Culturally Normal

Multicultural psychology has always sounded intriguing to me, with “always” meaning, since the time 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 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 were different. Psychologists had apparently started to realize, long before I arrived, 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 for others. I found this perspective absolutely refreshing.

A few years later, when I got a chance to teach an undergraduate course on multicultural counseling, I used a textbook similar to the ones I had read my first semester of grad school: Counseling the Culturally Different. However, by then the title and focus didn’t digest too well and it took listening to other frustrated people to figure out why. What bothered me back then and still bothers me now is that 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 being culturally normal and them 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 different sociocultural groups. There was even a chapter on European Americans, but that one happened to focus on first generation European immigrants, with almost no discussion on the larger 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 all the different people they need to somehow help and understand?  Or might the majority be well served by picking up some mirrors and looking at how dominant values and practices are also culturally shaped and no less worthy of critical examination?

The most multiculturally 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 biases and willing to admit that they are not experts in each person’s unique cultural experience, may not always get it, and do still have a lot to learn.

Perhaps the starting point of multicultural competence training needs to be humility. Without it, skills and knowledge can only get us so far.