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Ethics - Defining Multiculturalism
The literature presents various definitions of multiculturalism (Jenkins, 1988). At one level, it refers to the promotion of minority intellectual contributions as a counter to the dominant, majority culture; at another, it is cross-cultural interaction between people. Some people tend to see multiculturalism as an expression of empowerment, since it promotes better understanding and responsiveness to minorities and the disenfranchised (Faulkner, Roberts-DeGennaro, & Weil, 1994; Lewis & Ford, 1990; Pinderhughes, 1997; Weinrach & Thomas, 1996). These broad definitions do not yield clear content or direction for competence assessments. Some authors, however, contend that cultural knowledge and skills development are essential components of counselor training (Green, 1995; Parker, 1988). This article raises the question as to whether multiculturalism is an ethical principle that should guide and inform all professional conduct, or whether it is a specific content area that one can "know" or possess as a measurable skill.
Judging by contemporary graduate course syllabi, Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) educational policy and accreditation standards, the NASW Code of Ethics, and by the content outlines of social work licensure examinations, multiculturalism appears to be a domain of specific content knowledge rather than a posture or stance taken with clients. If it is a topic area that can be mastered, then it follows that a social worker should be able to demonstrate competence in it. To represent it as a definable content area is to equate it with other social work content areas such as family systems theories, domestic violence, or the clinical features of drug addiction, which can be taught, understood, tested, and practiced by the competent social worker.
The 1999 NASW Code of Ethics defines multiculturalism as actual knowledge content, not as a practice perspective or belief. It divides cultural competence into three elements, each of which is stated as content knowledge that can be attained:
1.5 Cultural Competence and Social Diversity
(b) Social workers should have a knowledge base of their clients' cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients' cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups.
(c) Social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability. (NASW, 1999, emphases added)
All three of these items predicate content areas and competencies that can be taught, learned, and assessed in competency testing of social workers. Section (b) is most definitive about the content knowledge that the social worker must attain. This standard is also reflected in the CSWE Policy Statement, sec. M6.6, that calls for master's programs to require content about population groups distinguished by race, ethnicity, culture, class, etc. (CSWE, 1994). Reamer (1998) reiterates the ethical importance of cultural knowledge particularly as a sensitivity to oppression, but he does not draw a clear distinction between a general awareness of cultural differences and specific knowledge of cultures.
It is questionable whether multiculturalism can be defined reliably across different practice settings and in different institutions. Given the range of applications and definitions of the concept, it is further questionable whether multicultural sensitivity has sufficiently distinct content for it to be testable in the way that other social work content areas are. This article suggests that multiculturalism is best framed not as a content area, but as an ethical principle that orients and directs all social work knowledge and practice. In other words, the representation of multiculturalism in social work ethics is best conceived of as a value that is diffused throughout all practice areas rather than an area of discrete knowledge.
Multiculturalism's lack of clarity is further exemplified by a recent article addressing specific approaches for intervention with clients whose cultural background differed from that of the social worker. The guidelines included, "Be willing to chat with the client to further develop trust and build rapport"; "Be clear about confidentiality--clarify what information has to be shared and which information the client wants to share with others"; and "Accept the client's comfort level in talking about feelings" (Tolliver, Pares-Avila, Montano-Lopez, & Carballeira, 1998). While these are important issues to address with particular client populations, they should not be considered "specific interventions" relating to clients who are culturally different from the social worker. These considerations apply to all clients regardless of their cultural background.
Earlier social work literature on ethnic competence reads like an introduction to basic social work interview methods, with an emphasis on listening carefully to the client, suspending judgment, and sorting out what is in the client's control and what is not (Devore & Schlesinger, 1981). The unique competencies associated with an ethnically sensitive practice or a culturally diverse practice are seemingly inseparable from sound clinical and traditional client-centered social work practice. If cultural competence cannot be differentiated from general social work practice, then it cannot be represented as a distinct knowledge area. Likewise, it will prove very difficult to assess in competency testing of social workers if it is diffused throughout every aspect of social work practice.
Thus, multiculturalism is best framed as a perspective toward others with a particular sensitivity to the full context of the client's identity, emotions, thoughts, and history. The following section proposes three primary arguments to support this approach.
Reflection Exercise #5
Ethics CEUs QUESTION 9
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