Counseling Students on Race and Bias
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“We’re taught to be complacent, to accept that things just are the way they are. But the world is constantly changing, and we need to change with it.”
Frandelia Moore, PsyD, Clinical Assistant Professor and Program Director in the Department of Applied Psychology, NYU Steinhardt
Racism and bias permeate every facet of American society, including the nation’s schools. As mental health professionals, school counselors have the unique opportunity to help students unpack, communicate, and confront the racism and bias they experience in and out of the classroom. But many counselors still face resistance from parents, administrators, and students, as well as their own inherent biases.
A 2022 report from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) found that approximately 45 percent of schools still lacked diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. Furthermore, it found that DEI programs alone were only somewhat effective at improving students’ understanding of racism and bias. Only when DEI programs were paired with conscious antiracist efforts did schools see a significant increase in positive outcomes, such as school climate. To create a more equitable future, the current and coming generations of school counselors need to place multiculturalism at the core of their practice.
Read on to learn more about how school counselors approach race and bias and how counselor education is changing to embrace the multicultural future.
Decolonizing Counselor Education
Bias exists in everyone, and counselors themselves are not immune. A 2019 study in the Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy found that school counselors were less likely to recommend Black, Hispanic, and female students for AP courses, particularly those in STEM subjects.
Bias doesn’t have to be conscious to be impactful, either: counselors’ attitudes can greatly influence students’ attitudes, including their expectations of themselves. Counselor education has to change to allow school counselors to identify their blind spots and better navigate race and bias.
“I’ve been program director for NYU’s master’s in counseling programs since January 2022, and my goal overall, my large vision, is to decolonize our pedagogy, decolonize our syllabi, decolonize the work that we’re doing as counselors,” says Frandelia Moore, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor and program director in the Department of Applied Psychology at NYU Steinhardt. “It’s an achievable mission, but it’s a long mission. We’re starting one class at a time.”
School counselors are themselves products of a biased educational system. Graduate-level counseling programs begin to unwind that, but some can be more conscious about it than others. In the past, many counseling programs included only a single required class on race and bias, or offered just a suite of electives on multicultural counseling. But for many students, counselors, and American citizens, race and bias were not and are not elective issues; they’re core aspects of their day-to-day experiences.
Education on race and bias can lean heavily on theory, but counselors need a foundation of applicable skills to go with it. One such skill is the Hays ADDRESSING Framework, which uses its mnemonic to call to mind key social identities to consider when getting to know someone and their cultural identity. Counselors also use the ADDRESSING framework on themselves to understand their own biases and positionality.
“This is where we start with students,” Dr. Moore says. “We want them to think about how they identify, where they hold privilege, where they’re marginalized, where they’re on the upside of power and on the downside of power. Because how that shows up in the counseling room is very important. We all have different worldviews, and the world also perceives us differently based on our ADDRESSING framework.”
America’s history is in part shaped by its repression of frank conversations around race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; the general public’s understanding of these topics still lags behind academia’s.
But counselors need training and experience in having those conversations to guide similar conversations with students, clients, and peers. By contrast, counselors who lack that conversational muscle—counselors who say, for example, that they “don’t see race”—can trivialize the lived experiences of those they are trying to help.
“I don’t think anyone is ill-intentioned, but privileged folks are not always aware of the microaggressions they are committing against marginalized folks and how aligned with white supremacy culture this behavior is,” Dr. Moore says.
Obstacles and Opportunities in Counseling on Race and Bias
School counselors work in K-12 settings that often have their own deeply ingrained cultures, and the sudden introduction of progressive counseling methods can be met with staunch resistance. In recent years, conservative media outlets have begun to heavily criticize Critical Race Theory (CRT)—a nearly 50-year-old cross-disciplinary approach to critical thinking; multicultural counseling is often painted with the CRT brush, both correctly and incorrectly, leaving many school counselors to defend a topic that detractors know little about.
At the same time, Generation Z is largely progressive, diverse, and activist—race, bias, and cultural identity are foundational aspects of their world. This provides an enormous opportunity, and responsibility, for school counselors to be the safe space for students to talk about these issues. It also means that school counselors can be the gateway for administrators, teachers, parents, and other community members who are interested in, but lack formal experience with, issues of race and bias.
“If we start with the basics, with decolonizing our own minds and decolonizing the work that we’re doing, imagine all the change we can create,” Dr. Moore says.
Increasingly, students, administrators, parents, and schools are facing what are, to some, very basic questions around gender, sexuality, race, and bias. Whether it’s pronouns, gender-neutral bathrooms, or another instance of racially-motivated violence dominating the national media, counselors can be the point of contact for shepherding delicate but necessary conversations that might otherwise veer towards arguments. Understandably, someone might get defensive when their norms are being challenged, but school counselors aren’t there to attack anyone; they’re there to defend students.
“We have an LGBTQ counseling track at NYU that specifically talks about working within the LGBTQ community, with youth and with adults,” Dr. Moore says. “We’re talking about how to do letter writing when a transgender client wants to transition, how to really be a social justice advocate in the school setting for youth who are LGBTQ, counseling approaches to working with non-binary folks, and working with non-traditional relationships in family and marriage counseling.”
Many school counselors face an uphill battle in introducing progressive thinking into conservative institutions. The road to equity is a long one: more of a direction than a destination. And while attention to issues of race and bias has increased in the last decade, along with funding for research associated with those issues, some experts worry that a sense of compassion fatigue and desensitization could stall forward momentum.
“We had this heightened awareness after George Floyd,” Dr. Moore says. “It was highlighted for everyone. But personally, I see it backsliding now. That’s one of my big concerns. How do we keep the momentum alive?”
Today’s counselors, and counselors of the future, have to be fearless in having tough conversations. They have to be able to recognize, admit, and correct their own biases and mistakes, while simultaneously advocating for the resources that their sites and their clients need. School counselors may need to work up and through a school’s chain of command to get issues of race and bias heard. And, in some schools, there’s a somewhat inverted relationship to race and bias: students who have deep feelings of entitlement, and forms of power and privilege that they’ll need to learn to wield responsibly.
“There’s always another side to consider,” Dr. Moore says. “It’s not just about people who are marginalized. You also have to talk to and about people who are really privileged. Those can be difficult conversations. But often just putting it out there and naming it is the first step.”
As new developmental theories take shape, and the national conversation around race and bias progresses, counselors must remain committed to continuing education. What sounded sensitive and inclusive a decade ago can, today, drastically miss the point. Consider it as a sign of progress: the national vocabulary is updating itself to the point that the public understands what a microaggression is; they know that racism and bias don’t have to be intentional to be racist or biased. Counseling students and school counselors will play a key role in what future conversations about race and bias look and sound like.
“We’re taught to be complacent, to accept that things just are the way they are,” Dr. Moore says. “But the world is constantly changing, and we need to change with it.”