Four Good Ideas about Multicultural Counseling and Psychotherapy—In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.


1. Don’t think about multiculturalism as being about tolerance. Instead, approach other cultures with an attitude of “what can I learn?”

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1974) wrote about his deep regrets for the ways religious missionaries contributed to cultural genocide. He wondered:

“What would the world be like if different cultures had encountered each other with questions instead of answers? What if the questions went something like these?”

What can you tell me about yourselves?

  • What would you like to know about us?
  • What can you teach me about the Creator?

This same idea forms the foundation of affirmative therapy for GLBTQ clients. Because they’re so used to and sensitive to negative judgments, we should approach GLBTQ clients not only with openness, but with a positive and affirming attitude. When I really think about it, it doesn’t make much sense to approach clients who may be different from us with anything other than a positive and affirming attitude?

 2.  Try to Understand the Implications of White Privilege

As a White male I sometimes have difficulty stretching my neck far enough to be able to see all the White privilege I carry around in my invisible knapsack (see Peggy McIntosh’s 1998 article for more on the Invisible Knapsack). White privilege is defined as the unearned assets associated with being an upper or middle class member of a dominant culture. Although White privilege is often hard to see (because unearned assets are invisible), Prochaska and Norcross provide three darn good examples in the 2010 edition of their psychotherapy theories text. They wrote:

  • · “White privilege is when you can get pregnant at age 17 and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, even as Black and Latino families with similar challenges are regularly typified as irresponsible and pathological.”
  • · “White privilege is when you are a gun enthusiast and do not make people immediately scared of you.”
  • · “White privilege is when you can develop a painkiller addiction, having obtained your drug of choice illegally, go on to beat that addiction, and everyone praises you for being so strong, while being an ethnic minority who did the same thing is routinely labeled a drug addict who probably winds up in jail.” (p. 408)

3.  When Counseling, Make Cultural Adaptations

Not long ago it was reported that 50% of diverse clients dropped out of therapy after only one session (S. Sue, 1977). This suggests that it only took one therapy session to convince half of all diverse clients not to return for session number two. This is not very impressive.

To address this and other issues, counselors and psychologists now talk about making cultural adaptations so the therapy experience is more appealing to clients from diverse cultural backgrounds. Several cultural adaptations have proven at least somewhat helpful. Two of the most significant are: (a) Language Matching (Surprise! Clients tend to benefit more when they can do therapy in their native languageJ); and (b) explicit incorporation of cultural content/values into the intervention (Griner & Smith, 2006).

 4. Remember that multicultural counseling is like qualitative research; you may not generalize.

This is one of the puzzling paradoxes associated with multicultural counseling. Of course we should learn as much as we can about other cultures—but, because skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disabilities, and other client characteristics all exist within unique individuals, groups, and communities it’s inappropriate to make assumptions about clients based on knowledge about any of these factors. Just as you would never generalize your findings from eight clients in a phenomenological-qualitative study, you shouldn’t use your knowledge of any “categories” to make generalizations about the person or people in your office.

Related to this, S. Sue and Zane (2009) commented on how, when it comes to multicultural knowledge, a little bit does not go a long ways (and often a large amount of knowledge won’t take you very far either). They wrote:

“. . . cultural knowledge and techniques generated by this knowledge are frequently applied in inappropriate ways. The problem is especially apparent when therapists and others act on insufficient knowledge or overgeneralize what they have learned about culturally dissimilar groups.” (p. 5)

Working cross-culturally or interculturally is both a challenge and a privilege. This is part one of a three-part blog about how we can meet this challenge and honor clients who have diverse characteristics. Thanks for being interested enough in this topic to read this and stretch your multicultural competence.

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6 thoughts on “Four Good Ideas about Multicultural Counseling and Psychotherapy—In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  1. Thank you John.This is so perfect right now – and I will certainly share this at a conference that I am presenting on “Multiculturalism.”

      1. Hi John—I am presenting at the New Jersey Counseling Association.
        Name of program: Multiculturalism: Maintaining Self-Awareness and Multicultural Competencies.
        Three of us from my department are presenting on the topic in April. Your piece ties in so well with the part that I am presenting.
        Charles is great. Hello to Rita!

  2. Did you notice the excessive debate regarding this post that happened on my facebook wall? It’s not especially interesting because it was just one of the former high school classmates insisting that the quote from Prochaska and Norcross was somehow racist against white people, but I thought you should know it inspired me to an ardent defense. And he actually ended up reading the blog post in full (rather than responding entirely with a shot from the hip about the snippet I quoted on my wall), although I’m still not sure he really got it. That is all. Glad about Part II.

    1. I hadn’t noticed, but just checked it out. Wow. Obviously it pushed some buttons for Jeff. Sorry about that. I have many responses I thought of posting, but don’t want to inflame things further. It was certainly not my intent to make anyone angry. Love you!

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