By Preet Kaur
‘In pursuit of Justice,’ the theme of this year’s SAALT Summit, sought to go beyond the modern day trendiness of justice and its accompanying sensation-driven reactions, to an honest examination of the nature of justice. Before opening the conference, Deepa Iyer, the Executive Director of SAALT, invited a few members of the SAALT community to reflect on what justice means to them. These speakers took an unflinching look at what justice means to them in their communities and how they pursue justice in their work of representing the unrepresented.
As a graduate student in psychology, I was inspired to hear many speakers talk about the need for helping professionals to be agents of systemic change. A growing awareness among professionals in the counseling field about the relationship between systems of oppression and discrimination and mental illness has served to expand the understanding of counselors about the external, social factors that may be impeding the progress of clients on an individual level. I attended a session titled: “We Hold Up Half the Sky: Immigrant Women and Social Change.” Some of the issues addressed in this workshop included, the need to break down barriers such as the ability for women to work and their unequal access to resources, social isolation and poverty alleviation. From a mental health perspective, when working with a client who faces these institutional barriers, reducing their marginalized experience to simply an intrapsychic or isolated personal issue without consideration for the larger systemic issues at play, provides merely a short-term solution and may actually serve to perpetuate the circumstance that created the problem to begin with.
The workshop that challenged me the most was titled: “Doing Our Own Work: South Asian Americans and Anti-Racist Accountability in the Movement.” This workshop began by asking participants to examine their cycles of socialization and how these came to contribute to their perceptions of other races. As a point of reference, we were asked to look at ‘Blackness’ and honestly examine possible racist attitudes we were socialized to develop. I began to reflect on the ‘colorism’ that is a big part of the social realm of Indian communities and I was reminded of how much I was exposed to extreme views on skin color, emphasizing that only in fairness is there beauty (“fair and lovely”) and then to being exotified for being brown-skinned by the majority culture. Our skin is the largest organ in our body and if it is constantly identified as a source to
identify us and objectify us, it can come to embody all the ways in which we ‘otherize’ and internalize racism. The level of raw emotion in the room as we processed our feelings and had honest conversations about the privileges we carry, was palpable. How do we negotiate our own unearned privilege, especially as we attempt to create further spaces of inclusion of our voices calling for social justice for our own communities? We talked about how we hold our communities accountable for their prejudiced attitudes and actions against other communities of color and how this is most challenging to do with our own families. We all agreed that we cannot stand in our identities of victims of institutional racism and not stand with other victims. I walked away from this workshop with a deep sense of awe for the courage contained in that room filled with people willing to look closely at themselves, own their internalized attitudes of racism and commit to doing the work of challenging these attitudes.
The multicultural movement within psychology is about social justice, cultural democracy and equity. A paradigm shift in how we conceptualize counseling might be a necessary conduit to cultivating social justice advocacy. From a Westernized perspective, counseling is conceptualized from an individualistic orientation, but from a culturally sensitive perspective this individualistic orientation might not be suitable. A contextual orientation which focuses on the client and examines whether the broader social systems are oppressive, would be more appropriate. One such way of approaching counseling from a contextual orientation would involve being more flexible in therapeutic programming and building partnerships with local community organizations. By being flexible, we are operating beyond the manualized approach of empirically validated treatments, and being more cultural sensitive and targeted in our treatment delivery. By partnering with the local organizations within the community, we collaborate and learn from each other on how best to design and implement services that are tailored to specific community needs. As counselors, tasked with being agents of change, our efforts need to move beyond the counseling room to cultivating an orientation toward social justice and engaging in advocacy efforts on behalf of those with whom we work.