The term multiculturalism refers to a perspective in which diversity in backgrounds and experiences related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability, education status, and socioeconomic class is recognized. In the United States, multicultural-ism has been described as a social movement that celebrates and values pluralism, or differences between individuals and groups. From a political stance, pluralism ensures that all citizens of society are affirmed and that the fundamental principles of democracy are honored. Multiculturalism advances the view that the cultural heritages and experiences of different racial and ethnic groups are legitimate and enrich society at all levels. As a movement, multiculturalism values the dignity, human rights, and diversity of people.

Historical Considerations

Concern for multiculturalism evolved out of sociopolitical movements and educational approaches. Historically, multiculturalism became integrated into official government policies following the civil rights movements of the latter 20th century, which sought to terminate racism, sexism, and segregation. The efforts of many African Americans and other people of color, such as Latinos/as and American Indians, who organized and demonstrated for equal rights throughout the 1900s, led to milestone changes in racial and ethnic discriminatory practices. The civil rights struggles of these various racial/ethnic groups and their allies granted all citizens in the United States, regardless of their racial or ethnic group membership, access to many aspects of mainstream society, including education, employment, and housing, as well as ensuring voting rights. Major legislation changes in the latter 20th century abolished discrimination on the basis of religion, race, sex, handicap, or national origin. In sum, the civil rights movements in the 20th century contributed significantly to the protection and justice of people of color by implementing social justice policies that protected and represented the human rights of all Americans.

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Unfortunately, despite these critical civil rights victories, many people of color today continue to face overt and covert forms of racism and discrimination as well as a double standard regarding their abilities and skills. For example, many people of color continue to be systematically excluded from important positions in schools and other institutions. And when people of color hold positions of power, they may be viewed as “token” representatives or as “experts” on minority issues (e.g., Black and Latino/a professors may be expected to teach the multicultural courses even if they are unprepared to do so).

Furthermore, the propagation of racial stigmatization continues to play a central role in maintaining racial and ethnic inequality in the United States. Empirically unfounded ideas about biological inferiority and cultural pathology of various racial/ethnic groups, for instance, continue to be propagated by various institutions and in some educational settings. Backlash movements against multiculturalism in employment and academic settings have emphasized the rights of majority workers and students to continued access to critical funding. Moreover, other recent movements attempting to install an “Academic Bill of Rights” for students have apparently targeted scholars who promote multiculturalist perspectives, and increasing hostility toward immigrants and their children is, at the same time, being promoted in some legislatures. In sum, as the 21st century begins, civil rights victories that characterized the previous century seem imperiled, and multiculturalism has lost ground within the sociopolitical and educational structures that once supported it. However, many multicultural scholars continue their work in education and psychology, continuing to call for research, training, and practice in competencies necessary to work with various racial/ethnic groups.

Multiculturalism in Education

Educational settings have always been important to multiculturalism. Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century, state laws existed that systematically excluded or separated children and adolescents of African American, Latino/a (particularly Mexican), and American Indian heritage from mainstream schools. Not only were these students segregated, school systems that served these children often were hostile to their cultural values, customs, and native languages.

A seminal historical event in the education of all Americans was the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which dismantled racially segregated schools. This judicial decision was an important turning point in equal access to education for all. The decision also had implications for the field of psychology, marking the first time psychological research was used in a court decision. Similarly, the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 paved the way for additional legislation that prevented discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Additionally, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, and later 1974, passed under Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, granting equal access to curriculum for language minority children and providing funding for programs for students with limited English proficiency. Unfortunately, controversy has always surrounded the inclusion of multicultural perspectives in education, a topic that is discussed more fully in a later section of this entry.

Multiculturalism in Psychology

In addition to education, multiculturalism also has been a major force in psychology. Multiculturalism in psychology reflects a comprehensive paradigm in which the knowledge and skills needed for the profession have evolved out of the historical and sociopolitical changes in society. The movement toward multicultural counseling, for instance, occurred in tangent with the civil rights movement, the advocacy work of counselors and psychologists in the early 1970s, and the subsequent establishment of several racially/culturally based professional associations (e.g., the Association of Black Psychologists, the Association of Psychologists Por La Raza, and the Asian American Psychological Association).

In the 1973 American Psychological Association (APA) Vail conference, psychologists began to focus on the significance of race and culture in theory, research, and practice. For example, the recommendation and implementation of subsequent training in cultural diversity for doctoral students evolved out of this conference. In addition, the establishment of the Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, followed by the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs and the Division of Ethnic Minority Affairs, represents concrete efforts by the APA to promote and encourage competent and ethical practices and fair treatment of psychologists and their potential clients, research participants, and trainees. Throughout the years, the initiatives of these offices have expanded participation of psychologists of color in the APA, who still represent less than 10% of all psychologists. These entities also help to recruit and retain ethnic minority students and prepare all psychologists for an increasingly diverse society. In addition, these offices have recognized and supported policies and programs that encourage pluralism and multiculturalism in the United States. For example, under the recommendation of the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs, the APA approved a resolution against an English-only initiative in 1990.

A number of subsequent APA publications also have highlighted the need to prepare psychologists to work effectively with diverse populations. These include the APA Accreditation Handbook; the Guidelines for Providers of Psychological Services to Ethnic, Linguistic, and Culturally Diverse Populations; the Guidelines and Principles for Accreditation of Programs of Professional Psychology; and, most recently, the Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists.

Today psychologists work and interact with individuals from all walks of life, and thus they are encouraged to be cognizant of issues related to all of the dimensions of multiculturalism in their education, training, research, and practice. In counseling psychology, in particular, multiculturalism emphasizes respect for the life experiences and cultural values of diverse individuals and groups as a fundamental principle of competent assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. As cultural beings, multicultural psychologists also are aware of their beliefs, attitudes, and impact on individuals with whom they work.

Debates about Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism in the United States is not without controversy. A central debate is the universal versus relative nature of multiculturalism. On the universal side is the argument that there is only one raceā€”the human race. In other words, because all human beings are members of the human race, they share common aspects, such as life experiences (e.g., birth, death, and happiness), similar biological makeup, and the capacity to use language and symbols. The underlying assumption of universalism is that all people are essentially alike, and this should be the primary emphasis of educational and psychological interventions.

Conversely, the relativism argument states that each culture possesses values, norms, and ideals, and social practices unique to that group. Membership in a particular culture shapes and influences individuals and group members. Through the process of socialization, individuals acquire the knowledge, belief systems, cultural patterns, and values needed to function in their group. The underlying assumption of relativism is that people are not alike. As a result, mainstream practices are deemed inappropriate when they exclude unique culture and life experiences. Instead, treatment should include differences to most effectively work with people.

Multicultural Education

Among the controversies surrounding multiculturalism is a general debate about multicultural education. Proponents of multicultural education argue strongly that a multicultural curriculum and multiculturally trained teachers ensure that all students have an equal educational opportunity according to their needs, values, and learning styles. Thus, multicultural pedagogy necessitates that teachers alter their instruction to meet the needs of diverse students, as based on race-culture, linguistic diversity, gender, socioeconomic class, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.

Moreover, advocates of multicultural education challenge the Anglo-Eurocentric perspectives that underlie the curricula of most U.S. school systems; these curricula are viewed as unresponsive and ineffective for culturally diverse students. Multiculturalists argue that when educators teach solely from a Eurocentric view, they lose non-White students because they are taught that they are not part of the story. The exclusion from historical events, coupled with various types of cultural incongruencies in curricula, is viewed as a significant factor explaining why many students of color disengage from academics. The strong disconnection in the curricula between the students’ culture and school culture has been referred to as “cultural imperialism” to describe how the dominant’s group experience and culture have been established as the norm in educational systems.

Multiculturalists note that it is fallacious to conclude that the numerical majority in the United States should be considered the dominant group whose worldview is assumed to be superior and the basis of universality. The previous ideal of assimilation into an Anglo-American model where immigrant students, for example, were expected to get rid of their cultural traits in order to be taught “American” values and behavior also is rejected because it perpetuates the eradication of many cultures and the inferiority of other groups and their traditions. In addition, cultural dispositions associated with autonomy, competition, individualism, and internal locus of control place some children (e.g., low socioeconomic status) at a disadvantage because they are not equipped with the skills rewarded in the school environment that are predominantly operated by middle-class White European American teachers and administrators.

Multicultural education is anchored in the principles of inclusiveness, diversity, and unity. Far from being a source of divisiveness, many advocates assert, multicultural education helps to unify a divided nation. They recognize that the multicultural education model is beneficial for everybody, not just racially/ culturally diverse students of color, because it prepares all students to understand multiple perspectives and to function in an increasingly multicultural society. More importantly, supporters contend that a multicultural curriculum fosters the development of cognitive abilities by teaching students to become critical thinkers and innovators and to function as humane citizens.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that multicultural education departs from conventional studies of Western civilization in the direction of a more “revisionist history” by rewriting history from a different point of view to misrepresent facts or events. Opponents contend that multicultural education opposes Western traditions because it aims to recognize and empower historically oppressed groups. Thus, critics confound multicultural-ism with an anti-Western stance by contorting it as an attempt to change or rewrite history rather than provide a more holistic framework. Other critics believe that multicultural education is simply an entitlement curriculum for students of color and a mechanism for providing therapy to females and culturally and linguistically diverse students, objectives deemed inappropriate for education and for which teachers should not be held responsible.

Another major criticism of multiculturalism is that it is destructive of the values that unite Americans. This view stems from the suggestion that multiculturalism disparages the unum and venerates pluribus by discarding the ideals of assimilation and integration and instead calling attention to specific ethnic, cultural, and gender experiences. Thus, some critics believe that multiculturalism takes attention away from unifying experiences of being “American.”

Bilingual Education

Underlying controversies about multiculturalism are issues of language and culture. Bilingual education and programs for diverse language learners illustrate one example of this ongoing debate. Historically, bilingual abilities have been viewed as a handicap rather than an asset to the learning environment. Indeed for much of the 20th century, many educators believed that being bilingual actually slowed learning and diminished intelligence rather than increased performance and cognitive complexity. Unfortunately, most studies between the late 1800s and the 1960s yielded findings linking bilingualism with lower academic performance. However, recent reviews of this research reveal many of these studies were flawed in their methodologies, including their definitions of intelligence and their sampling techniques.

Biases toward bilingualism also have been reflected in public policies affecting school systems that serve bilingual students. For example, a landmark and progressive 1976 law passed in California enabling education programs for limited-English-proficient students framed the issue as a “language problem” to be solved by transitioning students from their native language into English, with an unfortunate outcome of prejudicing these students against their own languages. In short, the legislated goals of bilingual education programs were to dispense with native languages as quickly as possible, in order that English might be learned.

Although bilingual education continues in many public schools, legislation in more recent years has reflected increasingly hostile attitudes toward providing funding for school learning in any other language but English. The ongoing debate regarding bilingual-ism in the United States has been summarized by educators Kenji Hakuta and Eugene Garcia in this way: “Is bilingualism strictly the knowledge and usage of two linguistic systems, or does it involve the social dimensions encompassed by the languages?” (1989, p. 374).

Anti-bilingual education perspectives view this form of education as a barrier to learning English and detrimental to student academic achievement. This view holds that English should be the only form of instruction because of the importance of developing content knowledge and literacy in English. The use of the primary language in the classroom and at home is believed by some to cause a cycle of dependence. In the English-only model, teachers alter their instruction for English language learners with the goal of transitioning students after 1 year of intensive English instruction. In addition, proponents of English-only education contend that only English proficiency prepares students to function in U.S. society and does not harm their self-esteem as has been suggested. In several states, such as California, Arizona, and Massachusetts, English-only initiatives have been adopted.

Opponents of English-only education state that bilingual education is more effective because this approach results in biliteracy; for example, instruction is delivered in the students’ primary language and in English, sending the message that being bilingual is important. Furthermore, these opponents’ suggestion that bilingual education creates dependency is simply unfounded and, instead, represents English-only proponents’ deep lack of appreciation for linguistically and culturally diverse students.

In the face of strong criticism regarding the need for more effective programs targeting bilingual students, scholars today emphasize the potential positive impact of dual language learning. Recent research indicates that learning in a second language may actually facilitate cognitive functioning, particularly cognitive flexibility and metalinguistic awareness. More sophisticated research has revealed that language learning, whether first- or second-language, uses the same basic cognitive processes. As Hakuta and Garcia note, learning dual languages “share[s] and build[s] upon a common underlying base rather than compete[s] for limited [cognitive] resources” (p. 375).

Proponents of bilingual education also argue that bilingualism serves as a bridge between the school and home to strengthen learning. To require students to speak only English at home and school, they contend, is to deprive an equal opportunity to learn. Moreover, advocates for bilingual education have argued that it takes longer than 1 year for students to obtain the language skills needed to perform complex abstract tasks. Also, cultural identity is critical to self-esteem, and language is significant in the formation of identity. Banning students from speaking their native language, critics maintain, can be demoralizing and result in lower self-esteem of English learners.

Clearly, the controversy around bilingual education is complex with differing views about the best way to educate diverse language learners. These differing views have had important implications for legal and policy legislations. Indeed, the passage of Proposition 227 in California is illustrative of legislation of an English-only ideology (this legislation also reverses the previously mentioned legislation from the 1970s) and illustrates the continuing debate of multicultural education in the United States.

Affirmative Action

Another multicultural policy implemented to advance historically racial/ethnic groups in the United States is affirmative action. Initiated in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson to correct discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender, affirmative action has been a highly contentious issue. Opposition to affirmative action began after the popular Allan Bakke case in 1978, in which Bakke claimed reverse discrimination because he was rejected from medical school for 2 consecutive years. Bakke argued that he was rejected because the school admitted less-qualified minority applicants under a special admissions program designed to help minority students. Since then, terms such as preferential treatment and reverse discrimination have been used to express opposition to affirmative action. Affirmative action opponents have attempted, and continue to attempt, to advocate policies that dismantle equal opportunity in higher education and employment.

Conversely, affirmative action advocates counter that the history of slavery in the United States coupled with racial discrimination continues to put several racial/ ethnic groups, such as African Americans, Latinos/as, and American Indians, at political and economic disadvantages. Affirmative action, they assert, is justified reparation for social and historical inequality. The reality today, these advocates uphold, is that Whites continue to hold the power, privilege, and wealth in the United States. Thus, affirmative action programs promote critical opportunities for access and advancement to historically oppressed individuals and groups.

Affirmative action programs have been implemented in learning institutions to foster educational diversity for students and faculty. In higher education institutions, affirmative action policies are utilized as a strategy to enroll ethnically and racially diverse students. Advocates maintain that multiculturalism and affirmative action practices in universities promote racial unity and expand the discourse to multiple perspectives. In a major victory for the University of Michigan in the early 2000s, the Supreme Court upheld the right of educational institutions to sustain affirmative action policies that consider race as one of the various factors in the admission process. Among the most compelling evidence cited in favor of this decision were the educational benefits (e.g., intellectual improvements) obtained from participating in ethnically and culturally diverse classrooms.

Implications for Clinical Practice

Given the increasing diversity of the population of the United States, competent and racially/ethnically diverse educators, practitioners, and researchers within the field of psychology are in great demand. In particular, psychologists must be prepared to meet the needs and demands of multicultural clients. Historically, however, issues of race, ethnicity, and culture, along with other important dimensions of diversity (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation), have been ignored in the field of psychology. For example, conventional models of psychological theories and treatment are encapsulated by Eurocentric perspectives; nonetheless, they have been assumed to be appropriate for non-White clients in the same way that Eurocentric curricula have been viewed as appropriate for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Western theories of psychology were conceptualized under a culturally universal perspective (etic), which defines concepts of normality and abnormality as similar across cultures. Furthermore, the etiology, course, and manifestation of disorders are presumed to be the same across individuals despite their culture. As noted earlier, multiculturalists propose that a solely universalist assumption may be oppressive for diverse clients. Consequently, when practitioners operate from an etic perspective, they may be perpetuating monocultural and ethnocentric biases.

On the other hand, when practitioners operate from a culturally specific perspective (emic), they are aware that culture and life experiences affect the origin and expression of disorders. As a result, they are more likely to use culture-specific strategies for counseling and therapy. The challenge for psychologists, researchers, and educators is to revise existing major theories and incorporate multicultural perspectives to improve understanding and interventions for diverse clients. Moreover, multiculturalism compels psychologists to reevaluate their personal beliefs and perspectives.

Multicultural Competency

Competency models of multicultural counseling have been developed to improve the quality and effectiveness of psychotherapy services for multicultural individuals. Derald Wing Sue first outlined the characteristics of culturally competent psychologists in three areas: (1) awareness of personal values and beliefs around issues of race and ethnicity toward culturally diverse clients; (2) knowledge of diverse cultures, worldviews, and experiences; and (3) utilization of effective skills or techniques when working with clients of color. This tripartite model was later expanded and refined to include specific characteristics of multicultural counselors: awareness of their personal biases, understanding their client’s worldview, and developing culturally suitable intervention strategies.

Following the refined tripartite model, Patricia Arredondo and her colleagues delineated specific behavioral expressions of the awareness, knowledge, and skills areas of competencies in an attempt to clearly define the constructs. D. W. Sue and colleagues also developed a comprehensive that delineated multicultural counseling competencies for counselors and organizations. In this body of literature, the role of psychologists in working to ameliorate the effects of racism and advocating for clients is emphasized.

Respect for individual and group differences is a major principle of multiculturalism. When this standard is extended to psychology, it applies to the role of psychologists and their knowledge, awareness, and skills. As professionals working with diverse people, psychologists must have an honest desire to learn about and explore different cultures and backgrounds. They must become aware of how their attitudes, feelings, and perceptions are likely to influence the therapeutic process and outcomes. Without a willingness to unlearn perceptions and judgments of prejudice, racism, ageism, and heterosexism, for example, multicultural competence becomes difficult to attain.

Finally, a glance at the population of the United States clearly indicates the steadily increasing numbers of racially and ethnically diverse people in all aspects of society. If educators, psychologists, and other professionals hope to meet the mission of promoting psychological well-being, multicultural concerns must be examined. In sum, multicultural perspectives have the power to promote human well-being and the potential to enrich and transform members of society through the exploration and understanding of human diversity.


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