Getting Active

I used to be scared of speaking in front of people. It was my second greatest fear throughout most of my childhood, awkward adolescence, and beyond. Basically, I was afraid of being seen and heard at the same time – afraid of my insecurities showing and my mind going blank. In my head, that and my house catching on fire were about equally as frightening…

I wondered what would happen if I had something really important to say later in life. Would I have the guts to say it? Or would I sit still and keep quiet…

For the most part, I’ve kept quiet. I’ve made myself busy with school and work, minding my own business, and participating in social justice efforts when it fits with my schedule. I have shied away from initiating difficult conversations about injustice when sensing that it might be perceived negatively and I have been more inclined to raise my concerns individually than to bring them up in groups when the spotlight might shine uncomfortably on me.

When I told a white acquaintance the other day I was going to join a march on Martin Luther King Day to call for respect for human rights in Philadelphia, she asked: “How long have you been an activist?”

My first reaction was disappointment. I keep hoping that fellow people of privilege see how critical and urgent it is to work towards justice and equality for all, instead of seeing that as the personal business of “activists” and marginalized groups.

And my second thought was that showing up at a march doesn’t make one an activist. Real activists are the multitudes of people who work tirelessly to organize and implement programs and movements in their communities, in universities, in health care, and in grassroots political settings; to be dissenting voices in dominating groups and speak up over and over again against injustice; and who risk their jobs, health, and lives while disobeying civilly and taking to the streets when nothing else seems to work.

Going to an organized march is an easy gesture of solidarity. Being a real ally requires some real effort.

By entering their field of work, psychologists and other mental health professionals have signed up to promote health and wellbeing. That cannot be done without challenging the forces that corrode quality of life. Poverty and racism won’t be eradicated through individual counseling, research papers in academic journals, and poster presentations. Perhaps we’d like to think so, but really… it’s not happening.

And at the end of the day, speaking up for what is right is not about me. It is about lending my voice to what needs to be said. Being uncomfortable is no excuse.



Culturally Normal

So called multicultural psychology has always sounded intriguing to me, with “always” being the time since I first heard of the term while looking into graduate programs in the U.S. Never in Iceland had I heard any mention of multicultural psychology or any variant thereof. Psychology was taught from a European/U.S. perspective, as if that were the one and only perspective, and History of Psychology was the only class in my undergraduate program that contained a discussion on the underlying cultural assumptions of the field. But even there, the focus was on Western-developed theories.

In the U.S. things seemed different. Psychologists had apparently started to realize that not everyone walks through life in the same way. They had also started to write books and articles on the ways that race, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability level, social class, and religious beliefs shape people’s view of the world and give access to positive experiences for some and not others. I found this perspective quite refreshing.

However, a few years later when I got a chance to teach an undergraduate course on multicultural counseling, I was given a textbook similar to the ones I had read my first semester of grad school: Counseling the Culturally Different. Just let that sit for a minute.

Despite all the awareness that has started to build in the U.S. about the relevance of culture, social location, oppression and privilege, and the –isms that saturate society, there is still an strong tendency to regard white, European American, heterosexual, upper-middle class, Christian culture as the norm, and all other variations as different. And this standard textbook represented a version of multicultural psychology that still revolves around teaching us to help them­ – with us (dominant US social groups) being culturally normal and them (everyone else) being culturally different. There were chapters on Latino culture, African American culture, Asian American culture, gay/lesbian/bisexual culture, poor people and old people and several other sociocultural groups. There was also a chapter on European Americans, but that one happened to focus on first generation European immigrants, with almost no discussion on European American/white culture.

The reality is that the majority of graduate psychology students and professional psychologists in the U.S. are white, able bodied, heterosexual, from roughly a middle class background. And, of course, each person tends to be more familiar with their own culture than the cultural background of everyone else. But does that mean the majority should sit down on a comfortable platform and look down with binoculars on “the other” they need to somehow help and understand?  Or might the majority be well served by picking up a mirror and looking at how dominant values and practices are also culturally shaped, how institutional bias and inequality impacts experiences of all non-dominant groups, and how all of this seeps into theories on how to help those who are supposedly “different”?

The most culturally competent psychologists I have met have not been “multicultural experts” spouting off their knowledge on diversity. Instead they have been folks who are openly aware of their own social location and willing to admit that they are not experts in any person’s unique cultural experience, may not always get it, and do still have a lot to learn.

The starting point of multicultural competence training needs to be humility and examination of power and bias. Without that, “multicultural psychology” will do more harm than good.