“In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?”
― Carl R. Rogers
As a graduate psychology student in an American university, I have been taught that we are all racists, whether we know it or not. Admit to racism? Racist! Deny it? Extra racist! If you are white, you are obviously a racist and if you do not think so, you are also a dangerous white supremacist. If you are not white and do not agree with this framework, it is because you have internalized white supremacy. These Kafka traps and circular arguments lack logic and leave no room for philosophical disagreement with the ideology, which gaslights the critical thinker and is detrimental to the mental and emotional wellbeing of those who disagree with its superficial reframe of interracial dynamics but are held hostage by it in our professional and academic lives.
For the past three years I have been studying at a university that is pushing this unethical and illogical ideology in the name of “Social Justice,” and has lost touch with the basic ethics of individual counseling in the process. Under the guise of combatting racism, this school is indoctrinating future counselors using a group identity-based curriculum, instructing them to view their primary role not as helping professionals but as “activists” and “advocates,” and to view their clients not as unique individuals, but as vehicles for “systemic change” and reservoirs of racism and oppression. To understand why this is inappropriate, we should establish what racism really is and why it is wrong. I will provide examples of some of the shockingly distorted pedagogy this school employs to invert the principle of racial equality, and how this illogical framework is detrimental to good mental health on both the individual and societal level. This retributive ideology has no place in a counseling graduate program; Social Justice training is anti-individualist, and therefore fundamentally at odds with ethical individual therapy.
So what is racism and how is it harmful? We could describe racism as the assumption/association of unwanted/negative stereotyped characteristics with a particular racial/ethnic group and the subsequent prejudicial, or pre-judging, behavior towards individuals who are perceived to belong to that group. It is wrong because it is inherently unfair to apply stereotyped negative assumptions about behavior or characteristics to individuals based on demographic attributes that are outside their control, and treating individuals differently based on such assumptions can create negative outcomes for those individuals that they have done nothing to deserve. When racial discrimination is widespread in a culture these negative outcomes are magnified and can have broad societal and intergenerational implications.
The many experiences of racism in a culture form observable patterns that can and should be considered on a sociological level, but most importantly each of those experiences impacts an individual who directly feels the negative outcomes of racism. Even at the group level, we are still talking about an aggregation of individual harms. So a simple answer to ‘why is racism wrong?’ could be: because it is unfair for individuals to be persecuted/oppressed for negative feelings others have about people who look similar to them. Put another way, it is essentially wrong because racism is anti-individualist, valuing group identity above everything else that makes up a person.
This is pretty basic stuff, right? I learned these principles when I was a child, and have heard them repeated and reinforced all throughout my life. Indeed, racial equality (the right of every person to be treated as an individual without unfair racial stereotyping) seems to have been a universal value widely promoted in American culture. That racism is wrong is axiomatic. Our most legendary cultural villain, Hitler, is reviled precisely because he epitomizes the dangers of racism taken to its extreme, and it is through the stories of the individuals affected by his racism, like Anne Frank, that we have been able to understand the pain of that experience.
This is why it was so jarring to me when I first encountered academically endorsed racism in my graduate curriculum. Using benevolent sounding terms like “Social Justice” and “Anti-racism,” this school is indoctrinating students into a new way of thinking about race. This ideology, typically referred to as Critical Social Justice Theory or Critical Race Theory, has forsaken the principle of racial equality, replacing it with a sneaky homophone: racial “equity.” Unlike “equality,” a principled and ethics-based maxim, racial “equity” is based on retribution and score-settling.
Just as Social Justice advocates replace equality with equity, they use similar sleight of hand with other terms. For instance, Anti-racism does not mean being against the concept of racism; it means being against “whiteness” or white people, the historical majority ethnicity in our country who, as majorities do, have had disproportionate ability to impact others through prejudicial behaviors and attitudes. Social Justice and Anti-racism advocates deny that anti-“whiteness” is racism with the hollow claim that prejudice against an individual belonging to majority demographic cannot be racist because by virtue of belonging to the majority demographic they enjoy “privileges” that insulate them from potential negative effects. They do not explain whether or how, if their anti-white prejudices are taken to their logical conclusion (a society in which all white people are openly stigmatized and marginalized) this equation would change. They also do not explain how treating individuals within this particular group of people poorly based on negative stereotyped assumptions is morally acceptable, while doing so to individuals from other groups is morally reprehensible. Does the Social Justice ideologue desire a perpetual pendulum swing between racial groups oppressing a majority group into marginalization and then switching sides to repeat the process?
Like the racism Americans have chosen to reject on principle, Social Justice Anti-racism is patently anti-individualist, for it holds that group identity determines one’s ultimate value. Individual impacts do not matter to Social Justice equity proponents, who focus only on group identity. If this were not true, Social Justice ideologues would acknowledge that all white people do not have a monolithic, “privileged,” experience, nor do all “BIPOC” people feel marginalized and oppressed by their culture. A fool could tell you that there is more complexity in the human experience than one can guess by observing skin color, but to a Social Justice proponent, skin color is the trump card, and all other attributes are almost irrelevant. Thus Social Justice throws the baby out with the bathwater: if the harm of racial discrimination is experienced on the individual level, and groups are but aggregates of individuals, yet individuals do not matter- then what are they fighting for? And how is Social Justice with its Anti-racist white racism morally superior to the racism it purports to be against? And why are more psychology scholars not calling out these obvious logical inconsistencies? No amount of Orwellian wordplay or academic window dressing can turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse: Social Justice Anti-racism IS racism.
If the myopic venom of this movement against individuality in general and white people in particular is stunning, its encroachment into counselor education is even more so. I had one teacher, herself a white woman, ironically, instruct us that “white women’s tears” should be of lesser value to us as counselors because white women have historically used crying to manipulate others. This naked attempt to reduce empathy towards an entire demographic is horrifying in the context of counselor training, as is the metric by which we were told to assess our status relative to that of our clients: by using the ADDRESSING Model. The ADDRESSING Model is a matrix for determining your social power status by assigning yourself an “O” for “Oppressor” or an “M” for “Marginalized” in each of the following acronymic categories: age, disability (developmental), disability (acquired), religion, ethnicity/race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, national origin, and gender. Simply tally up your Ms and Os to find out whether you are an oppressive force or a marginalized victim. Do so for all of your clients so you will know how to feel about yourself when working with them, and so you can educate them about their oppressive or marginalized identity, as well. Oh, and as my teacher instructed us: if the person checks the Marginalized box for race, their identity is Marginalized, regardless of other inputs.
Social Justice-trained counselors are expected to “broach race” early in the client-counselor relationship, and work with clients to “increase racial identity salience.” This is to be done regardless of the client’s reasons for seeking therapy, and regardless of the client’s race. If the client is white, this is an opportunity for reeducating them so they can learn to feel bad about their “whiteness” and their contribution to the oppression of marginalized “folx.” If the client is not white, they should be educated about the myriad ways they have been the victims of a system of white supremacy and encouraged to resent and reject the “white supremacist patriarchal cis-normative power structure.” I know it is hard to believe that a graduate level psychology program can take so simplistic a view of human identity, but this is truly what we were taught.
Not a week goes by when the program fails to invite students to participate in a “white accountability group” or a “BIPOC affinity group.” My school sends out memoranda informing us how to feel about newsworthy events from the January 6 Capital protests to the Rittenhouse verdict- full of pathos and phrases like “black and brown bodies” and absent any attempt at political neutrality. My faculty advisor recently admitted to me that while she supports the Social Justice mission, she is concerned that the school is not producing counselors who are able to work with “Trump supporters,” and that she expects this political bias to increase. She also warned me that the ideological slant is only going to increase, and told me that if I do not like it, I should just ignore it.
None of this is to say that I think race relations in modern America are all hunky dory, or that we have fully achieved the ideal of racial equality. Our culture is a living, evolving thing, and these ideas about the realities of racial inequality and tension have a valid place in sociology and population level studies, as well as in a lively and ongoing philosophical discourse. Likewise, discussion of our cultural milieu is important for psychologists and counselors who will see clients from diverse backgrounds and need to have a broad understanding of contextual factors that may influence their development and life challenges. But as counselors we are not interacting on the societal level; we help people by their ones and twos, as individuals or families, or in small groups. We work in the realm of the intimate, of understanding and empathizing on the individual level. It is not our task to remake the client with an ideological cookie cutter, but to work alongside the client to further his or her growth, to examine, to grieve, to expand. Distracting individuals from their work on themselves in order to redirect their focus toward race serves what purpose? How can this help but increase resentment and racial tension, among people of all racial/ethnic groups? And most importantly in the context of counseling, how does this meet your client’s needs and strengthen your therapeutic relationship?
When you tell me to look with a jaundiced eye on the tears of my white women clients, how is this benefiting them, me, or my clients who check different demographic boxes? How is this anything but using me as a vehicle for your vendetta? I refuse to participate in this corruption of human decency and the values with which I was raised. I refuse to use the counseling role to promote racial segregation rather than understanding and resilience. This is why I will not sign my school’s mandatory Social Justice “Diversity Pledge” and am seriously considering abandoning the program even though I only have a few courses to complete. As much as I want the Master’s degree that I have worked so hard for, it is not worth compromising my principles and supporting an institution I believe is a destructive social force. My wish for those who do decide to stay the course and graduate from this program is this: I hope that you can open your mind despite your training to see your clients not as Ms and Os in a matrix but as unique individuals with infinite complexity, whatever the color of their skin. I sincerely hope that the future of counseling is not racist.
By Leslie Elliott, a holistic wellness coach in Washington State. She works alongside her clients using an existential, person-centered approach, and currently has no plans to pursue licensure.