The current professional education series on cultural diversity in psychotherapy presented by my state professional organization, the Washington State Society for Clinical Social Work, (wsscsw.org) has been thought provoking. This past Autumn, the lead event in the series was a day-long workshop in Seattle led by Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue, widely accepted as a trailblazer in diversity theory, research and education. This was an excellent experience*. I became more fully aware of “micro-abrasions”, messages which convey the sender’s harmful ignorance of privilege and prejudice.
I grew up in Manhattan in the early to mid 60s, having a pretty free run of the city on foot, bicycle, subway and bus. That meant daily contact with New York City’s racial and cultural diversity. My family’s racial/ethnic awareness was a mix of tolerance, openness, generosity, fear and stereotyping. I went to a private school that was not very diverse.
In college, I lived off-campus on the South Side of Chicago. Then, back to New York City from the mid-70s to early 80s. In the early to mid-80s, I lived in Boston, and traveled on business throughout Europe. I had to learn and adapt to different national and cultural customs.
In the late 1980s, I moved to Los Angeles, a diverse city of neighborhoods.I began my clinical training there in 1992, received my MSW in 1994, and continued my post-graduate work until 1997. Apart from an internship in an employee assistance program, most of my clients were black, Latino, poor, seriously mentally ill and involved with police, courts and probation.
Experience With Diversity
Significant and lengthy personal experience with people different than oneself is necessary, but not sufficient, to practice without prejudice. Despite my life experience, I am still a white, upper middle class man, partially blind to my assumptions of privilege. But my experience has taught me to face directly and without overwhelming shame, my own prejudice. I accept that it exists, to some extent it always will, and increasing my awareness while struggling to treat people equally is a lifetime project. I will engage in this struggle with my clients.
All of the above applies to my work with women, gay and lesbian clients and those from different religious backgrounds. To date, I have generally developed better therapeutic relationships because of this painful and often embarrassing approach to my work. Clients are freed to explore their own blind spots too.
I continue to believe that there are some universal values that I can represent and practice with. Genetically, human beings are virtually identical, though the genes may be expressed differently in behavioral terms. Couples – people in committed relationships – operate by certain rules that can and do transcend ethnic culture, sexual orientation, race and religion. So, while I hope to never ignore culture, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, and more, I cannot be simultaneously guided by them all – all at the same time. We are bound together by our common humanity.
* While President of the WSSCSW Board from 2008-2010, I continued development of the organization’s stance on cultural diversity. I managed the revision of By-Laws to include mandates on programming that focus on diversity clinical practice, as well as surveys to determine progress in developing a more diverse membership.