Is multicultural competence really competent? A letter to present and future psychologists

Recently, there has been a push toward improved multicultural competence in the field of psychology. It is toward this end as a graduate student with a passion for social justice and authentic change that I offer a letter to my present and future colleagues.


Dear present and future counseling psychologists,

Do we really understand multicultural competence?

How can we pledge our lives and services to helping other people live happier and healthier lives without truly viewing and appreciating them for being their authentic selves?

We see and hear phrases such as She’s woke, Respect diversity, and Multicultural competence everywhere in today’s society, but does their widespread popularity and increased usage come with desensitization and ignorance?

Multicultural competence is incorporated into almost all aspects of society. Schools, businesses, organizations, and more now have “diversity initiatives”.  Initiatives such as these are important, and they represent major improvements over past eras, during which people focused the majority of their attention and resources on middle class, heterosexual, white men.

However, my concern is that – in the push for diversity initiatives to make establishments appear more politically correct –multicultural competence has been transformed into a buzzword.  Because of this transformation, the true meaning of the concept has been removed; and we have been distracted from actually evoking real change.

Presently, it is not uncommon to see at least one person of color, one member of the LGBTQIA community, and one female employee at a given establishment. This checkbox method of diversity appears effective on the surface, but it actually leaves members of marginalized groups feeling isolated, overlooked, and unheard without challenging the systems that contribute to those feelings and the imbalances of power that still exist in the midst of their representation.

Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik describes multiculturalism as boxing people in by attempting to fit them into neat categories without fully appreciating the differences between us and getting to the root causes of inequality.  It is almost like a band-aid that we, as a society, place over racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and beyond to placate those who are burdened by these brutal forces without actually resetting the bone of a broken societal structure.

Multicultural competence is more than just a box that we can check off.  It is a continual process of growth and discovery that requires us to gain an accurate understanding of and empathize with other people’s cultures, beliefs, life circumstances, and experiences with discrimination and inequality.  It also requires us to examine ourselves – our biases, prejudices, blindspots, weaknesses, etc. – and to discern the manners in which we have helped perpetuate an oppressive system of subjugation.

Psychology should set the example of authentic multicultural competence, but we must first fix our own system.

We shouldn’t shut down and avoid issues that make us feel uncomfortable.  We should instead use those issues to self-reflect and learn about our needed areas of improvement.

We sometimes feel entitled to tell other people about themselves, their communities, and their struggles.  However, we need to spend more time truly listening, understanding, and engaging with other communities.  We should be cautious to not use the stories and experiences from marginalized groups for our own personal gain, but to instead collaborate with activists, scholars, and people from other domains and give them space to tell their own stories.  Our research, voice, and platform are needed; but they are needed in respectfully appropriate manners.

I fear that we sometimes spend more time proving our professional competence to others in the field than we actually spend disseminating culturally relevant knowledge and awareness to the rest of the world in a digestible manner.  We need to expand beyond publications in scientific journals to also incorporating information to other forms of media that may be less prestigious but more accessible.

Discussion and awareness are vital, but we have to transition to actually putting plans in motion and doing the “leg work” required to truly advocate for change.

We must move beyond the personal preservation of power and prestige to actually helping more evenly distribute power to the members of society who don’t have it. We must get to the root of the problem and be willing to challenge the broken system until we witness true results.

In a variety of disciplines, authors – such as Moradi & Grzanka, Au, and French et al. – have come to the same conclusion: our conception of multicultural competence is not enough. Possessing knowledge about facets of different cultures without action leads to stagnation and complacency.  As referenced in the APA Multicultural Guidelines executive summary: Ecological approach to context, identity, and intersectionality, contextual facets of identity and intersectionality must be understood and properly addressed. We have a duty to utilize the acquired knowledge to critically analyze and directly challenge systems of oppression and power, thus transitioning from multicultural competence on an individual level to liberation psychology to provoke more large-scale, impactful, withstanding change and true social justice.


Tiara Watson

Tiara Watson, B.A. (she/her) is a counseling psychology graduate student in the School of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her primary research focus is on systemic perpetuations of minority mental health disparities. She aspires to integrate social justice initiatives into her efforts to provide equitable, culturally relevant mental health care resources and education to minority communities.

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