Domain IV: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Relational Practices

CC11 Salience of Culture and Social Location

Assess the salience and the interplay of client and counsellor cultural identities and social locations.

Recommended Reading

Collins, S. (2018). Culturally responsive and socially just relational practices:
Facilitating transformation through connection. In S. Collins (Ed.), Embracing cultural responsivity and social justice: Re-shaping professional identity in counselling psychology (pp. 472–484). Counselling Concepts.

The eleventh core competency in the CRSJ counselling model (Collins, 2018) engages the counsellor in active dialogue about personal cultural identities and social locations. Although I argue that all counselling is multicultural in nature, not all presenting concerns are related to culture; it is important to engage in cultural inquiry related to each client’s lived experiences to assess the salience of culture and social justice to counselling. Some learners struggle with inquiring about culture, depending on their own cultural identity development and their comfort level with working across cultures. However, it is very important that clients experience an environment welcoming of their cultural identities and respectful of their social locations. Embracing a stance of cultural curiosity and not-knowing (Mikkaylov, 2016) positions learners to hold cultural hypotheses with tentativeness and to mitigate cultural blindness or cultural hyperconsciousness. Counsellor educators can enhance learner confidence by teaching them how to engage effectively in culturally responsive and socially just counselling conversations. Forefronting cultural humility and self-awareness help to disrupt the microaggressions that result when cultural biases and assumptions slip into conversations (Hook et al., 2016; Houshmand et al., 2017).

CRSJ Counselling Key Concepts

The activities in this chapter are designed to support competency development related to the key concepts listed below. Click on the concepts in the table and you will be taken to the related activities, exercises, learning resources, or discussion prompts.

Cultural Unconsciousness–Cultural Hyperconsciousness

Being colour brave (Self-study)

Listen to this Ted Talk by Mellody Hobson titled, Color Blind or Color Brave.


© TED2014

Inadvertent cultural oppression in counselling can result from either cultural unconsciousness or cultural hyperconsciousness. Either an overemphasis or an underemphasis on culture by the counsellor can risk damaging the client–counsellor relationships, lead to misunderstanding their challenges and the contexts in which they arise, or missing out on important pieces of information that could support their health and healing. It can be challenging to figure out how to avoid tipping the balance toward either end of this cultural continuum.

This image show a balance with pressure down on one side and pressure up on the other side. The balance can be tipped in either direction towards cultural unconsciousness or cultural hyperconsciousness.

  • What is your reaction to Mellody Hobson’s experience of, and assertion that, there is a dominant discourse against talking about race?
  • What is your experience of talking about gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, Indigeneity, social class, age, ability, or religion in your personal and professional life?
  • Which of these cultural identity factors are you most inclined to avoid talking about and which are you most inclined to introduce into conversation with others? What are the barriers and challenges for you in becoming colour brave (or culturally brave)?
  • What would saying, “Yes,” to diversity look like in your counsellor education program, in your workplace, or in other contexts of your life.

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Cultural Inquiry

Where do I start to inquire about culture? (Class discussion)

Consider the following counselling scenario:

You encounter Giselle for the first time and are immediately struck by how poised and articulate she is. She has come to talk with you about a situation at work. She feels that she is being passed over for promotions in favour of men who have much less experience than her. You talk about a couple of the specific positions that have opened up, and at least from her analysis of the situation, it appears that she should have been considered for these opportunities. She has brought copies of her performance assessments, and these seem to support her assertion.

The focus of your first session remains on getting a clearer picture of her work environment, understanding her perspectives on the dynamics, and then talking about potential ways that she might position herself to be better noticed. You begin to introduce some ideas about gender inequity in many work environments and suggest that you return to that discussion the next time you meet. You have a sense that the conversation is falling a bit flat towards the end of the session, but she is polite and appreciative and seems willing to return for another session.

At the end of the session, as you are writing up your notes, you note from the intake form (completed by someone else) that gender is listed as female but legal name is listed as Tom.


When you offer to walk with her to the waiting room, she says that she has parked her mobility scooter around the corner from your office. In retrospect, you recall that she moved quite slowly when you welcomed her into your office, but your attention was focused on other things not her physical presentation.

Critically analyze this scenario based on your understanding of the importance of inquiring about culture (broadly defined to include age, gender, ethnicity, Indigeneity, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and social class). Identify barriers you might face to initiating and engaging in cultural conversations with this client. Work together to come up with a plan for your next steps in connecting with Giselle, whether she shows up for her next session or not.

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Asking clients about gender identity and sexual orientation (Partner or small group activity)

Counsellors sometimes struggle with inquiry into client cultural identities, and they benefit from practice so that this becomes a routine part of the intake process. Failure to inquire sensitively and inclusively into gender identity and sexual orientation, for example, may result in client distrust and lack of engagement (at best) and microaggressions, retraumatization, or alliance ruptures (at worse).

Form a small group (in a virtual context used a chat room or videoconferencing tool). Take turns role playing as client, counsellor, and observers (if applicable). The client should position themselves as holding a nondominant sexual identity (keep this information to yourself at the outset). Here are some basic principles for cultural inquiry about gender identity and sexual orientation.

  1. Ask about sexual orientation and gender identity in the same way as any other questions about client lives or identity.
    • Assume that you will ask these questions of all clients when you first meet them to explore their identity, history, and presenting concerns.
  2. Assume a multiplicity of options rather than binary categories:
    • Gender Identity:  Male – Female  – Gender queer – Two-Spirited – Other (Remember clients may self-identity outside of these categories)
    • Sexual/Romantic Orientation: Heterosexual – Gay – Lesbian – Bisexual – Queer – Questioning – Other (again self-identification is what is important)
    • Relationship of Sex and Gender: Transgender – Cisgender – Other
  3. For transgender clients, in particular, it is also important to inquire about the following (Note: These may apply to other queer clients as well):
    • Chosen name (which may be different from their legal name)
    • Pronouns they use (he, she, they, ze, other)
    • Sexual orientation (this cannot be assumed based on gender identity)
  4. For all expressions of gender identity and/or sexual orientation:
    • Do not assume that gender identity or sexual orientation is salient to the presenting concern or inherently problematic for the client.
    • Do not assume that nondominant identities are any more or less problematic or salient to the presenting concern than dominant identities.
  1. Be prepared to answer client questions about why you are making these inquiries in a way that demonstrates cultural sensitivity and commitment to social justice. Consider the impact of your relative social location as a member of dominant or nondominant populations

Debrief and brainstorm ways to increase your comfort level and cultural responsivity.

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Curiosity/Not-Knowing Stance

Assuming a not-knowing stance (Self-study)

Take the opportunity over the next couple of days, in an encounter with a family member, friend, or colleague, to approach your conversation with them with curiosity in the forefront of your mind. Focus on what they are telling you, and invite more detail. Ask questions that communicate your interest in their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Assume that you don’t understand their perspectives or the meaning they attach to their experiences, and pursue greater understanding from this not-knowing position. Next, reflect on what you learned about them through this encounter that you might not otherwise know.

One of the most challenging things for new counsellors is to slow down and simply listen; they sometimes feel an urgency to do something rather than attending to the client need for them to be something. This may lead to premature closure on conversations in which important details of their values, beliefs, worldviews, and lived experiences are overlooked. How might you apply the principle of curiosity and not-knowing within each encounter with your clients?

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Language and dominant discourses (Self-study)

Smith and colleagues (2012) suggested a critique of counselling textbooks for language that reifies sexual identity and gender identity binaries. Take a few moments to review a couple of sections of your counselling theories text or another counselling/psychology text to which you have access. If you are ambitious, you might also compare an older versus newer text. You may want to use the index to search out relevant sections of the writing.

  • What underlying assumptions about gender and sexuality are evident in the language used?
  • What specific examples can you find to illustrate gender binaries (e.g., the assumption that there are only two genders: male and female)?
  • What examples of heteronormativity or assumptions of the binary categories of heterosexual and homosexual are evident?
  • To what degree does the writing assume that a match between gender and biological sex is normal?
  • What other examples of essentialized, fixed identities related to other nondominant populations are evident?

Now pick up an sample of writing from the media or popular culture. Carefully analyze the writing, positioning yourself as someone who does not relate to the artificial, either/or categories of gender and sexual orientation. To what degree do you see this marginalized lived experience reflected in the writing?

Based on these readings, create a cheat sheet to remind yourself about ways to avoid inadvertently engaging in microaggressions of various kinds in your work with LGBTTQI or other nondominant populations.

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Identifying potential microaggressions (Class discussion)

Consider the following case scenario:

Anna comes to you for counselling and identifies depression, anxiety, and struggles with career as her core presenting concerns. In the first session, Anna is withdrawn and does not provide a lot of additional information, answering questions briefly and somewhat vaguely. You get a sense that the emotional distress has been building over a long period of time and that it has now become difficult for Anna to contain it in the work environment. It remains unclear what the original triggers were or if there are specific work relationships, tasks, or roles that are causing stress. Anna did not indicate a significant other on the intake form, and when you inquire about this, Anna uses the pronoun they and does not provide a name. The question seems to prompt discomfort, so you don’t pursue it further, shifting instead to inquire about other sources of social support. Anna says that friends provide some support, but they all have their own problems and sometimes it seems like fitting in with them is just as challenging as fitting in at work.

Consider this scenario in light of the potential for microaggressions in counselling. Be creative. Come up with examples of potential microaggressions on the part of the counsellor as you move forward with the counselling process. Be sure to reflect critically on these microaggressions in light of the principles of CRSJ counselling and nondiscriminatory and affirmative practice to generate ways to avoid inadvertent cultural oppression in the counselling process.

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Collins, S. (2018). Embracing cultural responsivity and social justice: Re-shaping professional identity in counselling psychology. Counselling Concepts.

Hook, J. N., Farrell, J. E., Davis, D. E., DeBlaere, C., Van Tongeren, D. R., & Utsey, S. O. (2016). Cultural humility and racial microaggressions in counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(3), 269-277.

Houshmand, S., Spanierman, L. B., & De Stephano, J. (2017). Racial microaggressions: A primer with implications for counseling practice. International Journal of Advanced Counselling, 39, 203-216.

Mikhaylov, N. S. (2016). Curiosity and its role in cross-cultural knowledge creation. International Journal of Emotional Education, 8, 95-108.

Smith, L. C., Shin, R. Q., & Officer, L. M. (2012). Moving counseling forward on LGB and transgender issues: Speaking queerly on discourses and microaggressions. The Counseling Psychologist, 40(3), 385-408.


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