How Therapists Can Grow Beyond Cultural Competence

Person with glasses and serious expression works on computer in home officeCultural competence is the standard set for the mental health profession that deems a person able to effectively work with individuals from diverse backgrounds. However, cultural competence, as it is defined, is the bare minimum of “competence.” Far too often, it falls short.

When searching a topic such as “people of color in therapy” on the internet, for example, it is far too easy to find articles that illustrate the discrepancy between what the profession holds as competent and how people of color often experience therapy.

It is time to move beyond competence and into proficiency.

Cultural proficiency requires therapists to do the deep work of unpacking their own unconscious biases, which is likely part of the reason behind the scarcity of culturally proficient providers. It takes significant effort, transparency, and willingness to be uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this work is far beyond the scope of what many graduate schools offer in the required multicultural and diversity classes. Many courses offer information on cultural awareness and diversity but don’t do any depth work in helping students dig into their unconscious biases. Many students know how to avoid showing explicit racism and may even fancy themselves non-racist. Yet they can still harbor unconscious biases. Those biases may be carried into the counseling room and cause harm to the people seeking therapy.

A semester-long course is rarely enough to decondition one from a lifetime of bias. The reality is we ALL have biases, and we all have to do our own work to change those biases. As therapists, we have an added responsibility because we are charged with being healers. Yet without changing our inner landscape as it pertains to people of color, we could unwittingly cause harm.

Without therapists who do this work, people of color may experience harm in therapy, whether it is in the form of a microaggression or in a more blatant form of racism. It is part of our ethical duty as therapists to make sure we aren’t practicing outside the scope of our expertise.

The important thing isn’t where you are now, but that you are moving forward.

It is virtually impossible to be culturally proficient without having spent a significant amount of mental and emotional time immersed in literature, videos, and communities of color. This article is an invitation to self-examine whether you are truly proficient or if you are operating at the bare minimum competency. It is an invitation to reflect on your beliefs and to look around at your life, personally and professionally. It may be time to examine “Who is in my life?” “Who has a voice?” “Who is silenced?” and “Who has power?” These questions, and others like them, can help you determine what areas of your life might need work.

Noel Burch’s well-known conscious competence model can be helpful in framing one’s own cultural competence and knowing where one is on the journey.

  • The first stage is unconscious incompetence, which is to say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Many people who fall into this category haven’t spent much time learning about cultural issues. These folks may make statements like “Reverse racism is real.” They might believe we live in a “post-racial society.”
  • The second stage is conscious incompetence. People in this stage are aware of what they don’t know but don’t understand how to become informed.
  • The third stage is conscious competence, which is where someone has taken the time to learn, immerse themselves in the available material, and get training. In this stage, the person is still integrating the information they have learned and is consciously trying to do better.
  • The final stage is unconscious competence, where the behavior becomes so ingrained one no longer has to think about it. This is the level many mental health providers aim to achieve. When cultural proficiency becomes so second nature we don’t even have to think about what course of action to take, what to say, or how to behave, our risk of causing harm is lowered.

Unless you have spent a significant amount of time engaging in social justice and cultural proficiency activities or seeking out related media, you are likely in the first two stages and have some work to do to get to the fourth. I encourage you to take these steps to increase your knowledge. The important thing isn’t where you are now, but that you are moving forward.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa M. Vallejos, PhD, Topic Expert

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

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