Diversity & Cultural Competence

If you type “diversity” into google images, you’ll be faced with a lot of images similar to the one above. Wanna know why it’s problematic?

Sure, it’s a friendly and familiar concept: we’re all different colors and we should appreciate that. But here’s the thing: how many living people do you know who are blue, purple, green, teal, and orange on a daily basis? I’m willing to bet the answer is zero. There’s a movement called #RepresentationMatters, and I personally find it offensive when I’m looking for representation and all I see are unrealistic color representations of people. This is a way to ‘appease the masses,’ without doing the hard work of understanding lived experiences and representing them accordingly.

I’m currently in graduate school and they place significant emphasis on diversity and cultural competence. That was actually one of the selling points for me…I thought, “how great it is that a place all about psychology is so culturally aware!” I was, sadly, in for a rude awakening. My biggest issue with “diversity” at my school was 1) the lack of ethnically/racially diverse representation in the student/faculty body and 2) the fact that about 85% of the diversity courses were taught by white, cishet folks. I don’t feel like I’m learning much when a white cishet person is teaching me about “diversity” from a textbook. So, I took it upon myself to do my own research, to attend talks and conferences, to engage in my community so that I could gain experience with cultures that were different from my own, without placing the onus on someone from a different culture to be the spokesperson.


Too often I see this happening. I’ll speak from my own experience, though. In several of my graduate-level classes, I have been looked to as the voice of the Black people…because I’m the only Black-looking woman in my classes. There are times when I don’t mind speaking up, but it can become tiring and frustrating after a while. As I sit in my classes semester after semester, I’m plagued by the reality that so many people are complacent in their lack of knowledge/ignorance/denial concerning issues of diversity. And even the phrase “diversity” is up for debate. It seems like most people consider it to encompass race, sex, sexuality, and maybe one or two other things, but it’s so much more (another topic for another day).

The problem is that we can’t expect that textbooks alone are going to tell us all that (or even most of what) we need to know. It is our responsibility to understand how complex “diversity” really is. It’s our responsibility to do some research and learn about cultures that are different from ours. It’s our responsibility to learn what might possibly be offensive and to monitor our language…especially as therapists. I know of several counselors/therapists who choose to engage with their clients in a universal way…building rapport essentially looks the same. This is a disservice and will likely prevent rapport from being established in some cases.

When working with a client whose culture is different from my own, I acknowledge that there will probably be things I don’t understand about her/his culture. In session, if it’s crucial that I understand some cultural reference that I have no familiarity with, I will probably admit that I don’t know and ask if the client feels comfortable explaining it to me. Later, I will ask a colleague who has experience in that area, or look online for resources to better understand my client’s experience. Granted, I know that time is a luxury, but it is a privilege to be able to help others as a therapist, and I personally believe that clients deserve competent therapists…ones who are willing to do the hard work, instead of just asking for easy answers.

There is a similar situation that occasionally resurfaces, but never ceases to offend me. I do not identify as a trans* person, but I have friends who do. Some of them are comfortable speaking to strangers about their experiences, while others really aren’t. In multiple situations, I have heard people ask questions like, “Well, what is your real name? What does it look like? How do you have sex? Are you gay?” These questions are COMPLETELY invasive and irrelevant –unless you plan on dating the individual, then I can see how it might be relevant…but even then, it’s incredibly forward since it’s the first time you’re meeting. Here’s the thing, people: there’s this place called the internet where you can input your questions into a search engine and find answers without embarrassing someone or asking them to be an authority on all things [fill in the blank].

Another thing: It ain’t easy bein woke. It requires time, effort, and (as a friend of mine would say) “the gift of grunt.” If you’re really curious about someone’s culture, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to express your curiosity, but I do feel that there’s a time and a place – typically once rapport has already been established, so it’s a safe space for the conversation. Also, express your curiosity WITHOUT TOUCHING. That goes for cultural attire, hair, jewelry, skin, basically everything. When you reach out to touch someone to express your curiosity or appreciation, that’s something I like to call entitlement (more on that another day). hair

I’ve said a lot, but if I were to sum it all up in 1 sentence this would be it: do your own research, it’s nobody’s responsibility to educate you on their culture (even/especially if you’re the therapist!). I’d also add that establishing relationships is very important to understanding the experiences of others more fully…so push yourself outside of your comfort zone, speak to those who don’t look like you, and read about/engage with them in the community. This will enable you to have reciprocal conversations aimed at learning from each other while better understanding the meaning of diversity and becoming fluent in cultural competence.


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