Linda Bortell, Psy.D: Change as a Constant in Multicultural Competency

About Dr. Linda Bortell:
Dr. Linda Bortell is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping families cope with divorce. She treats trauma victims from the perspective of helping them put the trauma within the narrative of their life, and understanding its’ impact. She believes it’s important to understand the blueprint that is laid down early in our lives, and how we continue to operate consciously and unconsciously off that blueprint. She works with children as well as adults. Additionally, she has worked with people around issues of infertility and its’ impact on the individual, couple and family. Her office is in
625 Fair Oaks Ave. Suite 270 South Pasadena, CA 91030, and may be reached by email to Dr. Linda Bortell or phone: 626.799.7941.

Change as a Constant in Multicultural Competency

“One can only face in others what one can face in oneself” – James Baldwin

Multicultural competence is a popular concept in psychology today, which is a good and not so good thing. Having multiculturalism as a concept in psychologist’s minds means that clinicians are more thoughtful of the issues in treating all people. However, psychologists frequently label themselves as multiculturally competent – as though they have reached some theoretical goal. When dealing with the subtle issues of racism, one can never be completely competent. Psychologists need to strive to put multicultural issues in the foreground of treatment, teaching, research and consulting, but they also need to acknowledge that being multiculturally competent is a lifelong and daily journey.

In California, the very notion of culture continues to shift. With these shifting cultural geographical landscapes on the outside, psychologists must consider the many cross-cultural encounters that happen in the consulting room with any given patient. Therapists need to consider their and the patient’s level of acculturation and biculturation. What part of town is the patient from and where do they work? What cross-cultural encounters do they face on a daily basis as they traverse between different worlds? How does the patient perceive the therapist’s level of power and privilege? How safe do psychologists make it during the first session to bring up issues of race, culture and power? If a psychologist and a patient appear “matched” ethnically, are they at all really matched? One of the biggest dangers we can make as a therapist is to assume anything about a patient’s background based on ethnicity.

In graduate school, many psychologists learn about different ethnicities and cultures in one or two classes. This frequently presents a more static way of looking at issues of multicultural competence and can promote cultural stereotypes as well as consciously or unconsciously pigeonholing patients given their ethnic/racial background (Lopez, 2008).  While it is important to learn about different cultures, this knowledge needs to be a template but not a prescribed way of treating.

Racial tensions and aggressions continue to evolve in this country in more subtle and covert ways.  This “new” form of racism is more difficult to acknowledge and identify (Sue, et al, 2007).  These racial microaggressions can be a therapist using Eurocentric language, unconscious looks, gestures or tones. The “perpetrator” of these (read: therapist) overlooks these or dismisses the act because they were not aware of it. However, the “victim” (read: patient) sees these small things and may be unable to relegate it to a nonevent. The patient may shift what they say and how they disclose in therapy based on these microaggressions.

It is crucial for psychologists to be dedicated to immersing themselves in the constantly changing knowledge base of multicultural competence. The first, and most difficult place to start, it to fearlessly look inside at biases, racism and cultural beliefs that all people hold. Acknowledging that racist beliefs exist can open one up to learning and understanding people through a personal as well as an academic and clinical lens. Change needs to begin within and needs to be a daily commitment to helping others and ourselves in an ongoing multicultural competent manner.

Lopez, S. (2008). Shifting cultural lenses in clinical practice:one model of cultural competence, CPA Annual Convention, April 5, 2008.

Rosenblum, K. E. & Travis, T.M. (2006). The meaning of difference: American construction of race, sex, gender, social class and sexual orientation 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Sue, D., Capodilupo, C., Torino, G, Bucceri, J., Holder, A., Nadal, K., and Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.

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