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PERSPECTIVES: Advancing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Queering “Ways of Being” Replacing Politeness With Honesty to Create Belonging

May 31, 2022

Nat Vikitsreth, Come Back to Care, Chicago, Illinois


When practitioners move beyond professional niceness to embody honest human connection in our field’s relationship-based work, true belonging and equity emerge. With such radical honesty, foundational concepts, such as therapeutic alliance and attunement, will be explored through the lens of social justice. In other words, we are “queering” ways of being by explicitly exploring intersecting identities, power, and privilege with the caregivers we serve. Using a blend of personal narrative, clinical insight, and social justice practice, I share what therapeutic alliance can be like without “powerblindness” and what attunement can feel like with boundaries and accountability.

Ziggy loved nothing more than to shake his favorite toy and delight in its swirling colorful lights. His family and I would begin each of our early intervention home visits with this light-up toy. One day when Ziggy had an ear infection, he placed the toy right next to his ear. Newly attuned to the whirring sound which accompanied the toy’s swirling lights, he carefully alternated between listening to his toy and looking at it closely. His curiosity led him to peek under this toy where he found a mysterious on-off switch. Without any delay, Ziggy flicked the switch on. The room was suddenly filled with a mixture of the toy’s catchy tunes, Ziggy’s belly laugh, and his mom’s lament, “Oh no.”

Ziggy’s delight and discovery in something so familiar always inspires me to look at our field’s business-as-usual concepts from new angles. Instead of discovering an on-off switch like Ziggy did, I hope to practice Audre Lorde’s teaching (1984) that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (p. 110) while looking at a foundational concept of our field: Jeree Pawl’s “How you are is as important as what you do” (Pawl & St. John, 1998). With Lorde’s radical honesty and Ziggy’s curiosity, I believe we can expand the ways we serve families and children to include a whole spectrum of practices that go beyond “the master’s tools,” or standards which privilege a White, middle-lass, cisgender, heteronormative, and able-bodied experience. More important, with this multiplicity at the heart of the care we provide to families and children, we can uphold everyone’s humanity, ours included.

When we center this multiplicity in the care we provide, the question of “What shapes how you are” becomes as important as “How you are.” The factors that shape how we are include our intersecting identities and the power and privilege of those identities. When we get past perfunctory, “professional” niceness and get real about these aspects of our humanity, the family–practitioner relationship can go beyond performative gestures toward diversity, equity, and inclusion to become a real, messy, honest human-to-human connection. Considering “What shapes how you are” with unflinching honestly also keeps us accountable about not unintentionally reproducing an oppressive status quo, or “the master’s house” in our therapeutic relationships with families.

In the following sections I use a blend of personal narrative, clinical insight, and social justice practice to hold the complex nuances of both the relational “ways of being” and the radical honesty of equity, belonging, and liberation. This integration of my community organizing experiences and infant mental health training begins with a definition of queering, a political framework borrowed from Queer theory. Then, I will queer two foundational concepts in our field: therapeutic alliance and attunement. Together we will tilt them to the side and find an opening where niceness is replaced by honesty, where therapeutic alliance includes power analysis, and where attunement comes with boundaries.

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