Introduction

Diversity modules among therapy students’ graduate/professional training by now are no doubt imbued, at least in part, by Critical Social Justice (CSJ) theories. It is Critical Therapy Antidote’s goal to aid students in effectively navigating their diversity modules through their coursework, and do so while standing on solid ground. The fear of dissent from nearly anything professors teach about social justice is pervasive and experienced by students from multiple disciplines, including psychology, social work, counseling, and psychotherapy. The goal of the following protocol is to offer some solid ground on which students can stand when they come across critical social justice ideological stances in the classroom. 

Context

First, it is important to understand traditional theories of therapy, what they have in common, and learn where and how Critical Social Justice (CSJ) violates these core beliefs of counseling and psychotherapy. For example, most of the profession’s foundational theorists believe that the therapeutic relationship is of paramount importance. As such, theories which undermine or otherwise make it more difficult to establish therapeutic relationships and rapport are practically a non-starter. Now consider how critical theories such as intersectionality operate, by their very nature they emphasise how two people are different, rather than all the ways they are the same. CSJ theories also contain theoretical underpinnings which posit that individuals who occupy different positions have experiences which those who occupy other positions simply cannot understand. A belief which underpins the best of therapy is that through the therapeutic alliance, a counselor and client can create a strong connection regardless of their differences.

The next thing is to understand the literature from which the ideology draws its power. One core component of CSJ’s effectiveness is its wordplay. It is common for research articles of this type to use esoteric academic jargon that is notoriously difficult to decipher and describe to the layperson. One way to help with this is to learn exactly what the jargon means in its own terms. Fortunately, significant work has been done on this. James Lindsay’s Social Justice Encyclopedia has definitions of numerous critical social justice buzzwords, along with examples from the CSJ literature. Using this resource, one can learn to speak the language more fluently and make objections using the terms properly. And, of course, all the articles published here on CTA deal with these issues specifically.

Guidance

This section is addressed to students who find themselves having to take compulsory modules which are informed by Critical Social Justice (CSJ) theories. The guidance is not intended to be prescriptive in any shape or form. Instead it is offered as a support. It is important that you know that you are not alone—a steady stream of emails have been coming into the CTA inbox all describing experiences of struggling with CSJ-informed training. One common theme appears to be that if you are the student who stands up to this in the classroom, no one else will speak up with you. But afterwards other students will approach you privately and agree with you. One of the factors implicated in this behavior is the group dynamics that come into play. The pressure experienced by peers to conform to the accepted beliefs of the ingroup is intense.

Before we offer a framework of strategies, it is necessary to make a much more general point. It is important to trust your instincts and intuition. If you sense there is something wrong with the teaching then trust yourself. There are resources at your disposal that can help you identify what the problem is. You could use personal therapy, for example, to explore in confidence. You can start to sound out trusted friends and colleagues. You can also begin to raise your concerns with other trusted peers on the course. It may be that this is not the right time for you to engage with any of the strategies offered in the next section. However, becoming clearer in your own mind is a very good preparation for a more public stand further down the road.

Strategies

In this section we look at various strategies you could employ for the task of managing the diversity elements in your program without compromising your own integrity/authenticity. These strategies are grouped along a continuum from minimal challenge through to maximum challenge.  We have used a stages framework but, it is likely to be much more fluid than this. You can choose from these strategies depending on the level of challenge that the ideology is presenting on the course and/or the level of challenge you feel ready to engage with. However, it goes without saying, that any attempt to challenge the status quo is unlikely to be well received. You will need to take into account your own personal circumstances before employing any of the following.

Stage 1: The diversity teaching inclines towards CSJ theories but the ideology is not imposed on the students. The strategy focuses on articulating your position through:

  • Developing your grasp of the literature and make informed counter-arguments within the assignments.
  • Initiating class/group discussions on other approaches to social justice.
  • Developing a set of clear and non-antagonistic position statements e.g.:
    • It appears that Derald Wing Sue’s hypothetical examples of counselors lacking cultural competence actually reflect lack of basic counseling competence.
    • I believe that Sue’s racial identity development descriptions are overly generalized and simplistic and do not account for differing individual experiences’ 
    • I believe that Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectional theory is useful but it is not the only framework.
    • Examples of Diangelo’s “white privilege” including growing up in the racial majority and not having negative experiences with law enforcement, etc., are more representative of a white middle-class upbringing and there will be a large number of “white” individuals who do not find themselves represented by these models. 
    • The ADDRESSING Model’s oppressed/oppressor matrix of intersectional identities makes assumptions at each level of categorical identity that, while perhaps useful from a sociological perspective, are too broad to have significant meaning on an individual level.

Stage 2: The diversity teaching is mainly informed by CSJ theories and there is an expectation that the students accept the basic tenets. The strategy focuses on drawing attention to the incompatibility of CSJ with counseling theory through:

[All of Stage 1 plus:]

  • Ask respectful clarifying questions that focus on how the tutors think that CSJ can be integrated into counseling theory such as:  
    • How can CSJ’s group perspective be integrated into mainstream counseling approaches? 
    • How can CSJ’s view of relationship always grounded in oppression be compatible with the notion of the therapeutic relationship?  
    • How does “broaching” race with my client and encouraging them to increase their racial identity salience if their current racial identity salience is low help that client to work through the issues they have brought to therapy rather than create a new set of concerns for the client?  
    • Is encouraging a client to focus on race and identity when they are not coming in for this purpose not an example of the counselor being heavily directive and imposing a value system on the client?
    • As a counselor, am I not actually being racist toward my client by taking the attitude that I can tell something substantive about them by the color of their skin and placing so much emphasis on their race/ethnicity?  

Stage 3: The diversity teaching is grounded in CSJ theories and students are pathologized if they offer up principled resistance. The strategy focuses on how CSJ, in practice, contravenes the training ethos as follows:

[All of Stages 1 and 2 plus]:

  • Take opportunities to reflect verbally in the classroom context on how different you are finding the experience of the diversity teaching to the rest of the program.
  • Ask respectful and non-antagonistic questions that can illuminate the authoritarian/anti-therapeutic nature of CSJ, e.g.: 
    • How would the lecturer work with a client who rejected CSJ theories?  
    • How can a position that understands human society as a nested system of power relations be integrated into therapy?  
    • How are the racial generalizations offered for multicultural counseling different from harmful and offensive racial stereotyping?  
    • Given that CSJ emphasizes the value of the collective identity over that of the individual, are we not potentially doing harm to the client when we use CSJ collectivist values to determine how to work with them based on their group identity rather than experiencing them as a unique individual?
  • Begin to keep a record of instances where the relational modeling offered by the tutors contradicts the ethos of the course.
  • Volunteer to be the cohort student representative for official course meetings and have your feedback noted formally.
  • Call out any practices that involve shaming fellow peers in order to induce them to comply with the ideology.
  • Call out overly simplistic teaching tools that utilize stereotyping or derogatory humor, or contradict basic social psychological understanding of in-group/out-group dynamics.

Stage 4: The diversity teaching is completely ideological and the trainer/student relationship is coercively controlling i.e. abusive. The strategy focuses on using formal procedures to counter abusive practices as follows:

[All of Stages 1, 2 and 3 plus:]

  • Work out where your limits are and what you will/will not comply with, e.g. you may be required to participate in a social justice activist project as part of a module assessment.  
  • Scrutinise the published course descriptions and find statements relating to the course ethos. Note any discrepancies with how the diversity module is delivered.
  • Form alliances with other students who are having similar responses.
  • Approach the course leader and arrange a formal meeting to air your concerns and request that minutes are taken.
  • Meet with your advisor and consider also contacting the department chair and/or the Provost to discuss and document your concerns.
  • Document all communications with professors and faculty about these issues.
  • Consider seeking legal redress for misrepresentation of services.