Diversity, equality and oppression

Since the Equality Act 2010 came into force, it’s been illegal to discriminate against anyone in relation to any of nine “protected characteristics”: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage & civil partnership, pregnancy & maternity, race, religion & belief, sex, and sexual orientation. So everything is now OK, isn’t it?

Well, not quite. True, the Equality Act is a very important step in the right direction, and in organisations and workplaces where it’s taken seriously, it can make a real difference. But what if you’ve come from an underprivileged background where you learned that people like you never get the good jobs and the big opportunities – and you find that it still seems to work that way, despite all the talk about “equal opportunities”? Or maybe you’ve managed to get yourself a good job with a genuinely non-discriminatory employer – but you find that outside work people still talk down to you and/or ignore what you have to say? Or perhaps English is your second (third, fourth) language, or you have a disability that affects the way you speak – and most people just assume that you are stupid?

And since this is a blog about counselling and psychotherapy, let’s suppose you’re seeing a counsellor in a centre where they say that “everyone is welcome”, and they have made “reasonable adjustments” to allow wheelchair access and provide large-print leaflets. Doesn’t this mean that everything is OK? Well, again, unfortunately it doesn’t. What if you are gay and want to talk about the homophobic bullying you have experienced – but your counsellor insists that it’s essentially your fault for not concealing your sexuality? Or maybe you’re in a consensual “kinky” relationship, and you want to discuss some issues in the relationship, but the counsellor keeps coming back to the topic of your “perversion”? Or perhaps as a woman you’re struggling with what to do about male colleagues who keep flirting with you and don’t take your work seriously – and your counsellor (a man who clearly finds you attractive) suggests that you should enjoy the attention?

These are just some of the reasons why the Equality Act and talk about “equal opportunities” are not the complete answer. Instead we need to look at the bigger picture of inequality and oppression across society and over time, and recognise that one person’s experience at a particular moment is a reflection of this much bigger picture. And those of us who are in any kind of position of power (including counsellors and psychotherapists) can then do our best to engage in “anti-oppressive practice”. This means (among other things) that we will actually listen to what our clients say and take them seriously; so for example if you are the female client mentioned above, I will be genuinely interested in what happened to you and how you experienced it (rather than interpreting things from my own standpoint), and I will recognise the validity of your concerns and support you to find a solution that doesn’t simply perpetuate the oppression. And conversely if the issue that you want to talk about is nothing to do with the fact that you are gay (and/or Muslim, and/or black, and/or …), then I will be happy to accept what you have identified as the issue, and I won’t insist on talking about your being gay or other irrelevant topics.

Of course it’s all much more complicated than this; for example there is the whole question of “intersectionality”, where someone belongs to more than one minority group. But this is at least a start, and it’s why I’ve now joined the Pink Therapy Directory. And if any of this sounds familiar to you, and you’d like to talk about it, please feel free to contact me.

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