Analysis of Cultural Influences on Development

Being culturally competent is important in social work in order to properly serve the needs of diverse groups and individuals within our communities. We as social workers, strive to serve others by highlighting and strengthening the best parts of others, as well as understand and promote different worldviews, in order to advocate for social justice (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2008, preamble). In order to do that, we must first examine ourselves for any biases that may hinder our ability to see the best in others. Derald Wing Sue (2005) says that examination of one’s own cultural influences and biases can be difficult due to the “emotional impact” that this examining of our attitudes and beliefs can have (p. 25). It is a personal journey of inner work that can feel threatening to our worldviews and beliefs about ourselves, our families, and our community. Being open and willing to look at ourselves and recognize our own biases is a start to the process.

As I look back on the cultural influences of my early life, I find that I identify with many groups such as Caucasian, rural Upper-Midwestern, middle class, female, of German and Norwegian ancestry, from the Xennial generation. But even in naming these different groups, at the beginning of this assignment, I still had a hard time thinking of myself having a ‘culture’. I am from a very small and boring place, and I’ve led a common, and what I would call a ‘normal,’ life. I come from mostly majority groups, and as I’ve recently learned, the dominate culture is often the one that is used to define ‘normal’ (McGoldrick & Ashton, 2012, p. 251). This feeling of being in the ‘normal uncultured’ majority was true for me and was my first lesson in cultural competence. For the purpose of this paper, I am choosing to focus on the following groups and the values and beliefs I hold from these groups: rural Upper-Midwest, middle class, and Caucasian.

Rural Upper-Midwest Culture, Values, and Beliefs

The first thing I thought of when considering my culture is the small, Upper-Midwestern town in which I grew up. This rural South Dakota farming community, with its population of 999, was surrounded by miles of farm land, mostly acres upon acres of corn and soybean fields, with hog and dairy farms scattered throughout. We had one stop light, one grocery store, and one school building for Kindergarten through twelfth grade. We had a town whistle that blew an ear-deafening sound every day at noon and six to signal lunch and supper, as well as the occasional tornado warning in the summer. The vast majority of us were white, middle class, and Christian. There was almost no diversity, you could not see a big difference in socioeconomic class in my town, we were almost all working class or middle class. The major religious difference was Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist.

Because of the lack of diversity in the area, I am honestly sometimes embarrassed of where I grew up. In high school, I couldn’t wait to graduate and leave. People in the Midwest try to fight the stereotype that we’re all hicks who farm, but my little town really lived up to the image. After all, my first jobs were rock picking and spraying weeds in a bean buggy in the fields. However – and maybe it’s just the way we tend to remember the past as better as it was – the older I get and the farther away I’ve moved, I am a little proud of my little town at the same time. In my community, we all knew each other and, for better or worse, we knew everyone’s business. Our town was safe and our sense of community was strong. We knew we could rely on each other. In times of crisis such as illnesses, accidents, fires, or deaths, we took care of one another. If a family lost their home to a fire, they’d have offers of places to stay and all the basic necessities by the end of the day. For its other faults, that is one thing my small town really had going for it.

In class we talked about Gemeinschaft communities and Gesellschaft communities (Salas-Wright, 2018). The town I grew up in definitely fits into the Gemeinschaft community definition as it is rural, agricultural, personal, traditional, and intimate (slides 19-21). Within that discussion we also talked about social capital, and how social capital refers to the social bond one feels within their community – both the quality of their connections and the commitment they feel toward each other (slide 25). This discussion highlighted for me the good parts of growing up in my community, and the ways in which we relied upon on each other.

Sue (2005) speaks of the familiar phrase, “Counselor, know thyself” (p. 25) and although I think the assignment is mostly to determine which parts of your culture have added to your beliefs and stereotypes that will hinder your ability to help culturally diverse groups, I do think it is also appropriate to also recognize which parts of your culture can be helpful to your work. The Upper-Midwest is known for being friendly and polite. If someone looks like they need help finding something in a store, we are known for offering help even though we don’t work there. My care and concern for others has been instilled in me since a young age. This helpful and friendly part of my culture will serve me well in social work because we, as social workers, are naturally people who want to help (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2008, preamble).

On the flip side of this niceness, however, is passive-aggressiveness. As a whole, we Upper-Midwesterners sometimes lack the directness one might find on the East Coast or in a more urban area. If we do not like something, we would consider it impolite to say so bluntly or directly. Instead we would say something like, “that’s interesting,” or “that’s different.” Even just a “hmmm” or a “huh” pretty much means “I do not like that” or “I do not agree.” Repression of what you really mean is a large part of the culture in which I was raised; we go to great lengths to not appear rude or contrary, so that is something to keep in mind and work on in my social work practice. In my desire to be polite and friendly, I will need to remember that a direct answer is sometimes best, especially now that I live in a more urban area, where some people will not pick up on the very subtle passive-aggressive response.

In fact, Sue (2005) speaks to the importance of culturally competent communication, both verbal and non-verbal. He says, “In many cultures, subtlety and indirectness of communication are a highly prized art. Likewise, others prize directness and confrontation” (p. 35). In a profession like clinical social work where effective communication is key, I think it will be helpful to keep in mind that cultures have their own slightly different ways of communicating, whether it is passive, aggressive, or assertive. Part of being culturally competent in social work is to be open and willing to participate in a variety of verbal and non-verbal communication styles (Sue, 2005, p.35).

Another value that stems from the Upper Midwest or Great Plains culture is the value of hard work. Being self-sufficient is very highly valued in the Midwest, and most of my friends and I have worked at jobs since we were 14, which was also when we were first allowed to get our driver’s licenses in South Dakota. Most of us knew that the financial support from our parents would end after high school graduation, and most of us knew that if we went to college, we would have to pay for it ourselves or take out our own school loans. Although it would have been nice to have had our parents pay for everything, I sensed that most of us took pride in the fact that we provided for ourselves after high school.

Middle/Working Class Culture, Values, and Beliefs

Because of the fact that most of us all began from the middle class, it wasn’t difficult to stay in the middle class, and I think one blind spot I may have is in this belief about hard work and being self-sufficient. The blind spot is the idea that if most of us can make a decent life for ourselves, why are there others who can not? As much as I want to help others who need help, it’s easier for me to want to help if a person needs help because of a situation they had no control of. If a person is in a bad position due to a poor choice they’ve made, I do recognize that I can be judgmental about their bad choices. I think personal responsibility is important; likewise, it is also important for me to realize that I started out ahead and privileged from the beginning. I can also recognize that the culture of my rural upbringing valued hard work and self-sufficiency, but other cultures have different values.

Since we were mostly all in the middle class, I was never exposed to people who were in the very lowest classes, who were homeless, or who had very little chance of getting ahead. Without being exposed to people like this, I couldn’t really imagine why someone couldn’t get themselves out of a bad situation like poverty or homelessness. This attitude seems to fall in line with what many Americans generally believe about the American Dream and personal initiative and achievement (Lareau, 2011). Many people value hard work, but fewer think about what race, gender, and class have to do with success, or lack of success, in life. Lareau (2011) illustrates how in our country resources and opportunities are not distributed equally, and so depending on where you start out from, it can be very difficult to get ahead (p. 7).

Christian Culture, Values, and Beliefs

In addition to growing up in the culture of the rural Upper Midwest, I also grew up in a Christian culture. Being of the Christian faith was assumed in my culture, as it is in most areas of our country (Walsh, 2008). In my area, we were mostly Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists. My first 14 years were spent in the Catholic church, with Catechism class every Wednesday evening. When I was in high school, my family switched to the Lutheran faith. As an adult, I’ve decided that I no longer believe those teachings and so I do not attend any church. This is a point of contention with my paternal grandparents, and it is not spoken of within the family.

The main problem I have with my Christian experience, is that in both the Catholic and Lutheran churches I attended, one message I received was that our belief was the only true belief. For me, this was especially true in the Catholic church. The message was that in order to serve others, we needed to make them conform to the way we believed, that the best thing we could do for someone was to convert them. Deep down, this did not feel right to me. I did not want to believe in a God that would send good people to hell or simply because they practiced a different religion. I recognize that my experience in these churches is not necessarily the same as others’ experiences in their Catholic or Lutheran churches.

Adding to my negative experience in the Catholic church was the catechism teachers who regularly scared me with their stories of hell and demons – one teacher told us her personal story of being attacked in the night by what she thought was a demon, and she taught us what to do in case it ever happened to us. I had nightmares for years throughout childhood and was constantly afraid of the world ending because of these teachings from catechism teachers. In my social work practice, I will need to be mindful of my personal feelings toward the church because of the personal experiences I have had. I will need to make sure I do not project my spiritual feelings or beliefs onto my client, and I will need to keep an open mind in learning about others’ spiritual beliefs.

Although I do not consider myself religious in the traditional sense, I do consider myself spiritual in that I value meaning, harmony, morality, justice, and compassion. I find ways to practice spirituality in other ways besides involvement with a church, and I do recognize the many benefits to religion and spirituality. Walsh mentions several of these benefits – traditions and rites, ceremonies to mark births, entry into adulthood, marriage, and death. These kinds of ceremonies and traditions can add a sense of meaning and significance to peoples’ lives (Walsh, 2008, p. 62). Religion and spirituality can give people a sense of security and connection to their families, fellow church members, and communities. (Walsh, 2008). I think the feeling of fellowship with others is a wonderful feeling, and it is probably what I miss the most about not going to church.

Although the majority of Americans are religious (Walsh, 2008, p. 62) Walsh cautions how we, as social workers, need to be careful about assuming that people are religious, or that they believe in everything their religion promotes. Walsh says that in our practice, it is helpful to learn about our client’s spiritual beliefs, whether or not their beliefs have caused distress such as shame or guilt, and whether or not the client would like to incorporate their spiritual beliefs into their counseling (p. 71).

Caucasian Culture, Values, and Beliefs

Being Caucasian and of Norwegian and German descent was a part of my cultural identity as well. The largest, and almost only, minority group in my town was Native American, and I have specific memories of some teachers making disparaging comments about Native Americans to my class, even in front of one classmate who identifies as Native American. The comment had to do with Native Americans, alcoholism, reservation lands, and the fight over the lands in the Black Hills of South Dakota. While I remember feeling uncomfortable at hearing these comments at the time, I’m sure growing up hearing these comments contributed to my implicit biases, and it wasn’t until I was in high school that I can actually remember questioning some of these kinds of comments.

Growing up, I hadn’t ever questioned whether or not I might be racially biased. So, several points written by Peggy McIntosh (1989) in her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” really resonated with me. She writes about how a white person might see racism as something that puts a minority at a disadvantage, but that the white person might often fail to see the equally true flip side – that racism gives white people an unfair advantage (p. 223). In other words, I viewed my whiteness as just normal, and failed to see how it automatically gave me unfair or unearned advantages. In my town we were all white, with the exception of a couple Native American individuals, so I failed to see how my being white gave me many advantages in my area.

McIntosh’s quote sums up my experience perfectly – “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group” (1989). In other words, it is important to recognize that racism isn’t just what is does explicitly. We need to also recognize the more difficult to recognize occurrence of implicit racism. As a social worker I can help by being aware of racial bias in individuals and social systems, acknowledging how racism is experienced both implicitly and explicitly by many, and working toward systemic change in society.

The Process of becoming Culturally Competent

The process of cultural awareness, for me, was gradual, and continues still. This will be an on-going process of learning. While there may be a fear of getting something wrong, there is also a willingness to humbly learn and grow. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia (1998) write about the difference between cultural competence and cultural humility. They explain that there is an important distinction between the two. The authors point out that it is of little use to become culturally competent only by becoming more aware of other cultures. It is also essential to possess cultural humility, which is the process of continuous self-awareness, self-critique, and the ability to admit when you do not know something (p. 119 and 123).

As Sue (2005) writes, “It is impossible to be all things to everyone; that is, no matter how skilled we are, our personal helping style may be limited” (pg. 36). Sue goes on to say that what is important is your desire to learn, your desire to help, and your willingness to be honest about your limitations. I think Sue’s statement is a great summarization of the process of awareness in becoming culturally competent that will serve me well as I spend the next three years learning, and then eventually practicing, effective skills for social work.

References

Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
McGoldrick, M. & Ashton, D. (2012). Culture: A challenge to concepts of normality. In F. Walsh (Ed.) Normal Family Processes (4th ed.) New York: Guildford Press.
McIntosh, P. (1989). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Peace and freedom, 49(4), 10-12.
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Preamble to the code of ethics. Retrieved January 12, 2019, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics
Salas-Wright, C. (2018). Session 2: Person in environment [Power Point Presentation]. Retrieved from Boston University Blackboard https://learn.bu.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/content/file?cmd=view&content_id=_6432767_1&course_id=_49931_1.
Sue, D. W. (2005). Becoming culturally competent in social work practice. In Multicultural social work practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Tervalon, M., & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining physician training outcomes in multicultural education. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, 9(2), 117-12
Walsh, F. (2008). Chapter 5: Spirituality, healing, and resilience. In Re-visioning family therapy: Race, culture, and gender in clinical practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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