). According to the oppression model, within each identity group category, specific identity groups are valued more highly and, consequently, have more power than other groups. Social identity groups with more power are known as dominant or agent groups. Currently in the United States, agent groups include Whites, heterosexuals, males, the "able-bodied," the upper class, and young or middle-aged adults (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007). Social identity groups that have less power are known as target groups and include, but are not limited to, people of color; gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people; females; people with disabilities; the working class or poor; and older adults or the very young (Hardiman & Jackson, 2007).

Oppression begins with agent groups systematically devaluing the values, beliefs, and experiences of target groups. A multileveled socialization process that occurs both overtly and covertly perpetuates this devaluation. Many social and psychological processes contribute to the devaluation process, but the basic dynamics can be understood through examining the roles of stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and privilege.

Stereoh/pes are negative generalizations about social identity groups and group members. Stereotypes allow people to selectively attend to negative group attributes, which may or may not exist, and form simplistic, negative views that deny the complexity of human identity. Consequently, many prejudices are based on stereotypes. Prejudices are judgments of social identity groups or group members made without adequate information or contact (T. Smith & Kehe, 2004). Prejudices serve individual and group psychological needs by contrasting with another group or by justifying unequal treatment of other groups. This, the active form of prejudice, is called discrimination.

Discrimination is behavior by one social identity group that causes harm to members of other social identity groups (T. Smith & Kehe, 2004). Discrimination can take several forms. Individual and institutional discrimination result from the actions of individuals and institutions and are intended to discriminate against target social identity groups and individuals. Structural discrimination results from policies and practices that unintentionally discriminate against target social identity groups.

Related to structural discrimination is privilege, which is defined as unearned access to resources that is readily available to members of agent groups (T. Smith & Kehe, 2004). Because of their access to resources and power, members of agent groups can function without understanding the needs of target groups and group members and are, consequently, blinded to their own privilege and to the experiences of target groups and group members. Thus, privilege is much more difficult to identify and eradicate than overt discrimination.

Unfortunately, privilege, because of its association with agents in decision-making positions, its ability to blind agents to the needs and experiences of target groups and group members, and its invisibility, allows for the creation of policies, laws, organizations, and institutions that are discriminatory. These structures continue to socialize generations of agents to privilege while socializing targets to oppression, powerlessness, and discrimination.

The material, emotional, and relational results of oppression are very relevant to the counseling process. Clients may lack access to resources such as basic human needs and education and suffer discriminatory treatment by banks, law enforcement, and employers. The experience of being oppressed profoundly affects how target groups and individuals view themselves and others. The emotional results of oppression include internalized oppression, learned helplessness, and functional paranoia (Sue & Sue, 2008). Additionally, the relational results of oppression may manifest in the therapeutic relationship as mistrust and anger (Helms & Cook, 1999).

The oppression model gives counselors a basic framework to understand the large and small systems in which counselors and clients function, understand agent and target client experiences, and understand themselves as people who have also developed within these systems. The oppression model also reminds practitioners to be vigilant for oppression, discrimination, and privilege and to assume that all dominant culture systems may have some oppressive aspects.

 
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