Multicultural Counseling Competence

Multicultural counseling competence—the intentional consideration and utilization of culture to facilitate therapeutic change—has become one of the most critical forces guiding the discipline of counseling psychology. In response to both the diversifying of the population of the United States and the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay and lesbian rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, pioneers in the counseling profession instigated changes in their theories and practices. One of the enduring changes is the profession’s deploring of racist, ethnocentric, sexist, and heterosexist practices, which were found to be ubiquitous in the mental health system. Although the deplorable practices sometimes were unintentionally motivated, the consequences for consumers, nevertheless, were deleterious. Among the more formidable initiatives were attempts to make counseling more accessible to members of disenfranchised groups and also the development of new competencies to shape and guide counseling practice.

Counseling psychologists, led by visionaries such as Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo, Stanley Sue, William Cross, Joseph Ponterotto, Janet Helms, Gargi Roysircar, Teresa LaFromboise, Michael D’Andrea, Thomas Parham, Paul Pedersen, Allen Ivey, Donald Atkinson, Madonna Constantine, Donald Pope-Davis, Hardin Coleman, and others, drew formal critiques of a mental health system that had been steeped in racist practices for nearly a century. The findings and conclusions of their careful analyses were disturbing. Traditional theories of counseling and psychotherapy were developed primarily by European White middle-class men without consideration of the cultural zeitgeist in which their theories were rooted. Training followed from these theories and reinforced European ideas about normalcy and pathology. Racial and ethnic minority clients often were underserved, more likely provided with substandard care from inexperienced therapists, and more likely to terminate prematurely than were White clients. A call for systemic-wide change was heeded.

  1. W. Sue and his colleagues have been among the most influential counseling psychologists to respond to the call for change. In 1982 the team of scholars published a groundbreaking article titled “Position Paper: Cross-Cultural Counseling Competencies.” The position paper provided a general description of three competencies: attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, and skills. Attitudes and beliefs pertain to counselors’ self-awareness as cultural beings and their sensitivity to, and respect of, cultural differences with their clients. Knowledge is having a good understanding of sociopolitical systems, particular client populations, generic characteristics of counseling, and institutional barriers for minority clients. A broad range of skills are deemed necessary, covering verbal and nonverbal communications and also institutional interventions. In 1992 D. W. Sue and another group of scholars expanded on the tripartite model in an article titled “Multicultural Counseling Competencies/Standards: A Call to the Profession.” Intending to provide a new lens through which counseling could be conceptualized and practiced, the Standards offered important initial perspectives for the field. The Standards were organized in a 3 (characteristics) x 3 (dimensions) matrix format in which the characteristics (i.e., counselor awareness of own assumptions, values, and biases) were each grounded along the three dimensions of beliefs and attitudes, knowledge, and skills. The Standards implored counselors to develop a more nuanced understanding of their own cultural identities, as well as those of their clients, and to best use this understanding to help develop therapy strategies and interventions.

In addition, the authors made two other assertions. They argued for the broad inclusion of multicultural perspectives in the areas of assessment, practice, training, and research. They advocated the adoption of these standards by the American Association of Counseling and Development, which later was renamed the American Counseling Association.

The publication of the Standards and the resulting discourse were pivotal in the multicultural counseling competence movement. They heightened awareness of the need for better training and practice, and they stimulated discourse on the topic not only among counseling psychologists but in the larger professional organizations as well. Professional codes of ethics were revised to include multicultural considerations, and the field enjoyed a proliferation of conference presentations, trainings, symposia, and extensive publications. One important publication was commissioned by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. Titled “Operationalization of Multicultural Counseling Competencies,” the 1996 article was authored by Arredondo and colleagues. Extending the scholarship of Sue and colleagues, these authors organized the multicultural counseling competencies into three domains: counselor awareness of own cultural values and biases, counselor awareness of client’s worldview, and culturally appropriate intervention strategies. Overall, 31 competency statements and 119 explanatory statements were described in the article. Another influential publication, Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists, was published in 2003 and approved as policy of the American Psychological Association. These guidelines, cochaired by Nadya Fouad and Arredondo, build on the aforementioned documents related to multicultural counseling competencies.

Although the Standards were pivotal in advancing the movement, they are not without criticisms. Doubt was cast on the adequacy of the Standards to reflect the multifaceted nature of multicultural counseling competence. For instance, researchers noted that the therapeutic relationship was not reflected in the Standards even though the relationship is widely acknowledged as a critical component in therapeutic change. Compelling research by a leading multicultural scholar substantiated the criticism. Additional debate arose about whether the construct of multicultural counseling competence should be limited to conversations about race and ethnicity or whether culture ought to be defined more broadly to include considerations of individuals from a wide array of disenfranchised and often-overlooked groups (e.g., women; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people; people with disabilities). The Standards led to the development of several self-report measures intended to capture the complex construct of multicultural counseling competence. The three best known of these measures are the Multicultural Awareness/Knowledge/Skills Survey, the Multicultural Counseling Inventory, and the Multicultural Counseling Knowledge and Awareness Scale. While the field generally regarded these instruments as positive first steps, their publication actually posed several additional challenges to the profession. Problems with the instruments themselves soon became apparent. Because the instruments were self-report, they introduced a social desirability confound. They also failed to capture the complex experiences of clients in therapy.

As the movement continues to advance, difficult questions remain. Is counseling competence the same as multicultural counseling competence? Can the multicultural counseling competencies be construed as being synonymous with cultural competence? Is multicultural counseling inclusive or exclusive? The following propositions are set forth to answer these questions. First, multicultural counseling competence and counseling competence are synonymous. Therefore, a competent counselor should be able to attend to cultural considerations in counseling. Second, the unequivocal purpose of multicultural competence is the facilitation of therapeutic change. The achievement of this purpose hinges largely on counselors’ attention to cultural considerations. Third, multicultural counseling competencies are subsets of multicultural counseling competence. Therefore, the competencies must be coordinated and integrated in a fashion that achieves the purpose of the construct. Fourth, the multicultural counseling competencies must be defined prescriptively. Their prescriptions should guide counselors in how to intervene with clients, not simply describe what they should do. Fifth, multiculturally competent counselors can facilitate therapeutic change, regardless of their, or their clients’, backgrounds. This places a greater emphasis on the process nature of the construct as opposed to requiring counselors to have an in-depth knowledge of various cultural groups.

The literature on the construct has yielded stimulating discussions that fall into five general categories: (1) asserting the importance of multicultural competence; (2) characteristics, features, dimensions, and parameters of multicultural competence; (3) training and supervision; (4) assessing cultural competence; and (5) specialized applications. In each of these categories, a number of important issues are raised. The emergence of a number of models of multicultural competence is particularly noteworthy. Examination of these models reveals the intense thinking that has taken place and complexity inherent in multicultural competence.

In retrospect, multicultural competence has moved from obscurity to the periphery and then to the center of counseling training, research, and practice. Its central role now is unmistakable. In looking to the future, much more needs to be accomplished if the profession is to explicate exactly what it means to be multiculturally competent. To provide all clients with the type of care they rightly deserve, the profession cannot rest on the achievements of the past.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2003). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. American Psychologist, 58, 377—102.
  2. Arredondo, P., Toporek, R., Brown, S. B., Jones, J., Locke, D. C., Sanchez, J., & Stadler, H. (1996). Operationalization of multicultural counseling competencies. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 24, 42-78.
  3. Constantine, M. G., & Ladany, N. (2001). New visions for defining and assessing multicultural counseling competence. In C. M. Alexander, J. M. Casas, J. G. Ponterotto, & L. A. Suzuki (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 482-498). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. D’Andrea, M., & Daniels, J. (2001). Expanding our thinking about White racism: Facing the challenge of multicultural counseling in the 21st century. In C. M. Alexander, J. M. Casas, J. G. Ponterotto, & L. A. Suzuki (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 289-310). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  5. Ponterotto, J. G., & Casas, J. M. (1991). Value systems in counseling: A racial/ethnic minority perspective. In J. G. Ponterotto & J. M. Casas (Eds.), Handbook of racial/ethnic minority counseling research (pp. 49-66). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  6. Pope-Davis, D. B., Coleman, H. L. K., Liu, W. M., & Toporek, R. L. (Eds.). (2003). Handbook of multicultural competencies in counseling and psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  7. Ridley, C. R. (2005). Overcoming unintentional racism in counseling and psychotherapy: A practitioner’s guide to intentional intervention (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  8. Roysircar, G., Sandhu, D. S., & Bibbins, V. E. (Eds.). (2003). Multicultural counseling competencies: A guidebook of practices. Alexandria, VA: Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development.
  9. Sue, D. W., Arredondo, P., & McDavis, R. J. (1992). Multicultural competencies/standards: A call to the profession. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 20, 64-68.
  10. Sue, D. W., Bernier, J. B., Duran, M., Feinberg, L., Pedersen, P., Smith, E., et al. (1982). Position paper: Cross-cultural counseling competencies. The Counseling Psychologist, 10, 45-52.
  11. Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the culturally diverse. Theory and practice (4th ed.). New York: Wiley.

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