I learned a long time ago not to offer information about what I do for a living. In fact, nowadays I find myself giving as little information as possible when asked. To paint the picture, I’ve been a Licensed Professional Counselor since the ripe old age of 22. Now that you’re done gasping, I’ll continue. You could only imagine the puzzled looks I received when I would proudly respond to that inevitable question, “So, what do you do?” The nonverbal reaction usually spoke much louder than the words that would follow. YOU? A COUNSELOR? Hmm!
I would, and still do, often walk away questioning the reason for the response. As I’ve aged, I’ve found myself more inclined to ask outright or make comments about the reaction. “You seem surprised by that,” I’ll sometimes say. But then I question if I’m being arrogant or vindictive.
This societal appraisal of what a counselor is supposed to look like has led me to question what I can do to look more like the “quintessential” counselor. Maybe I should wear more cardigans. I’m not really a fan of loafers. Don’t smoke, so a pipe is out of the question!
Maybe nothing I do will help….you know, fit the mold. Instead, maybe the mold needs to change to include more people who look like me. Maybe that will help prevent situations from occurring such as my experience at one agency early on in my career. The short version is that I found my caseload full of Black clients, many of whom had been referred from other clinicians upon hearing of my employment with the agency. “Are these clients requesting me,” I asked the caseworker. “No, I just thought you would work better with them,” she explained. After explaining to my supervisor that I was not trained to just work with Black clients-in fact, just the opposite can be stated-I noticed my caseload starting to even out a bit. Maybe she was just helping me find my niche.
This, however, isn’t the only reason I’m inclined to downplay my profession though. Some people find it awkward to continue a conversation with me after my profession is disclosed. Others wish to garner my diagnostic impressions on the spot, but usually for a “friend” of course. Others seem so surprised by the revelation that they inquire about the obviously profound journey that got me to this field and out of a path toward drugs, crime, and whatever else they think young Black men do. But let me stop being vindictive.
Nowadays, I find myself trying to answer in a jovial fashion most of the time. When asked what I do, I might respond, “Oh, as little as I can.”
Kenneth Oliver is a counselor in Missouri and an assistant professor at Quincy University in Illinois.