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Whose Multiculturalism?: A Critical Analysis of Multicultural Counseling Frameworks

Minority groups are at the receiving end of a host of stressors, often making it a challenge to provide them with holistic mental health interventions. To combat this, there is now an increasing push for multicultural awareness, cultural competency, and queer-affirmative practices within therapeutic spaces. However, it is important to consider the underlying structures that are utilized in conceptualizing these frameworks. As Gorski & Goodman (2015) argue, we must stop and ask ourselves: “whose multiculturalism are we practicing, to what end, and to whose benefit?”

Some scholars argue that these initiatives often begin to resemble the very systems they are trying to dismantle, that we are merely “attempting to use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house” (Gorski & Goodman, 2015). With a vague focus on cultural differences and identity markers, such approaches might help with symptom management, but often don’t eliminate the root issues. If counselors focus merely on the experiences of marginalized people instead of the structures and ideologies that propagate and maintain inequalities, there is still a disproportionate onus on the individual to handle unfair, violent systems in more functional ways. Truly multicultural counseling must actively utilize approaches that help minority populations unlearn internalized racism, white supremacy, and colonial ideologies.

For example, if queer people of color have a tendency to internalize feelings of inferiority in comparison to their Western/White counterparts, we must consider the impacts of utilizing therapeutic frameworks that reinforce Western/White ways of being. Pre-colonial Indian queerness, for instance, was rooted in distance from identification and specificity. For a client from this background, would following Western progressive ideas of individual rights and visibility truly help liberate them or in fact further internalize their perceived racial and cultural inferiority? It is important to be mindful of such complexities when utilizing mental health interventions for minority groups, especially for people who are not from WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) backgrounds.

What can Mental Health Practitioners do?

First, clinicians must seek to be aware of and accept their own biases regarding homosexuality, racism, sexism, non-monogamy, etc. It is only by becoming aware of one’s own implicit worldview and values that one can avoid imposing it on others or judging them for their differences. Current multicultural counseling approaches tend to emphasize WEIRD psychological frameworks such as “minority stress, identity development, and resiliency” (Horne, 2020). It is important to go beyond these conceptualizations and try to truly understand how the client views their own experiences. For example, counselors can avoid imposing labels such as “gay”, “lesbian”, or “bisexual” onto queer clients of color and instead allow them to use their own words and narratives to describe their experiences. It is also important to understand the client's view of their own multiple identities and any potential cognitive dissonance that exists between these identities (Camarena & Rutter, 2015).

When attempting to understand the client’s cultural background, it is important to be aware of the impact of “historical trauma and colonial mentality” (David & Okazaki, 2006; Camarena & Rutter, 2015) as well as the extent to which they identify with their culture and are educated about colonization, their cultural history, their ancestors, immigration, etc. Further, checking in constantly with clients to ensure that you are understanding their experience in the way that they want you to can help facilitate a deeper therapeutic relationship and establish a sense of trust. It is also important to acknowledge potential privileged and marginalized identities within the therapeutic relationship.

The reclaiming of indigenous healing practices, historical evidence about the client’s culture, and exploring their stories with them are significant ways in which counselors can employ a decolonial perspective. This helps understand the differences between the client’s cultural expectations and personal deficiencies as well as rework existing complicated narratives (Singh, Appling, & Trepal, 2020). Theoretical orientations such as relational-cultural theory, critical race theory, and intersectionality theory and therapeutic frameworks such as Narrative Therapy and Feminist Counseling interventions have been shown to significantly help minority groups work through their internalizations of their own inferiority (Singh, Appling, & Trepal, 2020; Camarena & Rutter, 2015).

Hence, the experiences of individuals belonging to minority groups are complex and multifaceted. Mental health practitioners must be aware of the plurality of these identities, their clients’ cultural history, and the internalization of their perceived inferiority. There must be an attempt to get to the root of these issues and change clients’ perceptions of it instead of merely focusing on symptom management. In this way, the experiences of individuals belonging to minority groups can be received in an empathic, culturally-sensitive, decolonised manner.

Wrote by:

Nethra Palepu

Mental Health Counselor Intern

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