Making Religious Minority Oppression Visible: A Call to Action

As counseling psychologists, we have long distinguished ourselves as professionals who strongly value a multicultural and social justice focus in our work (Gelso, Nutt Williams, & Fretz, 2014). Thus, it is not surprising that we have led the way in contributing to the knowledge base on the experiences and needs of diverse populations (Vera & Speight, 2003). Even though the broader multicultural literature has witnessed considerable growth over the last several decades, much more remains to be done (Cornish, Schreier, Nadkarni, Metzger, & Rodolfa, 2010).

One issue with the multicultural and social justice literature is the disproportionate attention given to some groups over others, reflecting a hierarchy of ‘isms’ (e.g., Inman et al., 2014). For example, relative to the scholarly work focused on racial and ethnic minorities, the research on the experiences of religious minorities has lagged significantly behind (Ahluwalia & Alimchandani, 2012; Schlosser, 2003). Indeed, Schlosser, Foley, Stein, and Holmwood (2009) found that over a 12-year period (1994-2006), only 2.7 percent of the articles published in three major counseling psychology journals addressed religious and spiritual issues. Furthermore, training programs rarely offer coursework or clinical opportunities that emphasize religion and spirituality (Ahluwalia & Alimchandani, 2012). This study specifically highlighted the lack of attention to religion and spirituality in counseling psychology journals, but it did not explore the extent of the literature on religious minorities. It is reasonable to assume that given the current and historical zeitgeist of Christian privilege and dominance (Schlosser, 2003), religious minority issues are particularly neglected.

The dearth of information available on religion/spirituality, and more specifically, on religious minorities, may result in misunderstanding religious minorities, and may lead to bias and cultural insensitivity in therapy (Ali, Liu, & Humedian, 2004). Accordingly, graduate students and psychologists alike may lack the tools to effectively engage in competent practice with clients and communities who are not Christians or members of the dominant religious group in the United States. Furthermore, they may be ill-equipped to engage in social change initiatives geared toward combating religious oppression. Because experiences of oppression intersect and compound one another, the failure to address religious oppression and provide religiously and spiritually affirmative care risks perpetuating religious minorities’ sense of invisibility (Schlosser, 2003). Without more intentional efforts to combat such invisibility and advocate for and with these communities at all levels, our ability to actualize and enact our social justice values will be nothing more than an intellectual exercise.

This experience of being rendered invisible has been apparent not only at the individual level and within the broader society, it has also been experienced within our professional organizations. For example, Weinrach (2002) confronted the counseling profession and more specifically, the American Counseling Association (ACA), for their “selective awareness” regarding different minority groups and their history of anti-Semitic behaviors. In describing his observations of the ways in which Jewish counseling professionals have been systematically excluded and mistreated over time within the ACA, he urged the field to examine their biases and hold themselves accountable. More recently, Division 17 listserv discussions have highlighted how this invisibility and neglect is not unique to the ACA; it has also been reported by Jewish-identified counseling psychologists. Similarly, Muslim- or Sikh-identified psychologists have described feeling as though their whole selves are not welcomed and supported within their professional organizations (Anonymous, 2018), leading many of them to seek professional homes in other organizations that are more explicitly inclusive of their salient identities, like the American Arab, Middle Eastern, and North African Psychological Association (AMENA-Psy) and the South Asian Psychological Association.

These sentiments have resulted in some movement toward addressing religious minority issues within our organization. For example, in 2017, a webinar on taking action against antisemitism was hosted by Division 17 (Walinsky, Reynolds, Ali, & Hutman, 2017). Although initiatives like these constitute a step in the right direction, they have tended to occur in isolation, rather than leading to systemic organizational changes within our division or the broader field of counseling psychology. This pattern of starts and stops could be attributed to, in part, horizontal oppression, whereby progress gets stalled due to unresolved tension between religious minority groups, thereby perpetuating a pattern of avoidance and complicit bias (Anonymous, 2018). Many of these essential dialogues barely get started, as hesitation to address specific thorny issues prevents all or any progress. And yet, facilitating an understanding of religious minorities’ experiences and increasing the inclusiveness of our organizations is especially important in the current political climate.

In this time of significant increase in acts of hostility, hate, and bias directed toward religious minorities (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs) (Pew Research Center, 2016; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2017), there is an urgent need for counseling psychologists, along with others who share a commitment to social justice, to respond to hate incidents in ways that center the needs of impacted communities. And although responding to hate and bias acts is an essential and concrete step to show support for religious minority communities, exploring the interpersonal processes, institutional norms, and personal biases and beliefs that exist within our division and beyond is just as important.  Otherwise, counseling psychologists will undoubtedly continue to perpetuate the silencing and invisibility of religious minorities, precluding them from working effectively toward achieving equity and justice in their personal and professional communities.

As counseling psychologists, it is vital that we fully embrace and embody the values and intent of our annual “More Pie” discussion at APA, where we welcome the challenge of having difficult conversations and really dig deep to understand oppression in all its forms. From our perspective, the first step is to engage in conversations that we are currently not having, so as to render visible the invisibility of religious oppression, and begin to address the internal and external forces at work. That means living the mantra of Audre Lorde-“there is no hierarchy of oppression” and re-committing ourselves to fully addressing the pain and invisibility that our religious minority colleagues experience both within our association, the broader field of counseling psychology, and their daily lives. This article is the first of several to address these issues with the goal of educating and inspiring our members to do more and to do better when it comes to people experiencing religious oppression.

Authors: Heidi Hutman, Amy L. Reynolds, Daniel Walinsky, Martin Heesacker, Amina Mahmood, & Saba Rasheed Ali


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Walinsky, D., Reynolds, A., Ali, S. R., & Hutman, H. (2017, March). Taking action against  anti-semitism: An intergenerational dialogue [Webinar]. Retrieved from:     webinar-series/

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