Repeating Patterns: However, "Critical Consciousness" Can Break the Cycle of Abuse

Gwendolyn Kelso, M.A.
Gwendolyn Kelso, M.A.

Interview with Gwendolyn Kelso, M.A., and doctoral student on the study "Critical Consciousness, Perceived Racial Discrimination and Perceived Gender Discrimination in Relation to Demographics and HIV Status in African-American Women" at the 19th International AIDS Conference in July 2012 in Washington, D.C.

Enid Vázquez, Positively Aware: Thank you for talking with me on such a short notice. I was fascinated by the information in this session, by your work in particular because of the concept of critical consciousness. For me it's always about, you know, why do people stay in bad situations? Why is it that a history of abuse opens you to more abuse? That is really fascinating to me. Could you explain that to a lay audience? Is this a concept that's come along recently or an old one?

Gwendolyn Kelso, Boston University: Critical consciousness is being aware of social inequality and joining with other people to do things that bring about social change. Paulo Freire first coined the concept of critical consciousness in the early 1970s, so it's not a new concept but was more popular in the 1960s and 1970s during a time when consciousness-raising during the civil rights and women's movement were a larger part of the culture.

For people who are members of groups that have less social power -- like women, people of color, the poor -- having an awareness of how some groups have come to have less power and resources than others can be empowering because this reflects an accurate perception of reality. People may stay in bad situations because they blame themselves for the situation, they don't think things can be different, and/or they don't think that they can do anything to change it, often feeling alone. What may be helpful about having critical consciousness is that one doesn't explain poverty or discrimination by focusing on the poor person or the person being mistreated, but looks at how the system plays a role in poverty and discrimination. If you can identify the things that impact your life and know that you're not the only one, then you can do things to try to change them -- and this may help people out of bad situations.

My research looks at how critical consciousness may relate to health in African-American women with and at risk for HIV. There are so many systems that place them at higher risk for poor health -- as women they may not advocate for their best interests, people with low income are less able to get quality health care, there is HIV stigma that might cause feelings of fear and embarrassment that make it hard to get help or support around HIV and other needs. These are social issues and not issues of personal choice. Critical consciousness involves thinking critically about why things are the way they are, of course taking into account one's personal decisions but also recognizing that these decisions are made within contexts that are not the same for everyone. Not everyone has the same range of choices -- some groups with less power have fewer choices.

EV: I always remember a woman at one of our [TPAN] conferences who attended a session on sexual assault, and said she suffered sexual abuse as a child and became a drug addict as a teenager, but never put the two together until someone, somehow -- a counselor, a support group -- explained that connection to her. She thought she was just weak. Without awareness, people will blame themselves to a degree that's not good for them.

GK: You bring up a really good point. My research is on a macro [large] level, where that consciousness is related to broader social/cultural forces. But it can also be applied at the family systems [micro, or small] level. Adults often blame themselves for abuse that happened when they were children. There is a great deal of pain involved and some will turn to drugs or bad relationships or something else to try to find a way to deal with it. What can be powerful and lead to beginning to heal is looking at the situation itself -- children have no power in their family system. They were children, and there's no way it could have been their fault. There was a big difference in power at play with the abuse -- the adult had all the power, the child had none.

EV: Any take-away messages from the results you presented?

GK: I think it's important for people to talk to each other about racism, about sexism, and other ways that social injustice plays out in their lives, and with these issues up for discussion, people can start thinking about the best ways to start making some changes for a better future.

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