From the July/August 1994 issue
“THE FIRST THING I’D LIKE TO DO,” SAYS THE MODERATOR Of a recent conference on multiculturalism and community building, “is welcome any of you who have within you either the spirit of, or the blood of, Native Americans, because it’s because of you we’re allowed to be here in Manhattan, so thank you.”
A few of the 900 attendees dutifully applaud.
“And then I want to welcome all people of color,” he continues. “I want to welcome African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, Asian Americans, with all the various differentiations that are in there. And I want to welcome all the incredible nationalities in the United States and people who have recently immigrated here. And I want to welcome women and men, noticing that they are the same and also different.”
There is now some eye-rolling around the room. Just how long is this catechism of inclusion going to last?
“And I want to welcome lesbians and people who identify themselves as gays, bisexuals. And I also want to welcome heterosexual people… And I want to welcome people who are single and not in a relationship, and people who are in threesomes and more-somes, and, of course, I won’t forget couples.”
Has this smooch to diversity become a new, obligatory rite of political correctness? Will it take up the entire conference just to acknowledge all the people who showed up for it?
“I want to welcome the differently abled and those who are abled in the ordinary sense. . . If you welcome any of these folks, would you just say, ‘Ho’?”
These days, a lot of people are tired of saying “Ho.” It’s not that they think anyone should be left out, but they’ve grown annoyed at the tortuous etiquette of inclusion. The politically correct has become everyone’s favorite target. Even people who are politically correct distance themselves from the caricature of the loopy, sanctimonious liberal tortured by the prospect of slighting anyone even left-handed vegetarians.
Of course, not everyone’s quarrel with PC is the same. White men, “the pale, patriarchal, penis people,” as art critic Robert Hughes sarcastically calls white men like himself, bristle at being cast as the privileged “them” who are responsible for the problems of every other group the PC “us.” In his caustic Culture of Complaint, Hughes writes, “It’s as though all human encounters were one big sore spot, inflamed with opportunities to unwittingly give, and truculently receive, offense.”
Minorities have different problems with the politically correct: it’s one thing to wear Kente cloth and have a right-on bumper sticker; it’s another to actually do something about racism and inequality. According to Aaron Olive, a third-grade teacher in a poor Mexican neighborhood in Southern California, the token solution schools have come up with to address the problem of racism and prejudice is to have a multicultural festival. “We do some Mexican dancing, we have an African guy playing the talking drum and then everyone gets to feel good about themselves, like they really understand each other’s culture,” he says. For Olive, this “celebration of diversity” is all lip service. “To me as a black man, this kind of multiculturalism is the joke of the decade,” he says. “It doesn’t help me or my students that white people have heard the drummer or seen the hat dance.”
As with most heated, public debates, many people try to stay out of the line of fire, quietly hoping the clamor about political correctness will go away so they can go back to the comfortable way things were. This has certainly been a proven strategy for dealing with political and social change movements in the past: pay some lip service, wait until the furor dies down and return to business as usual. But this time, according to policy analysts and demographics experts, it’s not going to work. Whatever the shortcomings of political correctness, the culturally diverse world it heralds is no slogan or word game; it’s an irreversible current that is recasting the landscape of our society.
For the first time in U.S. history, the mainstream is about to become the minority, and the group that has held the power, made the laws, set the policies, controlled the money and dictated to everyone else is on the verge of being outnumbered. In 1987, the Hudson Institute, a public-policy think-tank in Indiana, issued a much-cited report called Workforce 2000, calculating that at the end of the 20th century, white males will be the new minority of Americans entering the workplace. “Nonwhites, women and immigrants will make up more than five-sixths of the net additions to the workforce between now and the year 2000, though they make up only half of it today,” wrote the authors. “Organizations from the military services to the trucking industry will be forced to look beyond their traditional sources of personnel.” This demographic shift means we will all have to adapt to a new plurality of workers and consumers. For example, 45 percent of the nation’s school districts already offer a bilingual curriculum, and in New York City alone, teachers at every level have to figure out how to educate a student body that speaks more than 100 different languages.
The business world has already begun to feel the expensive and obstructive effects of trying to manage a diverse work force without any training or knowledge about how to do it. The number of sexual harassment complaints more than doubled between 1989 and 1993, reaching nearly 12,000, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); in 1993 alone, more than $25 million was paid out in settlements to 1,546 people. Complaints of racial discrimination filed with the EEOC went up nearly 40 percent in the private sector between the same years. With their eyes on the bottom line, businesses are realizing that they can’t afford the expense, bad publicity, absenteeism and low morale generated by diversity conflicts. Some have started offering day care and liberal leave policies for working mothers and fathers, insurance benefits for same-sex partners, and independent committees to mediate discrimination and harassment complaints in-house. In a matter of only a few years, says Joan Lester, a diversity trainer with Equity Institute in Emeryville, California, the number of calls she receives from large corporations wanting her consultation on diversity matters has quintupled.
Meanwhile, family therapists are feeling the impact of multiculturalism not only as a political or ethical cause, but as a pocketbook issue. “I am seeing more and more that businesses shopping for managed care networks are asking about the percentage of the network’s therapists who are minority or who are qualified to treat gays and lesbians, or who are comfortable working with Christian-based issues, because it’s cost effective,” says Monica Oss, president of Open Minds, a mental health research organization, and a consultant to managed care providers. The conventional wisdom in managed care these days is the better the cultural match, the more effective in terms of dollars as much as improved mental health the therapy.
The bottom-line concern of managed care is only going to be the start of the transformations multiculturalism will set in motion in our field, say therapists at the forefront of the emerging movement. “Everything from the most benign assumptions we make, such as the necessity for verbal communication in therapy, to the more obvious value judgments we make, such as who we seek to include in sessions, is going to be called into question as the field starts to open its eyes to the cultural diversity all around us,” says Ken Hardy, professor of family therapy at Syracuse University. Even what we consider the task of therapy alleviating the family’s presenting symptoms and fine-tuning the system will change, he says. “Multiculturalism is going to teach us to help clients seize the ultimate liberating power, which is to define themselves.”
WHILE FAMILY THERAPISTS certainly didn’t invent multiculturalism, evidence of the field’s ethnocentrism and cultural blind spots began to emerge almost started as soon as we scribbling genograms. But cases that raised cultural issues, such as work with the poor and minority families, were seen as addressing specialized treatment groups and not challenging the generic assumptions of most therapy models. It was not until the 1982 publication of the trailblazing book, Ethnicity and Family Therapy, edited by Monica McGoldrick, John Pearce and Joseph Giordano, that therapists began seriously to explore how seemingly idiosyncratic family behaviors are actually expressions of a larger heritage. For many, Ethnicity and Family Therapy was a source of revelation, a guidebook that explored how unspoken cultural values and patterns were like family secrets, driving the emotional life of families more frequently than anyone had previously imagined.
In each chapter, family therapists writing as cultural insiders showed how, in effect, different ethnicities have different sets of rules for family life and relationships. In one chapter, a contributor explained that Norwegians, believing that life is already hard enough, are generally taciturn because friendship means, in part, not burdening others with one’s personal problems. In another, an author discussed how “respect, not love, is the binding tie” in Polish families, and described the unquestioning obedience children are expected to give to their fathers. In French-Canadian families, wrote another contributor, people “are taught very early that anger is not an acceptable emotion.”
In large part, Ethnicity and Family Therapy was a response to the ethnic-pride movement of the ’60s and ’70s, which inspired Jewish Americans to take up Hebrew and go live on a kibbutz, Irish Americans to learn Gaelic and hold ceili dances, and African Americans to dress in African clothing and give their children traditional African names. The movement was epitomized in Alex Haley’s best-selling Roots, which was turned into a television miniseries in January 1977, and was seen by an estimated 130 million viewers, making it the most-watched program since the invention of television.
Ethnicity and Family Therapy struck a chord among clinicians who had never before articulated their own cultural values, much less talked to client families about theirs. In the Foreword to the book, family therapist Harry Aponte wrote, “After reading this book, it will be difficult for any therapist to imagine how he or she can attempt to assess, treat and communicate with a family without being sensitive to the cultural roots of the family and of him- or herself.” Family therapy, which had made the leap from working with individuals to seeing family systems, seemed to be taking the natural next step, widening its lens to encompass the relevance of the cultural forces that shape family life.
Yet, despite being heralded by many as a major advance, Ethnicity and Family Therapy also had its critics. Some believed that the book passed along popular cultural stereotypes, such as the “Jewish persecution complex,” and tacitly implied that with a little information from a book chapter, clinicians would be competent to work cross-culturally. Others resented the summations of different ethnic traditions, believing many reflected a sexist view of women in families or a static view of culture.
In the years since 1982, however, family therapists’ conception of culture has broadened beyond just ethnicity. It has become clearer that we all carry several cultures within us at once. The most obvious are our inherited cultures our ethnicity, nationality and religion. But we also inherit less obvious cultures such as, for example, the generation into which we are born. Baby boomers share the same historical time period and cultural markers, such as “Leave It To Beaver” and the Vietnam War, in a way other generations don’t. Likewise, gender is a culture sustained by a certain socialization process and common biological experiences. We are each born into a certain class, which shapes choices, interests, access to options. Most middle-class kids are college bound from conception whereas working-class kids don’t necessarily grow up with that expectation theirs or anyone else’s. Sexual orientation is still controversial some say it is inherited, others say it is chosen, but regardless, being lesbian, gay, straight or bisexual comes with its own social norms, history and vocabulary. When a man realizes he is gay, he looks to other gays as models for how to have a relationship and how to present himself in the world. An entire history, such as the persecution of gays in the military and the liberation movement of the ’70s, becomes his in a personal and relevant way.
While these cultures and more shape us, our sense of “we” can change in our lifetimes as we, for example, move up economically, convert to another religion, move to another country. After Puerto Rican-born family therapist Miguel Hernandez had been living in the United States for six months, his parents came to visit and told him that he had changed he was always busy, never had time to sit and relax. When he went back to Puerto Rico to see them, he noticed small but significant changes. “Here, I am always missing Puerto Rican food, but when I was there, I craved a bagel and lox on a Sunday,” he says. “This is who I am now: a person who has two realities that don’t always match.”
In addition to inherited cultures, we also have layers of acquired cultures, such as in this work-dominated society the culture of our professions. Family therapists understand concepts like “reframing” and “homeostasis,” know the names of the pioneering therapists and hold their breath at the prospect of health care reform. The fact that family therapists don’t regard it as strange or inappropriate to reveal intimate details about their own family life at large-forum events is part of their shared culture.
Like ethnic roots, the power of group identities, inherited or acquired, is that they define our communities for us, the places where we will feel most at home and find kindred spirits who implicitly understand our ways. But because ours is not a society that values every group equally indeed, some are actively put down we are often forced to sacrifice parts of ourselves that seem most deeply “us” to fit into the dominant culture. A gay man can’t talk about his relationship at work because he could be fired for being gay; an African-American therapist is regarded as uneducated if she slips into the comfortable rhythm of speech she uses at home, which doesn’t sound like the way whites talk.
Multiculturalists argue that the price of cutting off a significant cultural legacy is internalized shame and diminished self-esteem. This is even more pronounced for those who come from cultures already in a one-down economic position, like refugees or people from developing nations, or those whose cultures include a history of colonization or persecution, like descendants of African slaves. Their ambivalence about themselves comes not simply from trying to fit in, but from rampant negative stereotypes about their cultures, which become the seeds of self-hate. As a recent immigrant from Puerto Rico himself, Miguel Hernandez, of the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center in Manhattan, experienced this firsthand. “Every tune I am confronted with being different from the dominant culture, I experience myself as ‘bad,’ or ‘lacking,'” says Hernandez. “It makes me angry, and it also creates self-limiting perceptions. For example, as I write anything, I imagine the people who read it asking, “what is this little Puerto Rican guy thinking? Does he know anything about family therapy?’ All this because I don’t belong to the main group, and the group I do belong to is looked down on.”
Multiculturalism highlights the psychological cost of assimilation and the “melting pot” ideal, and the economic and social pressures nearly every group feels to subsume their group identities and to try to pass in the mainstream. Today, Hernandez, like many multiculturalists, believes all of his clients, whether just off the boat or here for generations, carry the scars of the immigration experience. He believes a fundamental struggle for immigrants trying to establish themselves in the new culture is how to hold onto their cultural identity without feeling ashamed of their differences.
Recently, Hernandez worked with two Nicaraguan teenagers who had come to the United States through Mexico several years ago as undocumented immigrants. Now, they were fighting with their parents and were refusing to speak Spanish with them. He gradually coaxed their immigration story from them how they and their mother had traveled each night from house to house, hiding by day, in constant fear of being caught as they illegally crossed the border. Hernandez decided to show them the film El Norte, about a family making the same journey, and afterward the teens felt excited that their experience was the subject of a movie. In subsequent sessions, they talked about being poor and how it made them feel ashamed, how they hated being confused with Mexicans because, in the social pecking order among Latinos, they saw Mexicans as being the most despised. One boy revealed how hard it was to think about college because it would seem like he was trying to be white and selling out their crowd. “Therapy turned out to be about mentoring this family: they had never been immigrants before,” says Hernandez. Instead of seeing themselves as pitiable because they couldn’t afford the high-priced sneakers the wealthy Anglo kids wore, they could find a sense of dignity by learning to respect their own cultural story.
Reconnecting with our cultural heritage is a powerful healing tool when it joins us to our communities’ rich resources the powerful myths and binding traditions that can cement ties between parent and child, between spouses, between the individual and the larger world. Tapping into culture as a resource is the beginning of understanding that we are each part of a larger sense of “we” that has been passed down to us through the nameless and creditless lives of millions of people who came before us; their experiences teach us how to be, and become a part of us through our language, norms, customs, rituals, beliefs and expectations.
Culture gives us our fundamental sense of belonging, of fitting into the larger picture. Our group identities these “we’s” that shape us are always influencing our experience, determining whether we are relaxed and can speak in the shorthand of one who shares the same basic worldview and experience, or whether we have to translate ourselves to someone who wouldn’t understand the way we interpret the world. “I can do therapy with a woman from any country on the earth and feel comfortable because I know we will share things in common,” says one female family therapist. “Likewise, I know that I will always have a different posture and less relaxed manner when I’m working with a man, even one who is an old blue blood like myself, because there are some things women and men just aren’t going to get about each other.”
The multiculturalism of the ’90s has gone beyond encouraging individuals to rediscover their roots. Looking back on Ethnicity and Family Therapy today, Monica McGoldrick says, “We didn’t include any discussion of power or the politics of race. A lot of the book seems a little naive today. Maybe that’s what made it palatable to a large audience.” Multiculturalism is a challenge to the status quo because it highlights the undeniable link between people’s culture and their economic status and position in society. Its aim is to expose the unfairness of the social structures and ingrained cultural attitudes that result in the median income for white men being 30 percent higher than what Hispanics make; 29 percent higher than that of white women and 20 percent higher than that of African Americans. Meanwhile, men of every ethnicity make on the average of 18 percent more than women in their culture.
Sharing the power to shape society is far more than a distant ideal; it’s a survival issue for minorities. African-American men made up 47.4 percent of the state and federal prison population in 1992, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. African-American families are more likely than any other group to fall through the cracks of the social welfare net: an estimated 40 percent of children who are removed from their homes and placed in foster care are African American, according to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. A conversation about culture must address what these statistics tell us, says Ken Hardy, but often it doesn’t. “It’s easier to talk about one’s culture than one’s power; one’s ethnicity than one’s privilege,” he says.
Ultimately, multiculturalism is a movement to make society a place in which people from all cultures have equal respect and equal voice and equal influence in shaping larger community values. Why can’t the African-American
therapist feel comfortable talking with whites the same way she talks with other blacks? Why can’t a gay man come out at work? Because, say leaders of the multicultural movement, the mainstream, heterosexual, white culture controls not only more money than minorities, but the power to define for the rest of society what is acceptable and unacceptable, true and false, valuable and useless, and to impose those definitions through school curricula, the media and the justice system. This is the reality of power and underlies the main tension within the multicultural movement. Some want it to be a festival of ethnic diversity the hat dance and the drummer while others want it to be a movement for social justice. “I think it’s baloney if all you’re doing is using culture to let people know how special they are,” says New Mexico family therapist Braulio Montalvo, who pioneered family therapy approaches with the poor. “The real issue for all of us is that we have to redistribute the meager pie and respect that we have limited resources.”
AT FIRST GLANCE, THE CHALLENGE put forth by multiculturalism’s advocates seems both abstract and intimidating. It’s all well and good to want to be aware of cultural differences, but is there something more that therapists should be doing?
No one pushes the outside of the multicultural envelope farther than the Just Therapy Team from the Family Centre in Greater Wellington, New Zealand, led by Kiwi Tama-sese, Wahiri Campbell and Charles Waldegrave. According to their approach, therapy and community building are almost synonymous. The Family Centre staff has helped clients create tenants’ unions and unemployed workers’ unions; they have been at the forefront of policy battles to get better housing and welfare laws in place. The Team insists that there is no healing in isolation and believes that clients’ feelings of hopelessness and despair are in large part symptoms of a kind of cultural famine a disconnection from a vitalizing sense of belonging and meaning. Their therapy is more than a search for ethnic roots, however; they believe the ultimate goal of therapy is liberation. They approach cultural heritage as a kind of sacred realm and believe therapists who work cross-culturally can do incalculable damage if they are from a dominant group and the client is from a minority group. In such cases, the therapist will inevitably impose his or her own values and meanings onto the client, erasing the client’s own cultural interpretations.
At their own Centre, the staff is divided into three sections, one for Maori clients, one for Paheka (European) clients, and one for Pacific Island clients. Therapists only work with their own kind; no one works cross-culturally unless invited in to consult by someone from that section. In addition to respecting the boundaries of culture, the sections try to match client and therapist by gender as well, and when they are seeing whole families, the team evaluates the power differential between family members to determine whether a male or female therapist should work with the family. When they present their model in the West, therapists often challenge the appropriateness of what they see as separatism. Some believe that when groups hermetically seal themselves off from one another, any criticism or disagreements from the outside are rejected as disrespect or insensitivity. Critics say that therapists’ advice is sought precisely because clients want an outside perspective, someone who will challenge accepted ideas and offer new meanings. They accuse the Just Therapy Team of falling into what Bard College president Leo Botstein calls the “culture of forbidden questions.”
But the Team believes that therapeutic conversations across cultural lines are inherently problematic because no cultural outsider will be able to overcome his or her own cultural assumptions to accurately judge another culture’s standard of normal or abnormal, healthy or unhealthy. So when the Just Therapy Team demonstrates their model abroad, they compensate for the fact that they are treating families from foreign cultures by inviting cultural consultants to observe the therapy and help the Team monitor their own cultural faux pas and offer insights into the case.
Three years ago, when the Team consulted on a case in Calgary, Canada, they arranged for several consultants who came from the clients’ culture to observe the session from behind a oneway mirror. Jenny and her two young children, Lilly and Jay, had recently moved to a safe house after Jenny was beaten by her boyfriend, Karl, now in jail. She had recently finished an alcohol and drug abuse recovery program and was doing her best to hold the family together despite being unemployed and on welfare.
Waldegrave met with the family and began the session by asking Jenny about her family background her mother was Cree Indian, her father was Scottish.’ ‘Do you identify yourself with the Cree people?” asked Waldegrave. Jenny was confused. “Like, your mother was a Cree Indian. Do you see yourself as a Cree Indian?”
“Yeah,” she answered, sounding a little bored.
“Do you meet with other Cree Indian people?” Waldegrave asked.
“No, not any more than other people,” she answered. “… I know that I’m Indian. I’m not ashamed of it or anything, but I’ve never really lived in that kind of society, speaking the language.” Did her Cree grandmother ever teach her about what it means to be a Cree woman? No, Jenny told him.
Was the culture angle a dead end already? Jenny didn’t sound too interested. Why didn’t Waldegrave ask about her Scottish side of the family or focus on the battering?
But Waldegrave kept inquiring about Jenny’s Cree grandmother and whether Jenny had any Indian friends, while she sounded somewhat bewildered by all these questions.
It’s one thing to want to start a conversation about culture, but what if the client doesn’t seem interested? How persistent should therapists be about it? After all, with her life in turmoil, her cultural roots might not have been foremost on Jenny’s mind just then. Meanwhile, 10-year-old Lilly, quietly coloring, had drawn a self-portrait: a Native American girl in a buckskin dress.
Eventually, when Jenny started to sound defensive about Waldegrave’s questions about her Native ancestry, he assured her that he was not implying that being Native was the cause of her troubles. But maybe learning more about her cultural heritage might help her think about the changes she was considering in her life. She sounded open but noncommittal. “Yeah, I would, but I don’t have the time or the money to do anything about that right now.” They talked for a few more minutes, and Jenny became animated when she described a Native funeral she had attended.
Waldegrave took a break and went behind the mirror to consult with the two members of his Team, plus the four Cree and one half-Cree, half-European (termed “Maiti”) woman. When he returned, he read the Team’s statement to the family. They commended Jenny her for her courageous acts to keep her family safe, telling her that this was the traditional role of Cree women. After telling Lilly they hoped she could stop being the caretaker now that her mom had her in a safe place, Waldegrave read a message from the Maiti woman. She had lived a life similar to Jenny’s and wanted Jenny to know that she had “grown, gained her strength and a sense of belonging by searching for her Native heritage and linking up with the Native Friendship Center. You have begun your journey as a Native woman like many other Native people,” he concluded. “We are sure you will find the path that will take you and your children from violence and will give you a good and dignified life,”
Sessions like this have stirred up controversy among therapists who believe culture can be overemphasized. “What is our job?” asks structural family therapist Charles Fishman, director of the Institute for the Family in New Jersey. “To get into a conversation about culture, which may be more on the therapist’s agenda than the client’s, or is it to change the system? This whole focus on culture can be more of the therapist’s baggage being loaded onto clients, one more trip of ours that we are taking them on.”
At a recent conference with the Just Therapy Team, Salvador Minuchin warned that too much preoccupation with understanding cultural legacies can blind therapists to the idiosyncrasies of families. “You can know a lot about culture without knowing about the people you’re sitting with,” says Minuchin. He argues that it is perilous to dismiss the psychological tools that enable clinicians to understand the unique patterns of clients’ lives, and insists that not being from a client’s culture should never automatically disqualify a skilled therapist from working with a family.
One of the basic assumptions of therapy is that clinicians have to rely on empathy and a certain ability to imagine what it must be like to be the other in order to practice. If clinicians really believe they could never truly grasp the meanings of the experiences of people who are different from them, does this mean they have to find another line of work? Most therapists prefer to believe that human similarities draw people together across cultural lines and allow therapist and client to bridge the gaps in experience. “We can all read Shakespeare and relate to it even if we’re not Elizabethans,” says Fishman.
Can we? Waldegrave, Tamasese and Campbell argue that our knowledge, cultural references and even psychology are not universal, even though Westerners generally presume that they are. They, too, have a point: all cultures have psychological knowledge of their own their own concepts of a normal life cycle, their own paradigms for healthy family functioning and appropriate child behavior. What makes us think ours should be the ascendant model? This is the heart of the multicultural critique: the dominant culture, the ones in power who wrote the textbooks and defined the healthy family never acknowledged the depths of their own arrogance. Not all cultures have self-actualization as a goal. Not all cultures believe parents should have the executive authority in families. Not all cultures believe that “family” has to include opposite-sex spouses. Where is there room on our genograms to chart relationships like “The neighbor who raised me until I was 10,” or tribal elders, who may have had more say in the schooling, discipline and choice of marriage partner than the client’s parents? “We want Western knowledge to sit humbly alongside other forms of knowledge,” says Waldegrave.
Jenny came back for one more session with her therapist, Patricia Carruthers, after her consultation with the Team, and said she was feeling much better about herself. “Cree people usually appear understated, but Jenny seemed enthusiastic to me,” says Carruthers. Following up three years later, Carruthers discovered that Jenny appeared to accept the invitation to explore her heritage. She is employed full time working with Native families in an administrative position, and has become active in the community conducting cross-gender sweat-lodge ceremonies with a medicine man. Her children have also become involved in activities for Native youth. “She says the Maiti woman’s story had an influence on her,” says Carruthers, who spoke with her recently. “I don’t credit all her growth to the interview with the Team, because she had done so much work on her own, but I definitely think it helped.”
THE QUESTION THIS CASES RAISES is whether the Just Therapy Team’s approach deifies culture, or just how culture-bound all therapists are. In the course of a typical workday, clinicians constantly find themselves having to reconcile cultural value judgments with their therapeutic role. A middle-aged male therapist found himself critically judging a young woman who had decided to go back to work six weeks after her twins were born, surprising himself with the strength of his conviction that women ought to spend more time at home with their babies. Another therapist is challenged by the insistence of Cuban parents not to let their child learn English until he starts school because they want to make sure he is fluent in his native tongue. The multicultural perspective can make therapists question their intuition and spontaneous reactions, and wonder whether they are always useful to the family’s process. Sometimes, there can be an outright values clash in which a therapist may feel caught between imposing his or her values and disrespecting a client’s culture.
Some therapists use cultural consultants to help them negotiate sticky values questions. A Middle-Eastern Islamic family was referred to the Institute for Family Services in New Jersey by school officials after the nurse discovered both daughters were being physically abused. Therapist Rhea Almeida learned that the father felt it was his Koranic obligation to administer corporal punishment to both his daughters in order to make sure they remained sexually pure. But by the school nurse’s standards, a sprained wrist and bruises on neck, chest and arms was excessive. The father didn’t believe he was being anything but a loving and conscientious parent, and didn’t understand why raising his children was anyone’s business but his own. Reluctant to invoke the law as her point of leverage and set herself up in opposition to the father, Almeida did some research in the community and found a religious leader from a local mosque who could offer the family a different interpretation of the Koran in which the definition of fatherhood did not condone physical discipline but called for a gentler guidance. By allying with someone from within the culture, Almeida was able to avoid an impossible therapeutic dilemma while also empowering the mother to challenge her husband’s right to beat the children.
Nevertheless, despite the best attempts to stay open-minded and accepting of cultural differences, the issue of right and wrong may sometimes seem indisputable to the therapist. Almeida once saw a Sudanese family referred because the 13-year-old girl was failing in school and the school psychiatrist hadn’t been able to understand why. Her depression had begun after the family returned from a trip to the Sudan that the girl refused to discuss. To rule out biological causes, she sent the girl to a doctor, but the girl screamed hysterically and wouldn’t let the doctor touch her. “The family returned for one more visit without the child and told me that there was something about their culture I couldn’t understand,” says Almeida. They said their daughter had undergone a “special ritual for girls that we don’t ever talk about.” Before Almeida could confront them on her suspicions that they meant female circumcision, the family left the area permanently and no one could track them down.
The case seemed particularly clear-cut. Who could stand up for an act of mutilation perpetrated on a child? Yet, Cambridge family therapist Dick Chasin was stunned when a female acquaintance from a part of Ghana where female circumcision is a common practice told him, “In my country, if I didn’t do this, my daughter would be ostracized from the community because she would be considered unclean and unfit to marry. If she did not shed her blood in this way, she would not be connected with the fertility of the earth. Why would I want to do that to my child?” she asked him.
“I draw a line between culture and torture,” says Almeida, who says that an estimated 10,000 girls are at risk of female genital excision in the United States alone. “If I saw that girl now, I would have reported her parents to child protective services without a moment’s hesitation, no matter what a cultural consultant said.”
CAN WE, AS THERAPISTS, EVER consider ourselves competent to work with clients whose cultures are vastly different from our own? What sort of paragons of multicultural wisdom do we have to become to maneuver among the huge array of foreign worlds from which our clients come?
Some, like the Just Therapy Team, believe “multiculturalism” is a dangerous term because it implies that therapists will begin to believe they can understand the nuances and reflexes of families from cultures other than their own. The Team adamantly believes this will never be possible, and should not be a goal of therapy training. The leaders of the multicultural movement here seem to believe it’s possible to be a multicultural therapist, but they caution that one doesn’t learn how to do it from reading books about other cultures, nor from delivering impassioned mea culpas in cultural sensitivity sessions. The first step is honesty, facing our own fears and internal judgments of “them.” We can’t make these changes in the abstract it requires contact with people from other cultures, and the chance to step across into someone else’s experience of what may seem an alien world.
At a family therapy conference last year, Jack, a 59-year-old German-American family therapist from Milwaukee, was annoyed to find himself assigned to a lunchtime consciousness-raising group that reminded him of the kind feminists formed in the 70s. “I had managed to avoid that kind of thing all these years, and now I was trapped in one,” he says. One by one, the group members were asked to list their cultural identification. Of the six people in the group, Jack was most annoyed by a young, Vietnamese-born trainee, who kept her eyes focused on her shoes and spoke so softly he almost couldn’t hear her. The facilitator asked each person questions to draw out their stories, and Jack listened with interest as one colleague talked about what it meant to her to be Italian, and another spoke of his ambivalence about being half-Jewish and half-WASP. Jack even talked about his own memories of his German grandparents, and how, during World War II, his parents told him to say he was Polish if anyone asked. When it was her turn to talk, the Vietnamese woman said a few words about where she had been born and then trailed off.
Jack felt himself growing irritated with her. Did she want everyone to pull her story from her? If she wasn’t going to talk, what was she doing there? And why wouldn’t she look up no one was going to bite her, for god’s sake.
After the facilitator patiently waited for her to speak, she offered more information. “I lost my family in the war,” she began, and quietly told a harrowing tale of how her village was bombed she didn’t know by which side while she was visiting an aunt. She had no idea whether anyone in her family survived. The young girl fled into the jungle and hid for months, and later somehow reconnected with her aunt, who managed to get her out of the country. “I still don’t know whether my family is alive,” she said in a monotone. “Finding any information is impossible.”
As he listened, Jack felt his irritation dissolve. He tried to imagine how he would have felt in her place. He looked at her hunched back and her worried face and felt “something like love,” he says.
Later, he thought about his hypercritical attitude toward the young Vietnamese woman and began to see a pattern it was true, he felt uncomfortable around Asians”. They made him feel big and too loud. He thought about his limited experience with Asians. He had never had an Asian client. He remembered how, as a young boy growing up in California, the “Japs” were the enemy and they would play, “Kill the Japs,” instead of cops and
robbers. He says in those few minutes, he had learned a powerful and lasting lesson about himself. “I don’t know if I ever acted out my prejudice, but now I watch myself when I am with Asian people and monitor my reactions,” he says. “I was the last person on earth to be an advocate for this consciousness raising, but I believe it helped me to hear someone else’s story in a way I never had before. I couldn’t listen without being moved, and, being moved, it’s like I was compelled to change.”
THE PROBLEM THE MULTICULtural movement faces is inherent in human civilization: there are few, if any, cultures that teach us to be multicultural. We were all raised with the dualistic thinking that human society has traditionally perpetuated the us/them dichotomy that makes it so difficult to reach out and embrace differences rather than fearing them or feeling threatened by them. It is hardly surprising that there is no comfortable language of inclusion yet, and that, so far, we stumble along with the stilted patois of the politically correct.
There is no single vision of a multicultural world. Some dread it as the death knell of the familiar social order, while for others it means release from the fear and defensiveness created by living in a white-dominated patriarchal society. One visionary imagines a multicultural demonstration on a campus in which the diverse students are clamoring for a new curriculum. “And amazingly what they are demanding is not a greater representation of their own traditions in the curriculum but access to the cultures of others,” writes anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in Peripheral Visions. This is just what a society on the cusp of a new century needs, says Bateson, because the students are going to have to “broaden their knowledge of the range of human possibility, equipping them to question whatever had been taken as common sense, enhancing the capacity of each to contribute a distinctive point of view.” Therapists, too, will benefit from such an understanding, for in the expansive scheme of multiculturalism, we are all not only children of our tribes, but citizens of the world.
The author would like to thank Darlene Witherspoon for her research assistance and Mary Kay LeFevour for her help on this article.
Laura Markowitz is a journalist, editor and multimedia producer in Tucson, Arizona, and winner of a National Magazine Award for writing and coeditor of The Evolving Therapist: Ten Years of the Family Therapy Networker.