Diversity & Culture

Cultural diversity is becoming increasingly visible in the lives of people living in the developed world, or what is often called the North in academic discourse. This diversity is more visible in major urban centres. The effects of globalization, in terms of the transnational movement of money, goods, services, ideas and bodies are shaping the demographics of many of these countries; and in some cases transforming the very idea of national identity. In Canada, for instance, immigrants are needed to keep an adequate labour force and a stable population size. The movement of bodies from the South (previously called developing, or Third World countries) to the North, though meeting national needs in terms of demography and the economy, is often portrayed in the host countries negatively as a threat, a drain on national resources, an increase burden on social programs, a contributing factor to all sorts of social ills ranging from crime to terrorism, and so on. The biased narratives on immigrants reflect the racism and xenophobia, which are often denied or covered up. Even among the more enlightened, they assume that the problematic ideas and practices belong in the realm of the taken-for-granted, and therefore are left unchallenged.

My own engagement with the issue of cultural diversity in the human services in general, and psychotherapy and counseling in particular, started a few decades ago when I started my professional education in the early 1970s in Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. Our education was conducted in English, the official language of the territory, and the textbooks and teaching materials were almost exclusively in that language as well. Our everyday practice, however, was with Chinese speaking clients, as over 95% of the population was Chinese. The validity of theories, models, and methods developed in the West had to be translated into a different language and applied to a different context. This reality required the development of a set of cognitive and practice skills, which perhaps were the foundation of the practice systems I am now developing.

In developing an approach to work cross-culturally, I see the need to combine theoretical formulation dealing with broader sociopolitical realities as well as more specific analysis of the actual interaction patterns in professional helping relationships. The system has to be grounded on a particular political positioning that addresses the realities of racism, ethnocentric worldviews, xenophobic sentiments, and the various policies and practices that express and realize them. I find myself fighting to reclaim the individuality and subjectivity of the client in psychotherapy through resisting the cultural literacy imagination, which tends to reduce non-mainstream clients into a nameless and faceless member of a broadly and inaccurately classified ethno-cultural group. On a more macro-level, I find myself fighting social exclusion and disenfranchisement in the form of inequitable public policies and social practices.

In the development of my own scholarship and practice in this area, I find the division between clinical and structural practice, which is emphasized by many social work colleagues, to be misleading and unhelpful. To bring about the necessary changes we desire, we need to help individuals change the way they think, feel, and act, while at the same time challenge social institutions and practices in ways that will to bring about actual transformation, and not just the proliferation of progressive rhetoric.

My own work integrates diverse systems of knowledge, including critical discourse analysis, process-outcome research, multiple contingencies analysis, and specific principles on the learning and development of strategies and skills. I try to offer suggestions to colleagues in a wide range of practice situations, ranging from psychotherapy to activism and advocacy pursuing anti-oppressive agendas.