Culturally Competent Practice: A Framework for Understanding Diverse Groups and Justice Issues (2nd edition, Doman Lum, Editor, Brooks/Cole: Pacific Grove, CA, 2003).


“Culture ‘implies the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes the thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group’; refers to ‘the totality of ways being passed on from generation to generation’; and ‘includes ways in which people with disabilities or people from various religious backgrounds or people who are gay, lesbian, or transgender experience the world around them’ (National Association of Social Workers, 2001, p. 4).  Culture, in short, encompasses behavioral patterns, intergenerational passages, and particular group life experiences” (p. 5).


“Spiritual faith is a powerful expression of culture for many persons.  Culture is a key factor in the social work helping process.  Pinderhughes (1989) asserts that culture defines the problem perspective, the expression of the problem, the treatment provider, and the treatment options.  Social work practice must be culturally relevant to clients.  Cultural factors may contribute to the problem situation, affect the interaction between the worker and the client, and influence cultural interventions related to the extended family, the ethnic church, and ethnic community resources” (p. 5).


“…a culturally competent individual possesses a strong personal identity, has knowledge of the beliefs and values of the culture, displays sensitivity to the affective processes of the culture, communicates clearly in the language of the cultural group, performs socially sanctioned behavior, maintains active social relations within the cultural group, and negotiates the institutional structures of that culture.  Cultural competence is part of a continuum of social skill and personality development” (pp. 6-6)


This is all fine and good, however, where do we take this line of thought when we are involved in helping individuals, groups, families, and society as social workers?  Lum contends that: “In order to fully understand a person, one must take into account the total context of how the texture of the person has been woven together to form a unique being.  What pieces or ingredients have been put together to form a mosaic or detailed pattern?  What is the total context that transcends the person and the environment and MUST be understood for helping to proceed?” (p. 35).  The emphasis on “MUST” is mine because this is the key issue I wish to take up in this discussion of cultural competence.  As you hopefully noted in the first couple of quotations above, this is a huge task---so huge that it can be felt as overwhelming for the beginner or even the advanced practitioner.  Yes, the task is one that deserves our profound effort.  Yes, this is a wonderful goal to set.  But, it is NOT a MUST if we are going to be effective practitioners.  If it were a “must”, then we would have few, in fact I would argue no effective practitioners.  Helping can proceed without this knowledge.  Effective helping does not require this knowledge.  Lum and others who push cultural competence are overstating their case. 


For the helping professional to be effective he/she should develop their cultural awareness.  They should at the generalist level have:

·        Awareness of own life experiences related to culture

·        Contact with other cultures and ethnicities

·        Awareness of positive and negative experiences with other cultures and ethnicities

·        Awareness of own racism, prejudice and discrimination (Lum, p. 64).


As Lum correctly points out: “We are like fishes who, never having experienced anything but water, are unaware of the water” (p. 81).  At the same time we have to recognize that clients can use their culture as a way of avoiding change that is needed.  “Clients sometimes use ethnic, racial, or religious identity (and stereotypes about it) as a defense against change or pain, or as a justification for half-hearted involvement in therapy.” (p. 129).  You need to know that there are advantages as well as disadvantages inherent in being of the same ethnic group as your client.  ”There may be a ‘natural rapport from belonging to the same ‘tribe’ as your client.  Yet, you may also unconsciously overidentify with the client and ‘collude’ with his or her other resistance” (p. 129).  I would also add that one of the most dangerous pitfalls in working with a client who is similar to you is that you can fall into the trap of feeling toward them and even saying to them that: Since I made it through, you have no excuse for the mess you are in. 


We need to be able to understand our culture and how it tends to undermine the values of other cultures.  Lum acknowledges that this is a long term process: “Don’t feel you have to ’know everything’ about other ethnic groups.  Ethnically sensitive practice begins with an awareness of how cultural beliefs influence all our interactions.  Knowing your own limitations and ignorance and being openheartedly curious will help set up a context within which you will have mutual learning with your clients” (p. 12().  However, cultural awareness is not the only awareness interviewers need nor is it necessarily the most important form of awareness that they should develop. 


Although Lum cautions the interviewer against various traps, when he so strongly emphasizes the need for cultural competence, he in effect increases the potential of the interviewer falling into those traps!  An example of his very appropriate caution is the following:


“Sources of stress, such as poverty and low socioeconomic status, neighborhood dangers, and daily hassles, which are often prevalent in African American communities but not limited to these communities, reveal an increasing need for innovative strategies with which to relate to these children and youth.  Avoid thinking that the aforementioned factors reflect the experiences of the entire African American community.  Similar cultural characteristics may be shared but they are in no way a homogeneous group.  In fact, counseling with African American children and youth requires a case-by-case, situation-specific approach.  One of the goals of counseling with African American children and youth is to promote resilient coping strategies under unique circumstances.  Therefore one should avoid using methods that encourage clients to accept their negative environmental circumstances and adapt to such an environment.  Methods providing information that promotes the effective use of underutilized resources or resources that are unattainable within their community should be employed.  Help-seeking strategies and greater social mobility will enable them to survive in their environment” (p. 144).


Yes, I agree with the above.  But take another read of it and you will understand that Lum would have the worker be very effective in a wide area of skills not related to what he is teaching in his book.  Therefore, he is acknowledging that cultural competence is not effective without all the other skills that one needs.  My contention is that he is right.  Therefore, we need to make sure that students do not focus on cultural competence at the cost of competence in other areas that are essential if the cultural competence is to be realized. 


For example, social work programs often have a substantial part of the curriculum devoted to cultural competence.  In my own program we integrate this knowledge throughout the curriculum at the same time that we have a specific course that focuses exclusively on this topic.  Although this is wonderful material, what are we leaving out in order to accomplish this emphasis on cultural competence?


“Diversity among people and cultures calls for social workers to learn and formulate differential and culturally appropriate interventions in working with clients of different backgrounds” (p. 185).  Although this seems self-evident, it is equally obvious that this is impossible!  The diversity within our society is tremendous and no one person can be aware of all the various groupings.  For example, my wife is classified as an Asian and I would argue that this is very misleading.   She is not Asian, she is Philippino.  But to say that is only the beginning.  Within the Philippines are numerous cultural patterns.  After living with my wife for many years I still am learning to be culturally competent in relation to her background.  This same principle applies to all the other classifications.  We cannot even begin to identify all of them let alone understand them all. 


So, instead of trying to do the impossible, should we not seek areas where ALL humans regardless of cultural background need to be helped and develop our skills in those areas?


For example, Lum states that: “Knowledge and understanding of…culturally and ethnically diverse groups must be combined with a passion and commitment for social and economic justice….social problems are rooted in economic cause factors and that economic issues take their toll on the lives of people in society” (p. 343).  I couldn’t agree with him more!  Should not this be the area of emphasis?  Should we lower the current emphasis on diversity and focus on this powerful area that impacts upon all of us?


As this book points out: “The NASW Code of Ethics (1996a) mandates that social workers promote social and economic justice not only in the United States, but globally” (p. 360).


“Each day, 40,000 children die from malnutrition and diseases including AIDS, lack of clean water, and inadequate sanitation” (p. 362).  Since the authors understand this, why don’t they start behaving accordingly?  I don’t know Lum; however, I give you one example.  In his book he has several tests which he carefully labels “all rights reserved”.  This is an elitist way of dealing with information.  If he were really concerned about those 40 million children, really concerned about making the world a better place for everyone, AND he thought his tests helped to achieve those ends, one would think that he would label the tests “feel free to use this if it will help the cause”.


“Part of the process of change…involves looking at the barriers that keep us from being advocates for social justice.  A common block for many is personal fear: of taking risks, of standing out by making a personal statement, of being embarrassed in public, of losing security or the respect of people they had thought were friends, of being alienated from family or friends or peers”  (p. 369).  I agree, and since this is so important, I would argue that we lower our focus on diversity and raise our focus on helping our students overcome their fears so that they become effective change advocates for all of humanity.