A photograph of the book Working Within Diversity by Myira Khan lying on a wooden bench with a lavender bush beside

“We must be clear on what we mean by ‘oppression’ and ‘anti-oppressive’”

This extract from Myira Khan’s Working Within Diversity pinpoints what is meant by the term ‘anti-oppression’ when working as a counsellor or therapist, and five problems with the term ‘working with diversity’. We hope you find this snippet of Myira’s ground-breaking book interesting!

To be intentional in developing and offering an anti-oppressive practice in therapy and supervision, we need to acknowledge how current practice is oppressive, and we must be clear on what we mean by ‘oppression’ and ‘anti-oppressive’.

What is oppression?

Oppression: The systematic targeting of a non-dominant low social status group by a dominant high social status group through their power and prejudice, by marginalising, discriminating and disempowering the non-dominant group, for the benefit of the dominant group to retain and maintain their systemic and structural power, authority and privilege.

What is anti-oppressive practice?

Anti-oppressive practice explicitly acknowledges structural and systemic inequalities, systems of oppression and the entire power-oppression relational dynamic, whereby social groups are either powerful and privileged (relationally oppressing other groups) at one end of the spectrum or being minoritised and marginalised (relationally oppressed by the dominant groups) at the other end of the spectrum. This supports an understanding of how each person is shaped by their lived experiences, by the underlying systemic and structural context of their lived experiences and which end of systems of oppression and power-oppression relational dynamics they experience.

Anti-oppressive practice supports the facilitation and approach to offer a relational dynamic of equality and flatten the power-oppression hierarchy in our practice, in our processes and our relationships. It identifies the ‘out there’ context within which clients have their lived experiences of privilege and/or oppression, whilst also acknowledging the structural inequalities of the ‘in here’ context and working to flatten the power and oppression between counsellor and client. This offers a therapeutic process and relationship, which holds the client in equal regard to the practitioner, without the client being marginalised, minoritised or ‘othered’ by the therapeutic practice or practitioner.

We need to understand that current practice can take up an oppressive dynamic and stance, both consciously and unconsciously, both intentionally and unintentionally. One place where this is happening is in the labelling and teaching of ‘working with diversity and/or difference’.

The oppressive stance of ‘Working with Diversity and/or Difference’

Whenever difference or diversity is taught on counselling or psychotherapy training programmes how it is usually presented is under this term ‘working with diversity and/or difference’.

When broken down, there are five inherent problems with the oppressive term ‘working with diversity and/or difference’, listed below and then each explained in further detail.

The five problems are:

1. The ‘bolt-on’

2. Client as ‘diverse’ and Counsellor as ‘normative’

3. Counsellor’s identity is missing

4. Relational dynamic and power in therapeutic relationships

5. Unequal weighting on client’s identity

1. The ‘bolt-on’

The term is problematic because it places ‘working with diversity and/or difference’ as something separate to the therapeutic relationship, rather than it being part of or considered within the therapeutic relationship. Instead it is positioned and contextualised as an add on, as an additional concept to think about after we have already thought about the therapeutic relationship. This so often then gets reflected in where it gets positioned in the counselling training itself, as a ‘bolt on’ part of the teaching, rather than an integral, embedded and integrated aspect of clinical work and the therapeutic relationship. When ‘diversity’ training is positioned as a bolt on, it is seen as an addition, unimportant and a tick box. By having it central and embedded, it can rightly be positioned as a core aspect of empathy and the therapeutic relationship, to understand the Truth of our clients.

2. Client as ‘diverse’ or ‘different’ and counsellor as ‘normative’

The term ‘working with diversity and/or difference’ is oppressive in its nature because of how it sets up and positions the counsellor and client in relation to each other. We have for too long positioned ‘working with diversity and/or difference’ training as the identity label. The identity of ‘difference’ or ‘diversity’ itself gets positioned and projected onto the client. This can only in return position, label and identity the counsellor as ‘normative’ or neutral, with the client being ‘different’ from the normative and centred counsellor.

‘Working with’ sets up the relational dynamic that the normative counsellor is in relationship with the ‘difference’ or ‘diverse’ identity, that being the client. The client in being labelled as ‘diverse’ or ‘different’ from the counsellor, relationally positions the client as the ‘other’ from the normative centred position of the counsellor, who is seen belonging to the majority position. This places and locates ‘diversity’ in the client’s identity and implies that the client’s identity is ‘diverse’, and the client is ‘different’ from the centred counsellor or normative ‘characteristics’ of Whiteness, middle-class, middle-aged and heterosexual. (Fig. 1).

This places therapeutic relationships as being between a normative, neutral centred-counsellor and a ‘different’ or ‘diverse’ client, which is problematic for both the therapeutic relationship and process, as the counsellor is now working ‘with’ someone outside of their ‘norm’, someone who is immediately seen as different to them, which is the process of the client being ‘othered’ by the counsellor.

3. Counsellor’s identity is missing

The focus on the client and their ‘diverse’ or ‘different’ identity makes no reference to the counsellor’s identity or its impact on the therapeutic relationship or process. The identity of the counsellor is essentially missing and doesn’t get considered, when looking at the relationship, to understand how and why the dynamic is unfolding in the way it is and how and why the client is relating to the counsellor in the way they are. This denies any influence or impact from the counsellor and places all responsibility and understanding on the client and their identity, that it can’t be because of the counsellor’s identity or who they represent to the client, either consciously or unconsciously.

4. Relational dynamic and power in the therapeutic relationship

‘Working with’ sets up a conscious and unconscious relational dynamic between the normative counsellor and ‘different’ client, for which the power differential between the two positions of ‘normative’ and ‘different from the normative’ is played out in the relationship.

This positions any client, with any different characteristic in their identity from the counsellor, as somebody who then becomes the ‘other’ and by doing so the counsellor immediately positions the client as different from themselves and what is deemed normal or normative. This sets up a relationship dynamic where the counsellor then perceives the client or tries to make sense of the client’s world through the counsellor’s normative or neutral lens. The counsellor ends up in an observational position with their normative lens.

Working with ‘diversity’ inherently implies a ‘diversion’ from the normative too, which looks to diversity as an external reflection of clients. It is not working within diversity. This is the privilege and social positioning of practitioners within the profession and training.

This can lead to the client’s issues or narrative not always being understood from the client’s own lived experience, frame of reference or internal world but instead observed and interpreted through the counsellor’s normative lens. When the counsellor positions themselves in this neutral normative position not only is the counsellor’s own identity not being taken into consideration but the relationship itself between the client and counsellor is then not being understood as two identities in relationship with one another. Instead the client’s identity is seen as different, and this becomes oppressive in its practise because the client is being seen and related to as if they are a minority or different from the norm or majority and the client is then perceived and related to as the other or the outsider. This can unconsciously invite an oppressor-oppressed power dynamic to be played out in the relationship because the counsellor takes up a position of power over the client. In later chapters we will address how a power dynamic can get played out in therapeutic relationships and why we need to be mindful of conscious and unconscious oppressive practice that get enacted within the ‘in here’ counselling space and relationship and how we move to an equality within the relationship.

5. Unequal weighting on client’s identity

Working ‘with’ only acknowledges one Truth (that of the client) with no processing or reflection of our Truth or identity as the counsellor having an impact on the process.

This implies that our identity has zero impact on the process i.e. that we are neutral and not a variable factor in the process.

What ‘working with difference and diversity’ completely fails to acknowledge is that the therapeutic relationship encompasses and contains two people and therefore two identities, two lived experiences, two diversities in relationship with one another. The meeting of those two identities in relationship with one another then creates a unique therapeutic relationship in and of itself and it is this that doesn’t get taken into consideration when we position the client as different and diverse from an identity-neutral counsellor.

Figure 1: ‘Working with diversity’ (relational dynamic)

Reflective exercises

What are your thoughts, feelings and reflections on the phrase ‘Working with diversity’?

What are your thoughts, reflections or reactions in learning about the critiques of ‘working with diversity’? What questions come to mind? What are you curious about or to learn more about?

This is an excerpt from pages 22-26 of Working Within Diversity by Myira Khan, available from the 21st July.

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