Culture Counts and Diversity Matters

America is home to numerous cultural, racial and ethnic groups. Many of these groups have become part of the “melting pot” and are thought to be well integrated and indistinguishable. However, in reality many differences exist in family patterns and belief systems of these subgroups. Many of the universal approaches employed by mental health professionals and legal professionals fail to fully understand the unique differences that exist.  The simplistic stereotyping of the major ethnic groups does not help us provide competent and compassionate services to families going through divorce. Many of our theories and laws, steeped in Eurocentric approaches, tend to offer the western way of life as the ultimate choice. Given these biases, it is no wonder that many of the cultural subgroups mistrust, underutilize or avoid using our services until they are forced.

Most well meaning and good intentioned professionals involved with families, going through separation and divorce, are unclear on how to address cultural differences.  They are often torn between acknowledging the differences and risk alienating their clients, or focus on common ground and similarities and risk missing important cultural issues. This dilemma is further complicated by the reality that just as many differences exist between groups as within each group. The safest approach many in our professions end up taking is to treat each individual as unique and often downplay the contextual influences as part of the individual. However, culture counts in many ways and affects the individual’s values, attitudes and beliefs about family, parenting, and life goals. Culture, a term interchangeably used with ethnicity or race, is a broader term that includes ethnicity, religion, geographic region, age group, sexual orientation, or socio economic status or profession. People often feel that they have multiple cultural identities even if they belong to the same ethnic background.

One multidimensional tool to start appropriately assessing cultural identities is the ADDRESSING framework outlined by Hays in Addressing cultural complexities in practice: A framework for clinicians and counselors (2008). It helps us increase our self-awareness as well as makes us more attentive to the complexities of a person’s cultural make up. It helps avoid stereotyping or over-generalization:

Age and generational differences

Developmental Disabilities

Disabilities acquired later in life

Religion and spiritual orientation

Ethnic and racial identity

Socioeconomic status

Sexual orientation

Indigenous heritage

National origin

Gender

To be culturally aware, culturally sensitive, and culturally competent, it helps to remember some truths addressed by prominent authors in this field (Sue & Sue, 2009):

All individuals are, in some respects, like no other

All individuals are, in some respects, like some other individuals

All individuals are, in some respects, like all other individuals

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