A Secret (and FUN!) Guide to Multicultural Competence (Part 1)

Mexican festival dancerIt seems impossible to be multiculturally competent: There are an infinite number of cultures to be learned with limited time, and cultures evolve constantly. Books on multiculturalism are getting thicker every day, and that thin line between stereotyping and having cultural knowledge is extremely challenging to walk. Many people’s eyebrows furrow, feel anxious, or worry about being incompetent when they think about being multiculturally competent.

What if I tell you that multiculturalism is, actually, fun?

Below you will find my secret guide to multicultural competence that I have presented at several conferences. It is brief, so I know you will NOT fall asleep reading it. I hope that you will smile reading it, and, best of all, I hope you will wonder how bunnies and elephants are so thought-provoking and helpful.

Ready? Here are the first four principles.

Principle 1: Never Use an Anatomy of Fish Book to Understand a Tadpole
If you do so, you may arrive at one of the following conclusions: The book is wrong, the tadpole is weird, you are incompetent. You may misdiagnose the tadpole, kill the tadpole, be embarrassed, overlook the “big transformation” issue that the tadpole will have to face, or the tadpole may feel frustrated and drop out of therapy.

When we use any psychological theories, we have to think: “When, where, and based on what population was this theory developed? Am I using the appropriate anatomy book to understand the person or the group in front of me?”

Example: “I really am tired of people who just assume that I am a Chinese! I am a Burmese.”

Multicultural Competency Meta-Skill #1: Question the validity of most of the theories about human behaviors—how, when, where, based on who, how applicable?

Principle 2: Don’t Use a Bunny Vaccine to Vaccinate an Elephant (and Vice Versa)
Why? Because doing so is unethical and likely harmful. If you saw someone else doing this, you probably would yell at the bunny or elephant, “Run, bunny or elephant, run!” You would think, “What kind of vet would use a treatment developed from and for bunnies to treat elephants without thinking?”

We have to always be mindful when applying the “effective interventions” to different groups or individuals. For example, “traditional” empirically-supported college student retention practices have been found to be less effective for minority students than for white middle-class college students (Hernadez & Lopez, 2007).

Multicultural Competency Meta-Skill #2: Always be mindful of the possible inapplicability of “good” interventions.

Principle 3. An Elephant Must Know Where It Is, Its Power, and Where Its Trunk Is
A forest is safer and easier to navigate for an elephant than a bunny. If an elephant is not aware of its power and privilege, it is likely to make the bunny feel invalidated (“There is nothing to be scared of, my dear bunny, the coyotes are quite shy and friendly— they always run away when they see me!”) The bunny may also feel belittled (“If you exercise as much as I do, you will be as strong as I am.”)

When we are aware of our own privilege, the existence of blind spots, and contexts, we are more likely to prevent harm, gain increasing empathic understanding, and provide the appropriate support.

Example: A student once told me, “She [the professor] just let me know how stupid I am by saying, ‘This is an easy task—even for a person like me [the professor]’…”

Multicultural Competency Meta-Skill #3: (a) Constantly learn about and be mindful of our privileges and power. (b) Avoid comparisons; no comparison is fair, especially if it is impossible to take all factors into consideration.

Principle 4. Always Study the Water When Studying Fishes

If you don’t do so, you may miss the critical hours for saving the fish, may tell the fish to “stop eating mercury-contaminated food,” feel confused and overwhelmed by the different symptoms of different fishes, and be exhausted trying to save one fish at a time. You will surely miss critical clues, may not be able to identify the problem, and may hurt yourself by drinking the water.

The symptoms of our clients are the symptoms of our cultures. Remember that human behaviors and symptoms must be understood within the cultural context and that acknowledging the power of culture is the foundation of effective and ethical interventions.

Example: (1) “Internalized racism” is actually “interjected racism.” (2) I am “too disrespectful” and “too loud” in my traditional Taiwanese family’s eyes, but I “need to be more assertive” and to “express myself more” in most of my American work contexts.

Multicultural Competency Meta-Skill #4: Give due responsibilities to the right parties to help people to create and develop their own ways to navigate through the contextual difficulties.

Preview: The next four principles:

#5 Never Call a Bullfrog a Giant Without Thinking About the Reference Group You Use
#6 Before Calling a Bunny a Coward, First Look for Foxes, Eagles, Tigers, Wild Cats
#7 An Effective Ranger Is Always “Teaming Up” Instead of “Bundling” Animals
#8 Drop Your Shotgun Before Offering Help, Making Apologies, Asking Questions, or Asking for help, etc.

Related articles:
A Secret (and FUN!) Guide to Multicultural Competence (Part 2)
Multiculturalism in the Kitchen
Does Race Affect Working Alliance?

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Chera


    February 3rd, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    Why should this be so hard to navigate anyway?
    People are people regardless of where they come from, the color of their skin, or what religion they practice.
    I fail to see why there are so many problems with understanding other cultures.
    Kind of cloed minded and stupid if you ask me.

  • Lawrence


    February 3rd, 2012 at 8:13 PM

    @Chera: a lot of reasons actually. we live in a multicultural society and the multicultural aspect is only increasing every day. yes people are people but what might be a joke to a person from one cultural background may be a strict no-no in another’s eyes. And if we have to survive and work along with people from different cultural backgrounds then we must learn to walk this tight rope.

    a good article to guide the navigation of this ‘maze’ that is often difficult to a lot of people.

  • Sabrina


    February 4th, 2012 at 5:37 AM

    This kind of thinking might work well in the clinical world but the only thing that tends to help those of us who live in the real world change our attitudes and beliefs about people from backgrounds other than our own is just to be around them. And sometimes that can be good and bad because unfortunately it is just as eay to create negative streotypes based on the actions of a few as it is to develop positive ones. So it is not always as easy as 123.

  • j.anderson


    February 4th, 2012 at 9:20 AM

    most often the reason people fail at making connection with others from a different race is because of their prejudices.prejudices are just not true in the real world and they create a feeling of knowing things about the other person,when in fact the other person may be very different from it.

    the author here has explained the same very well with this example:
    “I really am tired of people who just assume that I am a Chinese! I am a Burmese.”

  • Wei-Chien


    February 5th, 2012 at 10:51 PM

    Hi Chera,

    Yes, it should not be that difficult. Most people want to see people for who they are and know them as individuals. However, it my help us to know others, appreciate them more, and have more empathy for them when we know the possible challenges or unique experience they have encountered because of their environments (which includes cultures). Thank you for voicing your thoughts!

  • Wei-Chien


    February 5th, 2012 at 11:19 PM


    Appreciate your perspective!

    If I may paraphrasing what you said…

    There are several choices of being culturally competent:
    1. One can ask “may I offer you raw squid?” “May I kiss your cheeks?”(always ask if this comment is appropriate). But the other person may not be able to say “not.”
    2. One can also offer the squid first or kiss first, then observe the other’s reaction. But you may not sure about the other’s reaction, since that person may be too nice to
    3. One can also know that offering raw squid is equal to saying, “you are a rotten fish” in that person’s culture. You therefore, say that, “I know that offering raw squid is offending in your culture, but I am offering because I really like it and want to share with you…

    I have so many experiences of not knowing what to say things when people saying Japanese, Cantonese, or Korean to me. I do not wish to reject their good intention or embarrassing them by telling them, “I am not XXX,” but I also can not reply in those languages…

    One of my students from Hawaii one told me that she was so tired of people commenting, “Wow, your English is really good!”

    We have so many assumptions about what is normal or what is right, and I think this guide, like you point out, is to remind us to check our assumptions.

  • Wei-Chien


    February 5th, 2012 at 11:29 PM


    At the beginning this guide was written for clinicians (you are correct!), because many clinicians see culture as a separate part of a person, instead of thinking that cultures influence assessment, treatment, and effectiveness of intervention.

    Interacting with people have so many levels, just like you said. It is challenging and not as easy as 1-2-3, I hope this guide is a fun beginning.

  • Wei-Chien


    February 5th, 2012 at 11:43 PM

    Hi J.Anderson,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    Just like you said, our unchecked assumptions are everywhere. At times even the best intention is hurtful because our prejudice, stereotype, or unchecked assumptions.

    I have two examples:

    Once a Black student told me that she dropped a class because the very first day the professor said to her (in front of the whole class), “I am so glad to have a Back student in my class!” And after the class, the professor (with good intention) said to her, “this class may be difficult for you, feel free to ask me for any help!”

    A supervisee once told me, “Your English is very good for an immigrant.” My thought was, “so in your mind, average immigrants speak terrible English?”

    We all have prejudices and assumptions, and my hope was that using bunnies and elephants, we can communicate with each other more on this serious issue.

  • Wei-Chien


    February 5th, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    Thank you for your comments. These comments remind me that we all are trying our best to be considerate and respectful, and that many have been practicing these principles for years.

    Hope you will enjoy and smile more when reading the next four principles.

  • robyn


    February 6th, 2012 at 2:19 PM

    It astounds me that we have to encourage others to have an open mind. . .

  • Wei-chien


    February 7th, 2012 at 1:37 PM

    Hi Robyn,

    Appreciate your heart.

    Indeed, it is less than optimal that people need to be encouraged to have an open mind.

    There are so many social and cultural factors that close people’s mind. Individuals have responsibilities, but the society and culture have fair share of responsibilities. I have to remind myself that a racist person is a product of a certain parts of our culture.

    I appreciate and would love to have more people like you to tell me about my blind spots and encourage me to be open minded, when I am exhausted, tired, hurt,inconsiderate, insensitive, or just being a human being.

  • Jodi


    March 12th, 2012 at 2:17 AM

    I find much wisdom in this discussion; thank you for sharing this post with us, Wei-Chien. I am reminded of a magnificent quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein:

    “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

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