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Encyclopedia of Social Work

Eun-Kyoung Othelia Lee,

Ruth McRoy


This entry defines the concept of multiculturalism and explains, from a historical and contemporary perspective, its evolution and significance in social work. The relationship between multiculturalism, socioeconomic justice, oppression, populations at risk, and discrimination is explained. The importance of preparatory training for social workers to meet the challenges of multiculturalism is presented. In addition, examples of cross-cultural training models are provided. Implications of multiculturalism for clinical practice and policy development are discussed.

multicultural social work; cultural diversity; cultural competency; crosscultural practice

Definitions, Assumptions, and Shifting Demographics

A number of terms, including multiculturalism, diversity, cultural diversity, cultural competency, and cross-cultural practice, are often used in the literature to describe patterns of interaction, awareness, and sensitivity to “special populations.” These populations are typically nonwhite and often considered oppressed, disenfranchised, and marginalized. Multiculturalism has been defined as an ideology that suggests that society should consist of, or at least recognize and include with equal status, diverse cultural groups (Sue, 2006). Multiculturalism is often considered as the opposite of monoculturalism, which implies a normative cultural unity and preexisting homogeneity. As monoculturalism assumes rejection of differences and a belief in the superiority of dominant culture, multiculturalism represents acceptance, appreciation, utilization, and celebration of similarity and differences (Fong, 2005; Gutiérrez, Zuñiga, & Lum, 2004).

Multiculturalism as an ideal has been regarded both as the entitlement of cultural groups and as a form of civil rights grounded in human dignity and the equality of cultures. It is seen as a move toward interculturalism, the beneficial exchange where cultures learn about each other (Anderson & Collins, 2007). Cultural diversity is an essential component of multiculturalism, leading to a broader representation of perspectives, worldviews, lifestyles, language, and communication skills. Acknowledging diversity suggests that subordinate groups are not necessarily required to give up their identity or assimilate to dominate norms (Lum, 2004; Weaver, 2005). For dominant groups, this may mean that new ways of relating to those of different cultures need to be acquired.

Multiculturalism is even more essential as the U.S. population becomes increasingly diversified. According to the 1980 census, 1 in every 5 Americans was nonwhite, and in that year there were about 14 million foreign-born residents. A decade later, 1 in 5 Americans identified as nonwhite, and there were about 20 million foreign-born residents (Gould, 1996). On the basis of 2000 Census data, White non-Latinos accounted for 69% of the population, while Latinos (who can be of any race) made up 13%, African Americans 13%, and Asian Americans 4% (U.S. Census, 2001). In 2002, 11.8% or 33 million of the U.S. population were foreign-born (U.S. Census, 2006). In 2005, 33% of the U.S. population was identified as nonwhite minorities, and Hispanics were the largest and fastest growing minority group.

Currently, there are four states, Texas, Hawaii, New Mexico, and California, and the District of Columbia in which the combined population of minorities exceeds the majority population (U.S. Gov Info, 2005). These trends are expected to continue, and it is likely that by 2010, 1 of every 3 persons in the United States will belong to a racial minority group. By 2050, non-Hispanic Whites are predicted to make up just 50% of the population, with Latinos accounting for 24%, African Americans 15%, and Asian Americans 8% (Liao et al., 2004).

Simultaneously, the United States is in the midst of a dramatic shift in the age distribution. By 2030 more than 20% of Americans will be 65 years or older (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE] 2001b). With this population shift, social workers are facing growing demands for formulating policy and providing services to enhance the physical, mental, and social well-being of people who have been historically marginalized. Practitioners must be prepared for multicultural social work practice and therefore use modalities consistent with the life experiences and cultural values of the clients and client systems (Lum, 2004; Sue, 2006).

Background and Significance: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Although much of the literature suggests the need for European Americans to accept other cultures, the reality is that many of these other cultural groups were actually on U.S. soil long before Europeans arrived. A close look at history reveals a country in which the original settlers, Native Americans, were exploited: Many were killed and displaced by European Americans (Weaver, 2005). Africans were forcibly brought to this country, enslaved, and treated as property by European Americans (Davis & Proctor, 1989). In fact, much of the labor force used to build this country consisted of Africans, Chinese, Japanese, and Latinos (Schmitz, Stakeman, & Sisneros, 2001).

To examine the evolution of multiculturalism in social work practice, it is necessary to examine the origins of the social work profession. In its earliest conceptualization, the profession evolved from the need to address growing social problems related to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration at the end of the 19th century (Popple, 1995). The early Settlement House workers tried to be “neighbors” to the poor and employed a “pluralist” approach based on the belief in the equal value of some (especially White) immigrant cultures. By the early 1900s, staff members of the Charity Organization Societies were becoming professionally trained to provide direct services to mostly White immigrant children and families. At the time, it was believed that in America immigrants should be better off if they left their culture behind, assimilated, adapted, and became a part of the “melting pot” (Martinez-Brawley & Brawley, 1999).

By the 1930s and 1940s, a number of factors—including the Depression, the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, the advent of the Second World War, and the Cold War—led to a sense of national pride in the United States and reinforced the belief that people of color should “abandon” their distinct identities and attempt to assimilate to the White norm (Logan, 2003; Van Soest, 1995). In the post–World War II era, social work saw a renewed focus on psychotherapeutic approaches, as a growing number of middle- and upper-income clients were seeking therapy from social workers. Practice methods and theories were considered culturally neutral and universally appropriate to all client groups regardless of demographic characteristics (Schiele, 2007).

However, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s brought attention to growing racial and economic inequalities. This necessitated growing recognition of pluralistic perspectives and encouraged both the nation and the profession of social work to recognize and value diverse populations and cultural differences. For example, Norton (1978) used the term “the dual perspective” to emphasize that the world view of persons of color and Whites is different. During this period, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) developed accreditation standards of nondiscrimination in schools of social work in the United States and developed five ethnic minority task forces to address issues specifically pertinent to American Indians, Asian Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans (Newsome, 2004).

By the mid-1970s, social work programs were required by the CSWE to address issues of difference, privilege, oppression, and discrimination at both the baccalaureate and graduate levels. In their attempts to focus on race, racism, and people of color, some schools began offering courses on Institutional Racism (Dumpson, 1970). Beginning in 1978, accredited schools of social work were required by CSWE to consider cultural diversity in admissions, faculty hiring, and curricula (McMahon & Allen-Meares, 1992).

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, schools of social work also began to add gender and feminist practice theories to the curriculum, and CSWE established commissions on people of color and women (Spencer, Lewis, & Gutierrez, 2000). From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the concept of diversity was broadened again to include sexual orientation, and the CSWE Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Issues was established. Despite these proactive initiatives, a 1988 study of the impact of content on special populations on social work practice revealed a lack of clear understanding of the special needs of minority populations (Moore & Isherwood, 1988). Similarly, McMahon and Allen-Meares (1992) charged that the social work professional literature portrayed social work practice as focusing on individual interventions and “virtually ignores the societal context of the client” (p. 536).

In fact, CSWE (2001a) expanded the definition and scope of diversity as curriculum content, listing 14 sources of oppression in the Educational Policy and the Accreditation Standards. These standards stipulated that social work education should prepare “social workers to practice without discrimination, with respect. And with knowledge and skills related to clients' age, class, color, culture, disability, ethnicity, family structure, gender, marital status, national origin, race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation” (p. 5). The recent trend to broaden the scope of multiculturalism in social work beyond ethnically sensitive practice is illustrated by the infusion of content on GLBT (Hartman & Laird, 1998; Sanders & Kroll, 2000), aging (Volland, & Berkman, 2004), disabilities (Gilson & DePoy, 2002), and social class (Shapiro, 2004) in the MSW curriculum. Some have called for the inclusion of religion and spirituality in education and practice as a diversity component and as part of a holistic spirituality assessment (Canda, Nakashima, & Furman, 2004). Moreover, the recent trend of many schools on international social work practice has broadened the concept of multiculturalism to embrace aspects of globalization, immigration, and refugee issues (Healy, 2004).

Schiele (2007) expressed concern that expanding these definitions of diversity may serve to dilute the lesson of racism's persistence. According to Schiele, the “equality of oppressions” paradigm suggests that all groups are equally oppressed and may serve to even further minimize the content in social work education on people of color. Instead of increasing the number of oppressions, Schiele proposed a model of “differential vulnerability” which acknowledges that some groups are at greater risk than others.

There has not been sufficient content on racism and people of color in the social work curriculum. Despite social work accreditation policies calling for the infusion of content related to minorities into the curriculum, Van Soest (1995) reported that the White European norm for social work practice is still dominant. Similarly, Lum (2004) conducted an extensive review of social work journals and found that only 9% of the articles addressed multicultural issues, and that people of color were largely absent in publications over a more than 30-year history. Clearly, incorporating multicultural perspectives and applying these concepts in various practice settings and with diverse populations continues to be a challenge.

Multicultural Training for Social Work Professionals

Building cultural competence is the primary goal for multicultural social work practice. Cultural competence is the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings to increase the quality of services (Lum, 2004; Weaver, 2005). This means learning new patterns of behavior and effectively applying them in appropriate settings and populations. The Board of Directors for the National Association of Social Workers (2001) has approved 10 NASW Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice. Not only understanding and having knowledge of different cultures, these standards also called for social workers to be aware of the impact of social policies and programs on diverse populations, and to advocate for clients when needed.

Almost all multicultural training to promote cultural competence begins by encouraging a social worker to become aware of one's own assumptions, values, and biases about human behaviors, which may facilitate and hinder one's ability to be an effective practitioner (Lum, Zuñiga, & Gutierrez, 2004). Pinderhughes (1989) recommends that social workers be knowledgeable about culture, race, class, ethnicity, and their interrelationship with power or powerlessness. Through a process of developing cultural self-understandings, as well as an understanding of the client's cultural identity and perceptions of power, the practitioner is able to use this knowledge to enhance cross-cultural practice outcomes.

The next step is to understand the worldview of culturally different clients. Such understanding is followed by developing and applying appropriate intervention strategies with diverse client groups (Weaver, 2005). Martinez-Brawley and Brawley (1999) have extended the multiculturalism teaching debate even further and called for a contemporary “transcultural perspective” in which a social worker can have “multi-consciousness” and cultural competence. In this state a social worker can be engaged with many cultural influences and enriched by the experience of interacting with other groups. These authors envision social workers going beyond cultural sensitivity and growing transculturally through interactions that provide an opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge about different cultures, disciplines, and cultural perspectives.

Another training approach, referred as “critical multiculturalism,” involves a profound exploration of oppression, differences, and prejudice (Schmitz et al., 2001). Such an examination of White privilege and understanding of internalized oppression often provokes resistance, fear, and denial. However, the educational process of critical self-awareness can lead to the destruction of stereotypes and improved understanding and appreciation of diversity.

Multicultural specialists have also adopted innovative strategies and training models via curriculum development and field education. Case examples that contain lived experiences and narratives of GLBT individuals demonstrate the need to incorporate the coming out process within the study of the minority identity development (Schlope, 2004). Other teachers have used experiential learning such as simulation exercises regarding aging and disability (Kane, 2003). Applying yet another training method, geriatric education rotational field placement models are used to teach students about diversity in the aging field (Netting, Hash, & Miller, 2002).

Ultimately, understanding organizational and institutional forces that enhance and negate cultural competence is critical in multicultural social work. It is based on the premise that an organization that values diversity is in a better position to provide culturally relevant services to their multicultural population. Introducing the Diversity and Social Work Training Program created by the Ackerman Institute for the Family, Kaplan and Small (2005) identify elements critical to the program's success over 12 years. These include multicultural recruitment strategies, mentorships, partnerships with outside organizations, and the provision of a long-term institutional commitment, biracial collaborations, and institutional change.

Recognizing the need to improve cultural competence in field education, Armour, Bain, and Rubio (2004) have called for field supervisors to stop “avoiding” racial issues. Their pilot study of diversity training for 11 field instructors illustrated successful adaptation of a transferable model of multicultural training which seeks to increase comfort with diversity, attention to issues of power and control in field instructor–student relationships, and knowledge about oppressed groups. Their pretraining, posttraining, and 6-month follow-up evaluation revealed significant decreases in field supervisor's avoidant behaviors with students over time.

Multiculturalism: Implications for Clinical Practice and Social Policy

Our review of literature reveals two main streams of multicultural social work practice trends: (a) culture-specific interventions and (b) cross-cultural-universal approaches. In clinical social work, the standard used to diagnose normality and abnormality is derived from Euro-American perspectives. As such cross-cultural-universal approaches are culturally bound and may be inadequate in application to ethnically diverse groups. Multicultural specialists have called for culture-specific interventions that take into account issues of race, culture, gender, behavioral norms, and sexual orientation (Ewalt, Freeman, Fortune, Poole, & Witkin, 1999; Weaver, 2005).

A cross-cultural study by Wells, Klap, Koike, and Sherbourne (2001) demonstrates greater unmet needs for alcoholism and drug abuse treatment and mental health care among African American and Hispanics relative to Whites. Similarly, such findings on racial disparities in mental health (Alegria et al., 2002) call for interventions targeted at specific cultural groups such as American Indians (Williams & Ellison, 1996), African Americans (McRoy, 2007), Latinos (Garcia & Zuñiga, 2007), and Asian Americans (Fong, 2007).

Disparities in outcomes for persons of color as compared to Whites have led to more focused attention on the need for understanding how policies and practices differentially impact populations of color. For example, although there have been improvements in the overall health of Americans in the past several decades, compelling evidence demonstrates that members of racial and ethnic minority groups suffer increasing disparities in terms of incidence, prevalence, mortality, burden of diseases, and adverse health outcomes, when compared with White Americans (Williams & Rucker, 2000).

Some populations, especially African Americans, are differentially impacted by poverty and racism, justifying greater attention to reducing their disparate outcomes (Schiele, 2007). Children of color are disproportionately represented among the population of children in the nation's foster care system, and African Americans are disproportionately represented in the juvenile and the criminal justice system (McRoy, 2004). Despite current affirmative action policies, racial minorities and students from lower socioeconomic status are underrepresented in higher educational systems (Studley, 2003). The fact that such disparities continue to exist despite the many successes of the Great Society Program indicates that much work is still to be done in the area of social justice in American society. Unfortunately, the social work profession has yet to fulfill its social justice mission through more involvement in social activism on behalf of oppressed people (Davis & Bent-Goodley, 2004; Van Soest & Garcia, 2003).

Acknowledging the significance of multicultural practice, some practitioners continue to support a universal, cross-cultural intervention. Particularly, macro practitioners argue that social programs need to be universally based and not targeted to specific populations and groups (Specht & Courtney, 1994). Dewees (2001) presents a postmodern approach to clinical practice that links the perspectives of cultural competence, diversity, social constructionism, and a generalist strengths-based orientation for work with families. Freeman and Couchonnal (2006) provided guidelines for using narrative approaches with culturally diverse clients in a range of practice settings in combination with task-centered, solution-focused, family systems, and crisis intervention models.

Multicultural practice has been applied to group work with GLBT clients (DeLois & Cohen, 2000) and cultural sensitivity training for transracial adoptive parents (Vonk, 2001). The intersections between cultural diversity and social problems such as family violence and substance abuse are being highlighted (Fong, McRoy, & Ortiz-Hendriz, 2006). Davis and Proctor (1989) have identified the significance of race, gender, and class in individual, family, and group treatment. Their use of empirical data and practice theories to examine the interrelationships between socioeconomic status and family problems, choice of treatment approach, group dynamics, and treatment outcomes provides social workers with much needed concrete guidelines to consider when grappling with differences in the helping process.

With multiculturalism's focus on the interrelationships between race, class, gender, ethnicity, and age, the social work profession can produce the next generation of practitioners who are not only competent in working within communities of color but also cognizant of the differential impact of social policies on diverse client populations. This role of advocate and translator of diverse client groups requires a sophisticated understanding of diversity not only across groups but also within cultural groups. By the same token, social workers need to expand their knowledge and skill base to embrace and comprehend the impact of sexual orientation, religious background, immigration, and aging on human behavior and social problems.

Multicultural social work practice will enhance the effectiveness of social work intervention in all fields of practice on the individual and family intervention level. It also enhances social workers' ability to identify macrointervention strategies and to collaborate with policy makers on alleviating inequality, while reducing prejudice, poverty, oppression, and other forms of social injustice (Van Soest & Garcia, 2003). An understanding of multiculturalism leads social workers to examine how race and class may interact to perpetuate disproportional and disparate outcomes in all levels of practice. It will heighten their sensitivity to diversity both among and within different ethnic and racial groups and, therefore, result in more effective intervention outcomes. Training in “undoing racism” is beginning to be used by some agencies seeking to examine how unconscious or conscious racism can potentially differentially impact service delivery (People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, 2007). This awareness is just one aspect of the importance in multicultural practice.


Our examination of the evolution of social work's focus on multiculturalism reveals a pattern of shifting from assimilation perspectives in the early formative years of the profession to a focus on cultural pluralism and racism. Recently, the profession endorsed an expansion of the multicultural concepts beyond racial groups to include gender issues, sexual orientation, social class, and abilities. Multiculturalism is closely related to important social work values such as self-determination, empowerment, advocacy, strengths perspectives, and a client-centered approach. Social workers need to balance the importance of a client's cultural values in the process of assessment, intervention, and evaluation, advocating the use of universal and culture-specific strategies in the helping process. Continued racial disparities in health outcomes and access to care necessitate that social workers are sensitive to and aware of how group differences impact social problems at the individual and group level. Enhanced multicultural awareness moves members of the profession forward in intervention strategies at the individual, familial, group, and societal levels that take into account how culture, values, norms, and behaviors all interact in resolving social problems. Hence, multicultural social work continues to be exciting and challenging field of practice in this ever-changing global age.


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                                                                                                                          Further Reading

                                                                                                                          Council on Social Work Education. (1973). Guidelines for implementation of accreditation standard 1234 A. New York, NY: Author.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Eun-Kyoung Othelia Lee and Ruth McRoy