The revolutionary climate of the 1960s within U.S. society challenged the existing boundaries of civil rights to include racial/ethnic minorities. Concurrently, an emergence of leading racial/ethnic minority scholars in counseling and psychology set the stage for the extensive examination of the influence of individuals’ cultural backgrounds (i.e., values, attitudes, shared history, customs, race, habits, social rules of behavior, social status, perceptions of locus of control and responsibility) on psychological development and treatment process and outcomes in counseling relationships.

Culture was perceived as the lens through which individuals viewed and interpreted the world, and a growing number of professionals explained differential patterns in diagnoses, treatment, and counseling outcomes by highlighting practitioners’ inattentiveness to differences between clients’ cultural backgrounds and the primarily Eurocentric norms promoted by many practitioners. In addition, the predominance of White Americans within the profession seemed to perpetuate the legacy of racist attitudes, which assumed superiority based on differences in phenotype and culture. The term that describes this characteristic of seeing one’s own community norms and group identity as the models against which all others should be judged as aberrant, strange, and inferior is ethnocentrism. Although, much of the literature highlights attention to White majority group members’ ethnocentrism, it is important that readers note that all individuals who have strong cultural group identity or who have little awareness of a group identity have the capacity to assume an ethnocentric stance in day-to-day activities.

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Positive versus Negative Effects

The ethnocentric perspective can have both affirming and detrimental implications for self-concept and interactions with others. Social identity theory purports that as individuals understand themselves, the following personality qualities are enhanced: personal identity, affiliation with others within group, confidence, understanding of self, psychological well-being, and self-esteem. However, the sole or primary culture-specific focus can negatively affect individuals’ ability to accept the relativism of their and others’ cultural identity.

However, in spite of this mix of both positive and negative characteristics associated with a strong positive group identity (one aspect of being ethnocentric), many individuals assume that such is automatically equated with only negative implications. Empirical evidence supports the notion that one can simultaneously have a strong positive group identity and accept the legitimacy of the culturally different. Nevertheless, the most effective strategy to balance the effective expression of respect for both self and other, when the two value systems collide, remains somewhat unclear.

Because empirical evidence supports the notion that individuals can simultaneously have a strong positive group identity and respect those of other groups, it is imperative that practitioners are sufficiently multiculturally competent to effectively bridge any differences existing between themselves and all clients. However, in spite of the mandate for multicultural counseling training in all accredited programs, this competence varies significantly among practitioners.

Counselors’ Ethnocentrism in Counseling

Practitioners’ ethnocentric responses to clients are spontaneous and, too often, sources of unconscious, psychological harm to clients who persist in the relationship. Clients with strong positive self-concepts will prematurely terminate the counseling relationship. The following are examples of common errors made in counseling relationships, when ethnocentrism is not monitored: use of negative judgment words to describe the clients’ experience, behavior, or primary support network; pathologizing differences and using assessments without considering population-demographic characteristics on which the measures are normed; engaging clients based solely on perceptions of phenotype or stated group identity; responses that indicate unawareness of one’s own identity; unwillingness to examine transference or countertransference (i.e., consistently defining clients’ responses in counseling as resistant to intervention); expressed insensitivity or lack of respect for clients’ perception of experience associated with their unique group membership; premature problem-solving and advice-giving based on what the counselor believes the client ought to be or do; generating alternatives without considering the negative implications for ingroup and outgroup membership or preparing the client for potential shifts related to proposed changes; distancing oneself from the client by expressing no understanding of the client’s experience; not specifically addressing stark differences between self and client that might influence the client’s perception of the relationship and of the counselor as a person (i.e., sex, race, ethnicity, age); disaffiliating from one’s group or client’s perceptions of one’s group when client expresses concern about counselor’s group membership (i.e., I’m not racist; I’m not sexist; I’m not like all of the others like me, I’m different); not inviting the client to share perceptions whenever there is any indication of counselor’s insensitivity. As a result, the client’s culture is not respected, and the counselor’s culture is not used in a manner that enhances the therapeutic working alliance. The increased probability of inaccurate assessment results, unstable rapport, insufficient collection of important information, inappropriate diagnoses, and negative outcomes are results from such interactions. Sensitivity is warranted particularly with clients who are ethnocentric in their own identity.

Presenting Concerns of the Ethnocentric Client

Ethnocentric clients might exhibit various presenting concerns: difficulty with interactions across groups, including difficulty finding and maintaining bonds, understanding commonalities, and accepting differences; higher levels of insecure self-identity, which could have a direct impact on individual self-esteem and self-concept; issues regarding acculturation; and issues associated with limited awareness of their own ethnocentrism. These concerns require counselors’ intervention to enhance ethnorelativism versus ethnocentrism so as to not deculturate clients. For optimal outcomes in counseling to occur, it is imperative that practitioners effectively monitor their own ethnocentrism.

Effects of Ethnocentrism in the Counseling Relationship

The counseling profession has attempted to monitor the phenomenon of ethnocentrism within the counseling relationship through multicultural counseling, which refers to a process in which a trained professional from one cultural/racial/ethnic background interacts with a client of a different cultural/racial/ ethnic background for the purpose of promoting the client’s cognitive, emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual development. The acquisition of culture-specific knowledge has become the norm as diversity increases within the general populace. Some scholars have developed counseling models that provide a guide for practitioners to self-monitor ethnocentrism within sessions. All are efforts to minimize harm to clients because of unmonitored ethnocentrism. However, key questions remain unanswered: Is cultural relativism a real or ideal training objective? Can practitioners who maintain ethnocentric attitudes and beliefs effectively counsel culturally different clients? Can practitioners effectively and strategically self-monitor ethnocentrism during the counseling session in a manner that benefits the client? With increasing diversity within both the general populace and graduate student cohorts in counseling programs, what are ways in which training programs could strategically maximize the degrees of multicultural competence among all graduates? Finding answers to these questions will facilitate a clearer understanding of how ethnocentrism might be addressed more effectively in both training and service delivery.


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