Tag Archives: Multicultural Counseling

A Guest Essay on the Girl Code and Feminism

The past several years I’ve offered a few extra credit points for students in my theories class who write me a short essay on the Girl Code. The Girl Code is defined–using William Pollack’s Boy Code as a guide–as the unhealthy societal and media-based rules by which girls and women are supposed to live. These rules are typically limiting (e.g., women who get angry are considered bitches) and are often damaging to girls and women.

This year students had to watch three feminist-related video clips as a part of this extra credit assignments and then write a short essay. The clips are listed below so you can click on the links and watch them if you like:

Eve Ensler doing a TED talk: Embrace Your Inner Girl — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhG1Bgbsj2w

Emma Watson speaking to the U.N.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9SUAcNlVQ4

Cameron Russell’s TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model?language=en

The following essay was written by Tristen Valentino. He gave me permission to post it here.

I’m featuring Tristen’s essay not only because I found it to be well-written and insightful, but also because his ideas stretch my thinking. Frequently I find myself puzzled as to why so many people in our society have such negative reactions to the word “feminist.” Why would anyone be against equal rights and opportunities for males and females? What’s the problem with that? In fact, this past year Time Magazine went so far as to suggest it be eliminated from the dictionary (inserted stunned silence here). For me, Tristen’s essay is important because, although he strongly criticizes what he sees as the overly generalized messages within the assigned video clips (which I happen to like), he also explicitly condemns the mistreatment of women based on gender.

Here’s Tristen’s essay. I hope you enjoy it . . . or at least find it thought-provoking.

Extra Credit Commentary on Feminism Clips
Tristen Valentino
COUN 485
November 24, 2014

Advocating equal rights is a noble and admirable pursuit. The video clips featuring Eve Ensler, Emma Watson, and Cameron Russell each speak about sexual discrimination, and their own personal roles in feminism. While I fully support equality in opportunity, and applaud their intention, I believe their execution was flawed. The three of them generalized men across the globe, lumping all men from all cultures and nations together in the oppression of women. The three of them claimed that male chauvinism is not only prevalent but pervasive in all societies.

Eve Ensler speaks briefly of her violent and abusive father and alludes that her experiences at the hands of her father set her in motion to help end the victimization of women. In this case I feel that Eve Ensler is looking at everything through the same tinted lens. In her world, the lens with which she views the world is completely blue (victimization of women), so when she looks upon the world she sees everything as blue. While not incorrect, since there are many things blue in the world, this view is incomplete as there are many things not blue. So too with her view on victimization and the causes of it.

Emma Watson’s speech appealed to emotion, but wilted under even slight pressure from a factual basis. She claimed that in her country (United Kingdom) women were oppressed and drew comparisons between the UK and African nations. She failed to mention that in her country the longest serving Prime Minister was a female (Margaret Thatcher) and that the longest living monarch, and second longest reigning monarch, is a female (Queen Elizabeth II).

Cameron Russell speaks about how damaging the media can be to female self-esteem and the female identity. She attributes insecurity, eating disorders, and other self-image issues with fantastical, and often fictional, portrayals of the female form. I find this to be incredibly hypocritical and disingenuous coming from someone who is an active participant in the very mechanism that she claims is doing harm to the female psyche.

However, those issues aside, the issue of gender equality is a serious one, and one that deserves our attention. There is little doubt that acts of female oppression and victimization are completely evil. There is no arguing that in some areas, horrible atrocities happen to women simply because they are women. This culture of male predatory behavior resulting in the victimization of women needs to be addressed and halted immediately. The damage that is caused is not always as easily seen and overt as physical injury. The mental and psychological injuries inflicted by the gender expectations of such things as the “Girl Code” apply pressure to already stressed women to perform up to a standard, and in such a way, as to be unrealistic. Expectations—such as women must always look pretty, must always be as thin as they can be, or must be sexy, but not too sexy—place the value of women on their physical appearance. It prevents their self-expression and their validation of life by stripping away the value of all their other qualities. Women are not objects to be used or abused at the whims of men. Women are not toys to be played with and then discarded. They are equal partners in the venture of life. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, and politicians. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, confidants, and mentors. They are strong, intelligent, indomitable, competent, and capable. They are all that and more. They are women. They are human.

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Cultural Adaptations in the DSM-5: Insert Foot in Mouth Here

Sometimes it just seems easier to be snarky than balanced. This basic truth comes to mind because of a recent analysis I did of the Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI) from the DSM-5. As I read about the CFI and looked through its Introduction and 16 questions for “patients,” I kept thinking to myself things like,

“Seriously . . . could this really be the best cultural sensitivity that the American Psychiatric Association can manage when it comes to guidelines for interviewing minority cultures?”

And,

“Who wrote this and why didn’t they ask me for some help?” (insert smiley face here; please note that some of my colleagues at the University of Montana have noticed—and commented—on the fact that I tend to insert a smiley face icon right after texting or emailing my personal version of punchy, snarky, sarcasm).

Ha! is all I have to say to them (FYI: Ha! is my programmed default back up to my default smiley face snark signal).

Anyway . . . the point! It’s way easier for me to be critical of the American Psychiatric Association than balanced. In truth, the CFI is a reasonable effort. And, if you think about where the APA is coming from (and likely going to) then the CFI is a massive effort. I should be saying, “Cool! I’m so excited to see the CFI as part of the DSM-5.

All this is prologue for the excerpt I include below. This is an excerpt from a draft chapter I’m writing for the Handbook of Clinical Psychology . . . to be published at some point in the not too distant future. Here’s the excerpt; it focuses on cultural adaptations we can make when conducting initial clinical interviews with minority clients; forgive the roughness of the draft.

Cultural Adaptations

A clinical interview is a first impression, and first impressions are powerful influences on later relational interactions, which is why we need to make cultural adaptations when conducting clinical interviews. One of the best sources for cultural adaptations is the already-existing guidance from psychotherapy research on working multiculturally. These guidelines include: (a) using small talk and self-disclosure with some cultural groups, (b) when feasible, conducting initial interviews in the patient’s native language, (c) seeking professional consultations with professionals familiar with the patient’s culture; (d) avoiding the use of interpreters except in emergency situations; (e) providing services (e.g., childcare) that help increase patient retention, (f) oral administration of written materials to patients with limited literacy, (g) having awareness and sensitivity to client age and acculturation, (h) aligning assessment and treatment goals with client culturally-informed expectations and values, (i) regularly soliciting feedback regarding progress and client expectations and responding immediately to client feedback, and (j) explicitly incorporating cultural content and cultural values into the interview, especially with patients not acculturated to the dominant culture (see Griner & Smith, 2006; Hays, 2008; Smith, Rodriguez, & Bernal, 2011).

Cultural awareness, cross cultural sensitivity, and making cultural adaptations are especially important to assessment and diagnosis. This is partly because mental health professionals have a long history of inappropriately or inaccurately assigning psychiatric diagnoses to cultural minority groups (Paniagua, 2014). To address this challenge, in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2014), a Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI) protocol is included to aid the diagnostic interview process.

The CFI is a highly structured brief interview. It is not a method for assigning clinical diagnoses; instead, its purpose is to function as a supplementary interview that enhances the clinician’s understanding of potential cultural factors. It also may aid in the diagnostic decision-making process. The CFI includes an introduction and four sections (composed of 16 specific questions). The four sections include:

1. Cultural definition of the problem
2. Cultural perceptions of cause, context, and support
3. Cultural factors affecting self-coping and past help seeking
4. Cultural factors affecting current help seeking

Questions from each section are worded in ways to help clinicians gently explore cultural dimensions of their clients’ problems. Question 2 is a good representation: “Sometimes people have different ways of describing their problem to their family, friends, or others in their community. How would you describe your problem to them?” (American Psychiatric Association, 2014).

Clinicians are encouraged to use the CFI in research and clinical settings. There is also a mechanism for users to provide the American Psychiatric Association with feedback on the CFI’s utility. It may be reproduced for research and clinical work without permission, which is a cool thing.

If you Google: “Cultural Formulation Interview” the first non-advertised hit should be a .pdf of the CFI.

If you Google: “Clinical Interviewing” the first several hits will take you to some form or another of our text on the topic.

Here’s a photo of me “working” inter-culturally with my brother-in-law (insert smiley face here):

Rebekah.Johnson.photo_0451

 

 

Practicing Cultural Humility with Parents

Alfred Adler (1958) claimed that every child is born into a new and different family. He believed that with every additional member, family dynamics automatically shift and therefore a new family is born (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2004a). If we extend Adler’s thinking into the cultural domain, it might be appropriate to conclude: “Every family is born into a new and different culture.”

[This is an excerpt from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” It’s at: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1369460232&sr=1-5%5D

To be sure, culture is not a static condition; it’s a malleable and powerfully influential force in the lives of parents and children. Vargas (2004) stated,

“Culture is not about outcome. Culture is an ever-changing process.  One cannot get a firm grip of it just as one cannot get a good grasp of water.  As an educator, what I try to do is to teach about the process of culture—how we will never obtain enough cultural content, how important it is to understand the cultural context in which we are working, and how crucial it is to understand our role in the interactions with the people with whom we want to work or the communities in which we seek to intervene. . . .  I do not want to enter the intervention arena (whether in family therapy or in implementing a community-based intervention) as an “expert” who has the answers and knows what needs to be done.  I am not a conquistador, intent on supplanting my culture on others.  I have a certain expertise that, when connected with the knowledge and experience of my clients, can be helpful and meaningful to my clients.” (p. 429)

In part, Vargas was making the point that it’s more important for professionals to practice cultural humility than it is to view ourselves as culturally competent.

A Cultural Dialectic

All professionals should strive to be culturally sensitive and humble, seeking to respect and prize human diversity for the richness, variety, and surprises it brings to life.  But while embracing culture, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no perfect culture, and sometimes cultural practices need to change or evolve for the sake of a given child, parent, or family.  Therefore, although we value divergent cultural perspectives, it’s also reasonable  to question whether specific cultural beliefs and rituals are useful or healthy to individuals, families, and communities. This is a cultural dialectic—similar to the radical acceptance dialectic discussed in Chapter 1.

When working with parents, it’s the professional’s job to do the cultural accepting and the parents’ job to do the cultural questioning. You should accept the parents’ cultural background, heritage, and parenting practices. However, if in the process of examining cultural influences on parenting, parents take the lead in questioning their culturally influenced parenting practices, you can and should remain open to helping parents push against cultural forces to make positive changes. For example, parents may want to discuss any of the following topics with you:

  • Whether or not to have their infant son circumcised
  • Their daughter’s body-image issues as they relate to American cultural values toward thinness
  • Whether it’s acceptable for their Muslim daughter to attend school or pursue higher education
  • Traditional Native American values and their children’s potential tobacco use

Helping parents determine whether their own cultural values clash with individual and/or family well-being is a delicate and potentially explosive process.  The challenge is to remain relatively neutral while helping parents evaluate cultural practices using their own parent-child-family health and well-being standards.

Case: Tobacco, Culture, and Addiction

Parent: I’m worried about my son and whether he’s started smoking. I use tobacco, in traditional Indian ceremonies, but I usually end up smoking more than I want to, and I see it as a bad habit, too. I’m not sure how to approach this with him because I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

Consultant: Tell me some ideas you’ve had, from your cultural perspective, about how to get the message you want to get to your son.

Parent: I want him to know that tobacco use should beceremonial or sacred, even though I use it more often than that. I know regular smoking is very unhealthy and so I don’t want him to have it as a habit, but I don’t know how to tell him that.

Consultant: If you think about someone from your tribe whom you really respect, how do you think that person would handle it?

Parent: In my tribe it’s really important to respect your elders. I’m my son’s mother and he should respect me, but you know how that goes. Maybe if I asked someone else, someone older and with even more respect than me, maybe that would help.

Consultant: Whom would you pick to help you talk with your son about this?

Parent: My older brother, his uncle, is pretty high up in the Tribal Government and maybe I could ask him to tell my son it would be better not to smoke, even though lots of Indian people smoke.

Consultant: Do you think your brother would be willing to give your son that message?

Parent: Yes. He’s traditional in some ways, but he’s very much against all smoking and drinking.

Consultant: You and your brother are both right about the dangers of regular tobacco use. As I imagine this discussion, I can see the two of you having a big impact on your son. But I guess there’s also the issue of your smoking and your son’s knowledge of that. Can you have your brother talk about that with your son, too? Or maybe both of you should do this together. How do you think this might work best?

In this case example, for the most part, the consultant is remaining neutral and respectful of the parent’s cultural traditions and yet, at the same time, helping her explore how to get her son a strong and clear message about not smoking tobacco.

Following the Parents’ Lead in Cultural Identity and Cultural Understanding

For most of us, culture is so deeply woven into our lives that it travels below awareness. From time to time we may glimpse it and wonder how it came to be that we choose to engage in specific cultural behaviors, such as:

  • Sitting on the couch with our children watching The Simpsons
  • Getting eggs from the store rather than directly from backyard chickens
  • Going to church on Palm Sunday where a processional, complete with a donkey, waits quietly in the sanctuary
  • Deferring to one’s husband
  • Expecting our oldest son to take care of us
  • Gathering with friends to overeat and watch the Super Bowl
  • Wearing a yarmulke, burkha, or other garments or pieces of cloth to cover our bodies or heads

Culture carries with it many questions, answers, and mysteries. As you can see from the preceding list, culture is ubiquitous; it’s impossible to escape its influence. It’s also impossible to accurately judge someone else’s cultural identity on the basis of physical appearance or initial impressions (Hays, 2008).

When working with parents, you shouldn’t assume parents’ cultural attitudes and experiences in advance. This is true no matter how similar or dissimilar to you the parents appear.  It’s best to begin with a clearly stated attitude of openness and then follow the parents’ lead.

Consultant: So, you grew up in Malawi?

Parent: Yes. I came to the United States when I was twenty-four.

Consultant: I don’t know how much of your Malawi tradition influences your parenting and so I hope it will be okay with you if, on occasion, I ask you about that.

Parent:  That’s no problem at all.

Consultant: And, as we talk, I hope you’ll feel free to tell me about anything that comes up or seems important about your particular cultural approach to parenting.

Parent: Yes. I’m comfortable with that.

Whether the parent is Laotian, Belizean, Argentine, French Canadian, or from any other cultural tradition, you should remain open to his or her particular and potentially diverse parenting approaches. However, you should also be open to helping parents question whether their own approaches to parenting are bringing them the results they desire. This is your professional duty. Again, the basic principle is to follow the parents’ lead in questioning cultural parenting practices and not become a cultural conquistador who tells all parents the one right way to be a parent.

A White Male Psychologist Reflects on White Privilege

I’m a white male writing about white privilege. This irony makes the task all the more challenging.

Gyda Swaney asked if I would write this piece. This brings me mixed feelings. I am honored. I met Gyda in 1981 and I like and respect her as a person and as a Native American leader in Montana. But the fact that she thinks I might have something useful to say to psychologists about white privilege is humbling. Rarely have I been asked to write about something I know so well and understand so little.

On Invisibility

The challenge begins with the definition. White privilege is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see McIntosh, 1988 or 2001 for more on this).

As a white, male, psychologist, and university professor, I’m pretty much a white privilege poster boy. Consequently, white privilege, by definition, is generally invisible to me . . . although I do occasionally glimpse it from the corner of my eye or notice its shadow if I sneak up on it when it’s not looking. In fact I think I just saw it – as evidenced by my certainty that I can write a sentence as silly as this last one and get it published in the Montana Psych Association Newsletter.

Like most things invisible (think UFOs, Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak on, ghosts) white privilege is problematic and controversial. This is because white privilege is not always invisible; it’s selectively invisible. It’s obvious to many (e.g., oppressed minorities), but beyond the awareness of those who are busily experiencing the luxury of their unearned assets.

Common Responses to White Privilege

This brings up what may be the most fascinating and disturbing component of white privilege: When the idea of white privilege is brought to the attention of those to whom it’s invisible, it typically evokes a response of defensiveness combined with anger, hostility, outrage, and occasionally guilt. And as we know from our work in psychology, dealing with people who are feeling angry, hostile, outraged, and guilty is very difficult.

There’s something about white privilege that has the potential to make everyone angry.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Solutions

There are no easy ways to make white privilege quickly materialize and become visible. The resistance and pain associated with being told: “You’ve got unearned assets” is natural, partly because most people hold the perception that they’ve worked very hard to get what they deserve. Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Teaching and learning about Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start. One of the items from her knapsack is:

“I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race.”

  • Damn. That’s a nice privilege.
  • Teaching and learning about white privilege can be dangerous and so courage is another important factor in dealing with white privilege. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung (2009) titled their commentary in the American Psychologist, “Teaching White Privilege to White Students Can Mean Saying Good-bye to Positive Student Evaluations.” When I recently posted about white privilege on my blog, I received one response that was so rabidly irrational it was frightening. Speaking out against the status quo always risks blowback.
  • A big part of the solution is to stop clinging to ideas about white superiority and instead, openly embrace and value the lessons we learn from other cultures. We should actively seek out other cultural perspectives. That isn’t about making the other culture better than ours . . . it just places it on the same, equal cultural footing where it belongs.
  • It’s also important to work on calming our anxiety over displacement from the top of the economic and power pyramid. We all get displaced someday; denying reality is dysfunctional. Actively sharing power along with values of egalitarian personal and community relationships is functional. This is part of the very important personal and communal work we need to do.

In closing, I’m painfully aware that I write this short column from a position of unearned privilege in a cabin on former Crow country on the beautiful Stillwater River; thank you Gyda Swaney, for handing me this challenge and opportunity.

This essay was published in the Montana Psychologist Newsletter in September, 2012.

The White Privilege Piece for the Montana Psychological Association

Michael Smerconish did a feature on White Privilege today on CNN. It was excellent and reminded me of this piece I’d written on White Privilege about 4 years ago. Check it out if you like this sort of thing.

A White, Male Psychologist Reflects on White Privilege

I’m a white male writing about white privilege. This irony makes the task all the more challenging.

Gyda Swaney asked if I would write this piece. This brings me mixed feelings. I am honored. I met Gyda in 1981 and I like and respect her as a person and as a Native American leader in Montana. But the fact that she thinks I might have something useful to say to psychologists about white privilege is humbling. Rarely have I been asked to write about something I know so well and understand so little.

On Invisibility

The challenge begins with the definition. White privilege is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see McIntosh, 1988 or 2001 for more on this).

As a white, male, psychologist, and university professor, I’m pretty much a white privilege poster boy. Consequently, white privilege, by definition, is generally invisible to me . . . although I do occasionally glimpse it from the corner of my eye or notice its shadow if I sneak up on it when it’s not looking. In fact I think I just saw it – as evidenced by my certainty that I can write a sentence as silly as this last one and get it published in the Montana Psych Association Newsletter.

Like most things invisible (think UFOs, Harry Potter with his invisibility cloak on, ghosts) white privilege is problematic and controversial. This is because white privilege is not always invisible; it’s selectively invisible. It’s obvious to many (e.g., oppressed minorities), but beyond the awareness of those who are busily experiencing the luxury of their unearned assets.

Common Responses to White Privilege

This brings up what may be the most fascinating and disturbing component of white privilege: When the idea of white privilege is brought to the attention of those to whom it’s invisible, it typically evokes a response of defensiveness combined with anger, hostility, outrage, and occasionally guilt. And as we know from our work in psychology, dealing with people who are feeling angry, hostile, outraged, and guilty is very difficult.

There’s something about white privilege that has the potential to make everyone angry.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Solutions

There are no easy ways to make white privilege quickly materialize and become visible. The resistance and pain associated with being told: “You’ve got unearned assets” is natural, partly because most people hold the perception that they’ve worked very hard to get what they deserve. Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Teaching and learning about Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start. One of the items from her knapsack is:

“I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race.”

  • Damn. That’s a nice privilege.
  • Teaching and learning about white privilege can be dangerous and so courage is another important factor in dealing with white privilege. Boatright-Horowitz and Soeung (2009) titled their commentary in the American Psychologist, “Teaching White Privilege to White Students Can Mean Saying Good-bye to Positive Student Evaluations.” When I recently posted about white privilege on my blog, I received one response that was so rabidly irrational it was frightening. Speaking out against the status quo always risks blowback.
  • A big part of the solution is to stop clinging to ideas about white superiority and instead, openly embrace and value the lessons we learn from other cultures. We should actively seek out other cultural perspectives. That isn’t about making the other culture better than ours . . . it just places it on the same, equal cultural footing where it belongs.
  • It’s also important to work on calming our anxiety over displacement from the top of the economic and power pyramid. We all get displaced someday; denying reality is dysfunctional. Actively sharing power along with values of egalitarian personal and community relationships is functional. This is part of the very important personal and communal work we need to do.

In closing, I’m painfully aware that I write this short column from a position of unearned privilege in a cabin on former Crow country on the beautiful Stillwater River; thank you Gyda Swaney, for handing me this challenge and opportunity.

*********************************************************************

John Sommers-Flanagan (Ph.D., 1986, University of Montana) is a clinical psychologist and counselor educator at the University of Montana. His blogsite, featuring material on counseling, psychotherapy, and parenting is at: johnsommersflanagan.com.

Reflections on White Privilege

As many readers already know, “White Privilege” is defined as an “invisible package of unearned assets” (see Peggy McIntosh’s work, 1988 or 2001 for more on this). White privilege is also a concept that often activates strong feelings–one of them being anger. Recently, Gyda Swaney, an American Indian psychology professor at the University of Montana asked me to write a piece on White Privilege for the Montana Psychological Association Newsletter. The newsletter isn’t out yet, but here is a short highlight from the essay.

Personal Reflections

Although White privilege precedes me and I hold no responsibility for its origins, I was born into it and have lived with it every day for nearly 55 years. Even my birth, characterized by greater-than-equal access to healthcare, is an example of my white privilege.

Maybe that’s a phrase that captures much of the white privilege experience—greater-than-equal. My whiteness and the whiteness of most Montana psychologists affords us greater-than-equal treatment, greater-than-equal power, greater-than-equal access, and greater-than-equal perceptions of ourselves. But privilege is complicated . . . and so it’s possible that we also have a greater-than-equal means of denying our privilege.

Privilege grows in complexity when we look at all the different factors that contribute to a more privileged status in one person and a less privileged status in others. My wife consistently reminds me of my male privileged status and although I’m inclined to deny this along with my white privilege, I know better. I was born male and being born male is like being dealt an ace as your first card in a round of Texas Hold-Em. In most cultures it’s clear that to be male is to be superior. That’s the case even though, as most males know, being handed an expectation of superiority isn’t always comfortable or easy. Paradoxically or dialectically, being a white male cuts both ways and isn’t only an unearned asset or gift, it’s also an unearned burden. It’s a burden like having to carry too many gold coins and diamonds to the bank. The weight of gold hurts your back and the diamonds cut your hands, but it’s ridiculous to complain about the fact that you have to carry a treasure to the bank.

Good Ideas about Multicultural Counseling and Psychotherapy – Part II

Three More Ideas About Multicultural Counseling

4.  Developing your Self-Awareness is Central

Both the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association place self-awareness of the therapist as a central factor in developing multicultural competency. This is a great, but tricky idea. It’s tricky because of the nature of awareness is such that it’s all too easy for us to remain unaware to very significant multicultural issues. If you’re interested in exploring your multicultural awareness further, you should check out the Implicit Association Test at: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

I have a friend who often claimed: “I’m not insensitive, I’m just oblivious!” Of course this was offered in humor, but obliviousness—especially if you’re aware of it—is no good excuse for being insensitive to diversity issues. I’m also reminded of the insensitive and oblivious response of many White Montana students to multicultural discussions. It’s not unusual for some of them to say things like, “I just haven’t had much contact with people from other cultures because we don’t have many minorities in Montana.” When I hear this I try not to gasp aloud as I, or a Native or First Nations Person points out that, in fact, 6.8% of Montana’s population is Native American and that several people IN THE ROOM are Native American.

The initial splash of multicultural awareness is often accompanied by an emotional response . . . and occasionally a bit or a bundle of defensiveness.

5.  As you Work Towards Multicultural Competence, Remember the Concept of Multicultural Humility

Although it’s standard procedure in the counseling and psychotherapy literature to refer to multicultural competence, one major problem with the term multicultural competence is that it implies that there’s an endpoint in the multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skill acquisition process. For this reason, I prefer the terms multicultural humility or multicultural sensitivity.

Similar to awareness, I think humility is central to good multicultural work. Unfortunately, within the dominant cultural media-based messages humility is typically viewed as being weak and confidence, swagger, and even arrogance is seen as more desirable. Thomas Merton (quoted in part I of this blog series) has a quotation that speaks to the tendency for entire countries to engage in self-superiority. He wrote:

“The greatest sin of the European-Russian-American complex which we call the West (and this sin has spread its own way to China) is not only greed and cruelty, not only moral dishonesty and infidelity to the truth, but above all its unmitigated arrogance toward the rest of the human race.”

It’s crucial for multicultural counselor and psychotherapists to move beyond thinking in terms of competence and tolerance (both of which speak to Merton’s ideas of arrogance). Instead, we need to embrace our fallibilities and humility and approach cultural and individual differences with what Marcia Linehan might call radical acceptance and what Carl Rogers would have referred to as unconditional positive regard.

6.  Keep Making Efforts to Understand a Collectivist Cultural Perspective.

In collectivist cultures, values and norms are shared. The self and the personality are defined in terms of group memberships, and the group needs and values are more central than those of the individual. Some people with collectivist perspectives avoid the whole idea of the concept of self or self-esteem or self-image. Instead, Collectivists tend to evaluate themselves based on attaining group goals.

For lots of us folks who have been deeply involved in American individualism, the idea of collectivism can feel odd and repeatedly difficult to grasp. This is where exposure, discussion, and real listening to others becomes so important. Rather than trample on the idea of collectivist being, we need to persistently take extra steps to maintain awareness of this concept that can be so slippery for individualists to grasp.

To close this blog, in 1975 Robert Hogan wrote,

A central theme in Western European history for about 800 years has been the decline of the medieval synthesis or, alternatively, the emergence of individualism. Two hundred years ago individualism was a moral and religious ideal capable of legitimizing revolutions and inspiriting sober and thoughtful minds. Sometimes in the last century, however, social thinkers began to regard individualism in more ambivalent terms, even in some cases as a possible indicator of social decay. (p. 533)

This is interesting stuff, even if it’s sometimes difficult to completely and consistently understand.