It 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.
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