How and Why I Stood up to Critical Social Justice Theory in Counselling Training

Before the diversity section of the counselling course I was on, our tutors were training us in counselling techniques, a variety of theories, and facilitating an ongoing personal development group. Confidentiality was agreed at the start, as in all counselling training. 

The counselling techniques involved being empathic, viewing clients with unconditional positive regard, giving our full attention, listening carefully to everything clients say without judgement, and believing in the value of each individual, among other things. The theories were taught in a balanced way, allowing us to make up our own minds. The personal development group was working reasonably well, encouraging communication about some inevitable differences of opinion. So far, so good. 

After a few months, we came to the diversity section of the course. Suddenly, it was as if one of the tutors had changed personality. A bullying approach appeared, although I didn’t know it was based on CSJT at the time. We were all the oppressor and racist, because we were white. (I had never been openly accused of this before, just because of my skin colour.) It seemed so simplistic and insulting that I objected immediately, and continued to do so. We were a diverse group, with many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, yet were all classified as one thing, “white”. 

The glaring difference between how we were trained to treat our clients, and the way we were being treated, was so contradictory that it needed to be challenged. The tutors were in a position of power over us, their students, and were taking advantage of it. Our future as counsellors was in their hands. This increased my motivation to challenge them. 

I realised immediately that their arguments were weak, and easy to refute. But they backed them up with aggressive tactics, and hid behind confidentiality. (If we had been allowed to speak openly about their ideas and behaviour outside the course, I don’t believe they would have been so aggressive.) Abuse of power thrives on secrecy. 

Once bullies know what you are scared of, they can get to work. In this case, it was the fear of being accused of racism. Superficially, many counselling trainees may appear to submit, but it just creates resentment, together with a low opinion of their tutors. They talk about this with each other, not in front of the tutors. There is also a fear of being isolated and unpopular, if you are the only one to speak out. I was willing to risk this, and in fact once I had spoken out, I didn’t feel isolated. Others became more vocal, some in agreement, some not. The personal development group was a good place to discuss the tensions that arose, and I think it helped us get through the difficulties. 

Although the process was messy at times, I survived the course and qualified as a counsellor. I didn’t submit. Equally important, we learnt to coexist, without agreeing on this matter. There’s some hope in that.

‘Rose Bonsall’


One comment

  1. “The tutors were in a position of power over us, their students, and were taking advantage of it.”

    Don’t you find it wonderfully interesting? They will constantly caution and remind us of the power differential we have over clients, and to be careful not to impose our values and beliefs through this relationship. They will place special emphasis on the (hypothetical) differential in power between a white counselor and a client of color. Then these very same people will turn around and use *their* power over students and subordinates to impose their beliefs and views on *us*.

    “In this case, it was the fear of being accused of racism.”

    Yes, another interesting point: supposedly we live in a racist, white supremacist society. Racism is everywhere and built into the very fabric of reality. Yet, short of an accusation of sexual impropriety or pedophilia, there is no greater accusation you can level at someone, no greater silencing tactic, than to call them “racist”. For such a “racist culture”, we sure do find racism unpalatable.

    I’m glad things worked out for you. You have my respect and gratitude. Good luck in your feature endeavours.

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