It’s a new world where ‘multiculturalism’ speaks volumes

By Henry Saeman and John Thomas, Editors
May 1, 2001 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The 2000 Census clearly tells the story.

No longer are white Europeans, descendants of 18th and 19th century immigrants, the dominant culture in the United States.

They have given way to Hispanics, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, American Indians, Native Hawaiian, people from Somalia and other war-ravaged countries. Their influx during the past decade has transformed the American landscape. In California, for the first time, whites are now in the minority, according to the new census.

The changing look of America has affected the nation’s political, social and religious institutions in profound ways.

Hispanics and Latinos hold 21 seats in the U.S. House. Thirty-nine seats are held by African-Americans. The Hispanic population in the United States has grown by more than 60% in the past decade.

Hispanic people with Spanish-speaking ancestry have soared to 35.5 million from 22.4 million in 1990. In 1990, African-Americans totaled 34.7 million, up from 30 million 10 years ago.

How has psychology reacted to the cultural changes and is it ready for the revolutionary changes that some are calling for to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse populations?

Psychology is moving on a couple of fronts to meet the new challenges that multiculturalism poses for both the profession and the nation.

The subject received increased attention beginning in 1998 and 1999 when a group of five psychologists of color envisioned a three-year “window of opportunity” to make a meaningful difference in the ethnic minority issues in the profession. They were leaders of American Psychological Association (APA) Divisions 17, 35, 36, 44 and 45.

They foresaw revolutionary changes that would make the APA a multicultural organization “that would produce culturally sensitive and aware psychologists.”

The five — Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., Rosie P. Bingham, Ph.D., Lisa Porche-Burke, Ph.D., Melba Vasquez, Ph.D., and Steve James, Ph.D., — were motivated to increase the attention paid to multicultural issues by the election of Richard Suinn, Ph.D., as the first Asian-American president of APA in 1998.

Responding to Suinn’s call for more emphasis on multiculturalism, they planned the first National Multicultural Conference and Summit in January 1999 in Newport Beach, CA.

Out of that conference emerged an evolving definition of multiculturalism that went beyond the limited traditional ethnic-minority orientation to include other groups that feel excluded from the mainstream of psychology.

Also emerging from the conference were proposed guidelines for clinical competencies in dealing with diverse populations.

About the same time, the APA’s Committee of State Leaders initiated a program to increase the number of ethnic minorities in state psychological association membership and leadership. (See related story on page .)

Elected to head the diversity initiative was Rita Dudley-Grant, Ph.D., past president of the Association of Virgin Islands Psychologists.

A native Virgin Islander who practices in St. Croix., Dudley-Grant sees parallels between the increased interest in multiculturalism and the struggles to win civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

She said that the goal in civil rights was to get into the door, to gain parity by enabling disenfranchised people to gain access to educational, employment and housing resources, hoping the problems of discrimination would be solved.

However, she noted, not accomplished completely in the civil rights struggle was attitudes by the prevailing white society.

“If we can’t change a person’s internal understanding of people with difference backgrounds and if we can’t change someone’s innate attitude toward other groups, there will always be a division and difficulty in gainful parity or equality, not only of opportunity, but interaction as well,” Dudley-Grant said.

Asked what a “multiculturalist” would ideally hope for in an ideal society, she said:

“At this point, I can’t get into the leadership positions that I want to be in. I can’t get into the decision-making positions that I feel qualified for. I don’t get the promotions I should be getting, and I am not invited to the backroom conversations where real decisions are made.”

But, Dudley-Grant noted, that she has not felt disenfranchised, but “very accepted” in APA.

The 1999 National Multicultural Conference and Summit in Newport Beach also resulted in an article that appeared in a recent issue of the American Psychologist.

The authors charged that “our professional associations and other organizations have been slow in developing new policies, practices and structures to accommodate the diversity of our society and our social, economic and political systems seem inadequate and often ill prepared to deal with the challenges posed by racial and ethnic minority groups and communities.”

The article continued that “multiculturalism has been discussed primarily from a racial and ethnic perspective but must include the broad range of significant differences (race, gender sexual orientation, ability and disability, religion, class, etc.)”

In short, the authors say, multiculturalism rejects the European white monoculture that has historically defined the prevailing cultural norm and which has driven practice, training and research during the last century.

Finally, the article predicted the APA would have to undergo “revolutionary” changes if the authors’ dream of a multicultural profession is to become a reality.

While recognizing that all revolutions have ebb and flow, peaks and valleys, Porche-Burke, president of Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino, CA, says she thinks the attention multiculturalism is now receiving by APA represents a significant start toward the inclusion of multiculturalism in the practice of psychology.

Porche-Burke, who represents Division 45 (Society for the Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) on the APA Council of Representatives, said that “it will take more than folks of color to make the revolution complete. It will take the entire psychology community to recognize that it can no longer exclude from consideration and study those populations that have long been unrepresented.”

She said she is hopeful now that “we have a place at the table” the profession will begin to address multicultural issues that many still find difficult to talk about.

Among the developments that give Porche-Burke hope are:

  • Discussion and possible adoption at the August Council of Representatives meeting of the “Guidelines for Multicultural Counseling Proficiency in Psychology as APA Policy.”
  • The Second National Multicultural Conference and Summit, held earlier this year in Santa Barbara, drew 700 psychologists including APA President Norine Johnson, Ph.D. and Chief Executive Officer Raymond D. Fowler, Ph.D. The Conference will be held every other year on the West Coast.
  • A miniconvention at this year’s APA convention that will, in Johnson’s words, “showcase cutting-edge research and practice and invite creative thinking in infusing multiculturalism into the mainstream of psychology.”
  • Appointment by APA President Johnson of the five pioneering psychologists to serve as her advisers on the subject. Johnson appointed them when she realized the APA Board of Trustees lacked ethnic-minority members.

While multiculturalism seems firmly in place on the APA agenda these days, not all psychologists are convinced that actions such as promulgating treatment, research and training guidelines are a good idea.

In a recent memo, long-time APA activist Arthur L. Kovacs, Ph.D., warned that too many guidelines have the potential to put psychologists in legal trouble.

“Whether meant to or not, any guideline tends to establish standards of conduct or of practice, and its text can certainly be used to cause unnecessary and unintended harm to individual psychologists,” Kovacs wrote.

He specifically referred to those guidelines for multicultural counseling as one of those areas that could cause problems.

“And don’t look for an immediate change in the Council of Representatives ethnic-minority membership. It may get worse before it gets better”, says Janet E. Helms, Ph.D., who serves on the Council.

By her count, the number of ethnic minorities on the Council will decrease from eight to two next year, although under the emerging definition of multiculturalism, representation by historically excluded groups will remain about the same.

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