Counseling Today, From the President

Cultural Competency: A Challenging Mosaic

Marie Wakefield February 17, 2007

In our pluralistic society, a multicultural perspective provides us with opportunities to connect with one another without loss of personal identity. As we address the need to be culturally responsive as professionals in the field of counseling, what resonates urgently is a personal awareness and knowledge of our heritage and daily interactions,both of which influence our beliefs, values and attitudes. In turn, beliefs, values and attitudes lay the foundation for the prejudices and biases that exist among and between cultural groups.

Recently, I facilitated a class discussion on personal challenges that can act as barriers to open and effective communication. I thought it would be interesting for the participants to use a cultural genogram to examine influences on their personal biases. Responses from this exercise showed how influences are passed through generations. We saw evidence of the unique traditions that various ethnic groups live by and existence of those vague areas that mask true beliefs.

Information I have collected about my family history has stimulated several questions. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to find answers to all those questions. I was made aware of certain family members from the past who lived in the “big house” and received a special surname, but I lack knowledge of issues as a result of the experiences with slavery. I learned that the responses of some of my family members to interracial marriage indicated areas of contradiction and stress. Nevertheless, my family’s religious affiliation and practices were very strong. There was also evidence of the social class with which we identified, gender role expectations and traditions that characterized our values.

I grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, a city associated with progressive causes. Oberlin was a hotbed of abolitionism and a key stop on the Underground Railroad.Many Oberlinians were deeply involved in the civil rights movement and various peace and justice campaigns. Those experiences opened my eyes to the atrocities of discrimination and the challenges it posed.

I asked two doctoral students in counseling to share their perspective on challenging experiences with cultural competency.

Tiffany Tyler: There is much discussion about the development of the “culturally competent practitioner.” Peterson and Carey (2003) maintain that the process is best understood as the development of awareness, skill sand knowledge through a breadth of cultural experiences.While I support this articulation of the process, as an African American woman, I am challenged to reconcile the development of the discourse on cultural competency and my experience as a “minority” practitioner. I use the word as a way of conveying the innumerable occasions I’ve found myself in the minority on the validity of culturally competent practice. As an explication of my frustration, I offer the following experiences.

  • There have been an inordinate number of times I’ve heard a counseling student say, “Why do we have to take a cultural competency class? Counseling is counseling!”
  • At times I’ve thought, “Why are ’cross-cultural communication’and ’cultural competency’considered recent developments? As far back as I can remember, my family has engaged in cross-cultural communication to ensure its livelihood. Moreover, if I was not culturally competent,I could not navigate mainstream cultural America each day. Exactly who are these concepts new to?”
  • The belief that taking one or two multicultural classes, attending a religious ceremony or eating at an ethnic restaurant, as required by a course syllabus, can successfully prepare any individual to effectively provide counseling to diverse populations in ways that enable the individual to shift between cultural lenses, build rapport across cultural divides and “empathize” with client experiences sets the stage for misguidance.

Douglas Garner: Cultural diversity has always been a fact of life in our world. Das (1995) points out that culture influences every aspect of our lives, and it influences our view of social and psychological reality.I believe that all counseling should be regarded as multicultural counseling if culture is defined broadly to include such variables as race, ethnicity and nationality as well as gender,age, social class, sexual orientation and disability.

People seek counseling largely because of problems that emerge out of sociocultural conditions. I have discovered that some counseling students bring with them cultural tunnel vision. This limited experience and perspective may unknowingly cause them to impose their values on clients by assuming that everyone shares the same values they do. I have observed counselors express the attitude,explicitly or implicitly, that minorities are unresponsive to professional intervention because of their lack of motivation to change. Not having the experiences to understand, counselors may perceive a client as being resistant.

For example, Native American, African American and Asian clients may not be very receptive to talk therapy because of their values and experiences. Cultural factors are an integral part of the therapeutic process and can influence the form of intervention. All cultures represent meaningful ways of coping with the problems that a particular group faces.

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Your own level of cultural competence is based on several influential factors, ranging from your heritage to present-day interactions. Responses to our conceptual framework and an ability to connect with diverse populations also may be challenged by appearance, language,attitudes and behaviors. As you look through your personal cultural competency lens,do you see a mosaic, a melting pot or a marinade? The answer lies in the principles and practices that guide your actions.I look forward to hearing from you and hope you will feel free to communicate with me via e-mail at mawakefield@cox.net or by calling 800.347.6647 ext.232.