A Weekend Seminar on “Diversity”

I did the first year of my MSW in the School of Social Work (SSW) at the University of Missouri – Columbia.  During that year, “diversity” was mentioned frequently.  As I came to understand, however, in social work education that term did not mean real diversity.  It just meant women, blacks, and gays.

At one point, the SSW required us all to attend a weekend seminar on “diversity.”  In principle, this was not necessarily a bad idea.  Columbia is about two hours from any cities, so perhaps some of the students in the MSW program could have benefited from exposure to a more cosmopolitan milieu.

On the other hand, a field trip to the Kansas City ghetto was not really necessary for purposes of raising diversity awareness.  As it turned out, this weekend seminar was attended not only by students from the Columbia campus, but also by students working toward the MSW on a campus located down in hill country.  I had already come to learn, from one of my classmates, that some Bible-oriented rural Missourians regarded Columbia as something of a den of sin.  We now added, to that, the discovery that the hill folk would actually kill and eat squirrels.  This drew expressions of disgust from the Columbia crowd.  In other words, along with whatever we needed to learn about the few forms of diversity on which social work education tends to focus, there was the bald fact that we were hesitating to accept white squirrel-eaters who looked just like us.

But we didn’t get to that because, to the great relief of our instructor, it turned out that there were a half-dozen honest-to-God black people among us.  She was not going to let this opportunity pass.  At one point, she broke us out into small groups in order to have a pseudo-discussion of something related to diversity.  Somehow, several black people landed within a single group.  This would simply not do.  Our instructor saved the day by redistributing those black people, one per group.  That way, she said, we would have Diversity.

Since I was interested in real diversity, I was tempted to raise my hand and say, hey, what about the students over 40 — shouldn’t we be insuring that each group has one of those?  And how about the the lower-income, and the former drug addicts, and the Catholics, and the people with disabilities – is diversity for them too?

Maybe it’s just as well that I didn’t say anything.  I had already irritated the leader.  She had assigned us to read an entire book for that weekend seminar.  In response, a bunch of us formed a study group, and each of us took responsibility for writing a summary of one chapter.  The leader somehow acquired a copy of the summary I had written up for my groupmates, and made me aware that she was displeased with it.

What displeased her, I think, was that I tried to provide an interesting contribution to the group project.  Some of my groupmates were disgruntled with this weekend seminar assignment; some did not seem to be getting much out of it.  So I thought it might be helpful to submit something that they might enjoy reading.  My chapter summary went like this:

*  *  *  *  *

Summary of Weaver, Explorations in Cultural Competence, ch. 4:
“Striving for Cultural Competence”

My purpose, in this summary, is to give you a sense that you know the material almost as well as I do, after having read the chapter.  This is an easy goal.  My reading of the chapter left me nearly brain-dead.  When I merely breathe, I am already telling you more than I learned.  So at this point, I believe I have substantially given you what Mark asked me to provide in this summary.

Part of the problem is that I am functionally illiterate.  I read a few words and my mind instantly zooms to a number of problems – world hunger, the struggle for peace, an itch on my leg – and it may be some minutes, or hours, before my attention returns to the task at hand.  (It can take a long time to scratch your leg, contemplate peace, and mentally resolve your place in the grand scheme of world hunger.)

Not all of my troubling mental distractions lie so distant from the words that Hilary Weaver has penned in this chapter – Hilary being, by the way, the name of my first wife (but that’s not why I dislike this book).  Some of my distractions arise directly from what she writes.  On the first line of the first sentence of this chapter, for example, she refers to “related and overlapping definitions of cultural competence.”  Hmm.  If one definition overlapped with another, could it be anything but related?

I allude, here, to the dim possibility that our fearless author is, how shall we say this, verbose. Can’t imagine why this question would arise, in the mind of a person confronted with an assignment to read a 400-page text over a weekend.

So, as you see, I get to the first line, and already – poof! – I’ve lost three minutes on nothing.

Let us progress to the second line. To give it a proper running start, I retreat to the first, and then sally forth down the page, as follows:  “A number of related and overlapping definitions of cultural competence exist, yet the lack of a single working definition continues to hinder advancing this imperative.”  What imperative?  (OK, I cheated:  that’s actually on the third line.  So, you see, we are getting somewhere after all.)

Dr. Weaver (I think she’s a doctor, anyway – I can’t seem to find the “About the Author” section, but she sure flings the lingo like a Fudd (that’s Ph.D., as distinct from M.D., Mudd)) detects an “imperative” somewhere in this first sentence.  I’m going to guess:  the imperative is that we simply must find a single working definition of cultural competence.  Or maybe the imperative is that we must advance cultural competence, never mind the bloody definition.  Or maybe it’s both.  One can’t be sure.

There you go. I’ve spent a page; I’ve gotten through the first sentence; and I’m stumped. You begin to grasp the magnitude of the problem.

But there is always a remedy.  When all else fails, skip ahead.  We know, from graduate study, that this is a reliable method of “covering the material,” no matter how much of it there is, no matter how short the time allotted.

But before skipping ahead, in the spirit of continuing to fortify the dimensions of this problem of scatterbrained attention masquerading as rationality (or possibly it’s the other way around), let me plead innocence.  I honestly have no gripe with Dr. Weaver’s topic.  It’s much the contrary.  If this subject is as important as we’re led to believe – and as I do believe – then we deserve the crème de la crème.  If that ain’t Weaver, then out with her!  Send her packing!  Bring on the real talent!

In this assigned reading, is Weaver going someplace?  It is a fair question.  To address it, let us search for the heart of this chapter 4.

If the size of print used in topic headings is a clue, I’d say the meat of this chapter must lie within one or more of the following topics:

  • Key Aspects of Cultural Competence (4.5 pages)
  • Barriers to Cultural Competence (1 page)
  • Models of Cultural Competence (1.5 pages)
  • Measuring Cultural Competence (1.5 pages)
  • Taking Cultural Competence Beyond the Micro Level (5.5 pages)

With that statistical analysis, I can confirm that my bet’s on either “Key Aspects” or “Beyond the Micro Level.”

I guess that’s nice to know.  Meanwhile, however, my roving attention has returned to the first sentence of the chapter.  I can’t help wondering:  does Hilary ever get around to defining cultural competence?  I think not.  At the end of the article, her conclusion says that “crucial aspects of the knowledge base on cultural competence” are “still being developed, so we do not yet have a full picture of the specific components of cultural competence.”  A reasonable person would begin to ask whether Dr. Weaver, herself, is therefore a part of the problem – accepting, as she does, a state of affairs in which (to use her words) “the lack of a single working definition continues to hinder advancing this imperative” – whatever that imperative may be.  If the lack of a definition is bad for the cause (her position at the outset), then her tactic of offering some lame excuse for the lack of a definition is merely an excuse for a damaging failure.

So there you have it.  I could have spent an hour staring into space as I tried to read this chapter, but the disciplined process of telling you what I think about it, and why, in its core aspect – in, that is, the problem posed at the beginning and its non-resolution at the end – has taken only a fraction as long. Maybe I should do this kind of thing more often.

I realize I am erring on the tart side, at the expense of our dear author.  Therefore, let me be, instead, somewhat more kindhearted toward Dr. Weaver.

Or … no, not yet.

Before I allow kindness to get in the way, how about that question of where, exactly, we might find the core message of this chapter.  There was that “Key Aspects” section.  Does it give this chapter a reason to exist?

Judging, again, from the subtopic headings, there appear to be a total of eight Key Aspects.  First is “The Layers of Identity.”  Calls to mind the image of an onion – which is unfortunate, because what she’s talking about is quite different from that.  A layer is a single, cohesive treatment of some underlying reality.  A layer of paint, for example, can have a significant effect upon how we see the painted thing.  Culture, gender, and sexual orientation (to cite a few of her examples) are not layers:  the culture that lesbians experience, in a given setting, is different from the culture that heterosexual women experience in that same setting.  That is, their culture is not simply a “layer.”  It is a variable, potentially invisible, that interacts complexly with innumerable other variables.

But perhaps I’m being too picky.  We know what she means, even if she misstates it.  Let it go – let’s say there are layers of identity.  Moving on, the next “key aspect” is “Assessing Cultural Identity.”  I’m not confident she’s the one to coach us on this, but OK, let’s hear her out.

But before we do that, just in passing, let’s note that Dr. Weaver does indeed appear to have a definition of cultural competence, after all.  The last sentence of her “Layers of Identity” section says this:  “Cultural competence means identifying the most meaningful aspects of a client’s identity in a particular case situation and factoring that information into all aspects of the work.”  Hey, what’s wrong with that?  Sounds like a definition to me!  Not the best definition, maybe – I mean, how many years are we allowed to devote to the task of parsing a client’s “identity,” and who will tell the world which identity aspects are most “meaningful”?

So Hilary seems to be in a bind.  She says she has no definition; but then she contradicts herself by providing a definition.  But it’s a bad one.  Hoo.

Anyway, about that next subsection … we’re now full-bore into the task of “Assessing Cultural Identity.” And you know what?  She answers the questions I just asked, or at least one of them.  She says, “When including culture in the assessment, it is not necessary to have information on every aspect of culture.  Rather, helping professionals need to identify major beliefs and behaviors as they influence the problem or setting.”  Right!  Well said!

The thing is, “major beliefs and behaviors” are often synonymous with the malady.  In other words, identifying major beliefs and behaviors is not cultural analysis; it’s just plain analysis.  It’s what culturally ignorant helpers have been doing since the Pleistocene Era.

If we didn’t have screwy behaviors and beliefs and whatnot, we wouldn’t have half the problems we have.  Dr. Weaver speaks of some easy example, like voodoo.  But how about the belief that a person should earn his/her own money and pay his/her own bills?  That’s cultural baggage, big-time.  It has its strengths, and it also creates huge problems.  But what social worker is going to begin by trying to dismantle the American system of free enterprise?

So I’m not sure Hilary quite has a grip on it.  Not surprisingly, she says, “Scholars are still in the process of developing meaningful ways to assess cultural identity.”  Seems like a fool’s errand.  Algebra 101:  solving an equation with a thousand variables can take a while.  Hilary seems to sense this, too:  after offering that observation, she mumbles a few more sentences, and then this subsection on “Assessing Cultural Identity” just sort of peters out.

At this point, let us reconnoiter.  I have written 3.5 pages and have discussed about four paragraphs of this chapter.  That’s actually not a bad average, in my experience, as this sort of thing goes.  But we begin to sense the need for a more summary treatment.

No problem!  Let us skip ahead!

The remaining subheadings in this “Key Aspects” section (4.5 pages) are:  The Interaction of Knowledge, Skills, and Values/Attitudes (i.e., it’s important to know there are interactions); A Strengths-Based, Holistic Approach; Power Dynamics … hey, wait a minute.  What am I doing?  You can see those subheadings for yourself.  You don’t need me to repeat them.

So that takes care of the “Key Aspects” section.

In conclusion, let us review the other contender for “most important section of chapter 4.”  This would be the section labeled, “Taking Cultural Competence Beyond the Micro Level” (5.5 pages).  Since I’m not allowed to analyze it (takes too much space), and since I don’t get to recite the subheadings (you can do that for yourself), all that’s left to me to do is to pick something at random to talk about, and talk about it.  But briefly.

So, I ask myself, what is most remarkable about this mission of taking cultural competence beyond the micro level?  It is remarkable, surely, that we can take something beyond the micro level without even knowing what it is.  What gives us the right?  We are going out there into political America, armed with a banner, clubbing people over the head with it … and the scholars are still trying to figure out what it is.  Sounds like the approach that social workers took with glorification of victimhood, before they figured out that a strengths perspective was better.  Those who did, that is.

Remember, I am being brief.

Well, to answer the question, I guess it’s pretty remarkable that Dr. Weaver can say, “Culturally competent services may well be the most cost-effective as well as clinically effective way to serve clients.”  What’s remarkable is that this is all she says on the matter.  Can you imagine?  This is the land of the dollar.  Show someone a way to do the same thing less expensively, and they’ll be all over you.  That’s the whole shooting match!  Hilary has won!

Alas, in reality, there is no analysis, elaboration, development, or other treatment of that assertion. These, like countless words before them, fall silently into the abyss.  Hilary (can she really be a Ph.D., with this caliber of writing?) holds out the promise; we grasp for it; and then we awaken from the dream.  Most likely, one concludes, she’s wrong:  culturally competent services are probably not cost-effective – not, anyway, without strict guidelines governing the potentially infinite expansion of the concept of cultural competence, and not without rigorous measurements of the mission and of its achievement.  But these things are years away.  It is not even clear – certainly it is not clear from this chapter – how we get there from here.  (Sigh.)  But it was a nice dream.

We have thoroughly muddied the waters.  We are bit disgusted with Dr. Weaver, and with the problem, and perhaps also with ourselves.  At a time like this, our only option is to apply the time-honored academic solution:  we declare victory, consider the problem solved, and retreat from the field.

In summation, Chapter 4 is entitled “Striving for Cultural Competence.”  There are different ways to strive.  As the saying goes, you can work hard, or you can work smart.  Dr. Weaver expresses admirable enthusiasm for the project of training helping professionals to be more aware of cultural differences.  But this chapter would be twice as effective if it were half as long – not only because the wandering imaginations of some would-be readers can barely digest its present form, but also because the act of tightening her writing might serve to focus her attention on aspects of this chapter that do not appear to have been very well thought out.

*  *  *  *  *


As I say, I wrote that chapter summary in the spirit of having a bit of fun with it – and also, obviously, in the spirit of getting it done in a brief period of time.  As I reread it, there are things I would change.  If I were publishing a review of Dr. Weaver’s book, no doubt I would find other chapters more redeeming.

But I think some skepticism was warranted.  I had been introduced to the topic of diversity a year earlier, while taking some counseling psychology courses there at the University of Missouri – Columbia.  Actually, I had been introduced to the topic of diversity over the previous 45 years of my life.  It would have been hard to grow up in America during the 1960s and 1970s and not become aware of the major diversity battlegrounds – notably sex, race, and sexual orientation – that became so much a part of life and thought during that period.  You know, I’m not stupid.  I get it.  There’s always more to learn; there are always more mistakes to make; but for me and countless other Americans, the heart was in the right place and the head was willing to learn.

What troubled me about social work was that it was still preoccupied with those battles of the previous century, while ignoring the realities of diversity experience in daily life.  I can easily have more in common, have a better relationship, with a black or gay man than with another middle-class heterosexual Anglo-Saxon Protestant male.  In fact, I did:  two of the men I most enjoyed hanging out with in college were a black gay ballet dancer and a half-black, half-Japanese straight guy from Seattle.  For that matter, my girlfriend was a Jew whose parents had been in concentration camps.  But finding anything in common with my cousins in Indiana – now that was a diversity challenge.

It was really interesting – no, it was disturbing – that my social work professors would lump together everyone who looked like me, while simultaneously preaching about respect for the unique individual, awareness of the person in his/her environment, and so forth.  It seemed to take concentrated narrowmindedness to be treating diversity, in the 21st century, as though nothing had changed in 40 years.

It is only human to want to congratulate oneself on one’s enlightenment.  Yet the professor who thinks that way is, him/herself, just one more type, among the myriad types of people in this world, most of whom believe that their type is normal and right.  This weekend seminar experience presented the thought that social work students would be further ahead when such professors came down from their pedestals, ceased to regard themselves as prophets, and began to catch up with what was happening in the rest of the world.


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