Counselling, Race and Diversity

Race is a 19th century pseudo-scientific construction that has been discredited since the human species (homo sapiens) could not be genetically thus compartmentalized. There are of course superficial visible differences that have been historically identified, for example, as Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid. Superior force allied to the development of science and technology favoured the European Caucasoid races (so-called) and enabled them to define and dominate the modern world order. There followed an assumption of superiority by the Whites over Blacks and Yellow 'races'. Racism is based on the belief that perceived racial differences also account for differences in innate human characteristics and ability. Although debunked by science, such beliefs persist and are still the cause of discrimination and prejudice.

Racism is not the same as ethnocentrism. While race is seen as defining the identity of a person with fixed innate and unalterable characteristics, ethnic identity is acquired and learned through a shared culture of language, customs and belief systems, and often a shared geography. Today, there is more concern over ethnic differences than race in creating divisiveness in the world and therefore has the gravest implications for counselling relationships. That does not mean that racism does not exist in some contexts just as sexism remains an issue requiring continuous monitoring and sometimes litigation even in the industrially developed countries of the world today.

Recognition - that monocultural models of counselling and therapy that prevailed until the mid-20th century to deal with problems presented by today's racial and ethnic diversity in most nation states was inadequate - led to rethinking in favour of a multicultural approach (Sue & Sue 1999). Hitherto, counsellors and therapists had been trained in the psychodynamic, person-centred, and cognitive behaviour therapy models, to name but a salient few. Sue and Sue (1999) were the first to propose a theory of multicultural counselling and therapy (MCT). The hitherto 'invisible other' became aggressively visible with the Black Civil Rights Movement (US), and compelled counsellors to explore the impact of cultural identity and diversity in the counselling relationship. The aim of counselling was no longer to encourage and enforce 'assimilation' of the 'other' into the dominant culture, but to empathise and explore the assumptive world of the client from whatever background he/she came from. Integration, rather than assimilation, where individuals belonging to a minority culture could preserve their cultural identity, and co-exist with the majority, began to be valued.

It was soon evident that counsellors could no longer ignore their own cultural background and how that impacted on a client from other, quite different backgrounds. The counsellor needed to be aware of the socio-political influences which shape a minority client without which there would be no basis for communication.

Increasingly, counsellors are required to offer their services to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. However, commentators on 'diversity and counselling' have argued against 'target group oriented approaches. Individuals in these groups do not necessarily have similar experiences nor do they react to their experiences in any standardised fashion.

Target group orientation 'constructs' the clientele targeted by the counselling programmes mostly in terms of characteristics of individuals or social groups. Such construction practices are criticised in the social sciences as essentialising, because the individual life situation of the person affected is reduced in its legal, economic and social dimensions to this one differentiating characteristic; all other personality characteristics are regarded as secondary or subsidiary to the fact that the person is among other things a migrant, has a disability.

It is alleged that currently there are around 145 million people who have chosen to live outside their country of origin. The majority of these people are voluntary migrants in search of a better life (to them) in a new country. Indeed, the UN estimates that about 2 million people will annually migrate from the less developed regions of the world to developed countries until at least the year 2050. However, an increasing number of today's migrants are asylum seekers and refugees forced to flee their country of origin due to wars, natural catastrophes, and ethnic conflict. Intercultural counselling to deal with the process of integration or assimilation in the host countries of such a large and diverse influx of people is becoming ever more urgent and imperative. Diversity and pluralism are the hallmarks of the postmodern world.

The British Psychological Society in a Special Issue on Refugees and Asylum Seekers sought to address this problem. See The Psychologist, March 2007. It uses the more inclusive term 'community psychology', rather than the somewhat emotive cross-cultural, transcultural or intercultural, terminology that has gained currency in the US. Community psychology is said to draw upon the philosophical 'ideas of social constructionism' (op cit p156). As early as the 1960's Gilbert Wrenn was advocating that counsellors should take a total, global view of their clients in their 'social/cultural predicament' (Wrenn, 1964). Social constructionism as the guiding principle of counselling and therapy has also given rise to the recognition of the importance of narrative or story telling as the primary mode of discourse and dialogue between client and therapist. Gergen says that it is only counselling discourse that 'enables clients to re-story their lives, to conceptualize their life trajectories in new and more livable ways'.

Again, it was Wrenn who first coined the term 'cultural encapsulation' to draw attention to the plight of the counsellor who was unable to break out from his or her own cultural framework and see the world from another's perspective. The culturally encapsulated counsellor, according to Wrenn (op cit) 'holds at the centre a notion of normality 'derived from the dominant (white, middle class)) culture, which is irrelevant to many clients and most likely could alienate them. Paul Pedersen (1991) continues the argument by referring to the 'encapsulated counsellor' who brings his/her own biases and does not test them against the client's perception of self and others. His definition of multicultural counselling is much broader and includes:

Ethnographic variables such as ethnicity, nationality, religion and language; demographic variables such as age, gender and place of residence; status variables such as social, educational and economic; and affiliations including both formal affiliations to family or organizations and informal affiliations to ideas and a lifestyle (p. 229).

As the humanist counsellors have always recognized, both clients' and counsellors' 'identities are formed and embedded in multiple levels of experience (individual, group and universal) and contexts (individual, family and cultural milieu)'. The consensus is clearly that there are many more variables one has to contend with when counselling clients from backgrounds very different from that of the counsellor.

Let us remind ourselves of the commonly agreed minimum skills asked of the counsellor before undertaking counselling work. To begin with, the counsellor must have respect for the clients' person and his/her value system. The counsellor is expected to be non-judgemental and show positive regard. He/she should develop rapport and gain the trust of the client. He/she should listen actively, use reflective skills so as not to misunderstand the client's concerns. He/she should not shirk from self-disclosure when that is called for. This means that the counsellor is authentic and models authentic behaviour and expects the same from the client.

The counsellor has to be aware of transference and counter-transference issues which to a large extent are unconscious, according to the psychodynamic model from which they originated. In the context of intercultural counselling, transference could mean the extrapolation of feelings and responses toward the new culture from the old without adaptation. These need to be worked through. Counter-transference on the part of the counsellor could be in the form of uncritical projection of pre-conceived attitudes towards members of a particular group. This, for example, may surface as unintentional racism or sexism.

This essay has utilized concepts like race, racism, ethnicity, diversity, and pluralism, influencing the increasingly complex intercultural milieu within which counsellors and clients interact. The practice of counselling cannot be conducted outside an ethical and value laden setting. In any counselling relationship, unless the underlying assumptions, beliefs, values and goals of both parties are not elicited in dialogue (particularly with attention paid to non-verbal cues) there is little likelihood of resolving differences and gaining a positive outcome. We have not even touched upon the role of interpreters where the client and the counsellor are conversant in different languages and cannot have a dialogue directly with each other. Much research yet remains to be done in intercultural counselling.


Gergen, K. (1999) An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage.

Pedersen, P.B. (1991) 'Multiculturism as a generic framework', Journal of Counselling and Development 1991, 70, 1: 6-12.

Sue, D.W. and Sue, D. (1999) (3rd Ed.) Counselling the Culturally Different: Theory and Practice. New York: Wiley.

Wrenn, C.G.(1964) 'Human lives and work in American life', in H.Borow (ed.) Man in a World at Work. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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