Diversity Question and Answer in an MSW Application

Describe your experiences or ability to work with diverse populations (e.g. ethnic/racial; socioeconomic level; gender;  gay/lesbian/bisexual; religion, etc.).

My Concerns about the Question

I approach this program as one who has been steeped in the values of a classical western mentality.  In this mentality, and particularly in the legal and philosophical traditions in which I have spent years reading and working, it is considered healthy and valuable to critique views, searching for their weaknesses, in hopes of detecting the truth of a matter.

It appears, at times, that quandary and paradox arise when one verges upon such truth.  The quandary or paradox affecting me, with respect to the intellectual tradition just mentioned, in the context of this application, is that I would champion the critical mentality, and would simultaneously point out that it can destroy one’s life.  The quest for truth, it seems, is also a search for wisdom, to know when less is more – to know, that is, when a decision to desist from the search for truth is itself a part of that search.

In other words, I do not know whether to answer the question as posed or, rather, to challenge its validity.  I feel pushed in the latter direction by a perceived implicit threat in the question.  The perception arises, I think, from awareness that race, for example, can become an ugly topic when mishandled.  The ugliness that matters to me, in this context, lies in (a) the concern that “diversity” might contain an implicit, unjustified, negative preconception of me, based upon nothing other than my status as an actual or apparent member of multiple demographic majorities in this society, and (b) the unwarranted assumption that I should be placed in a position of talking about others, where they are not allowed to return the favor.

First, experience raises the fear that “diversity” could serve as an excuse for browbeating people who are confessed, or believed, not to be very diversity-minded.  Insofar as that happens, I suspect that the use of the term could abuse the inclusivist intention that, I trust, existed within its original proponents.  For example, if discussions of “diversity” tended to feature white people sneering at other, purportedly less-enlightened white people, I would probably not find that especially edifying.

Whence my anxiety?  Consider the question.  It cites a series of characteristics for which I am not known.  That is, the question immediately distinguishes me from people who do fall within the stated minority statuses.  In that light, the posed question essentially asks, “How do ‘us’ feel about ‘them’?”  It could fairly be construed as putting a minority of persons in the position of being objects of “our” majoritarian discussion.

To underscore this, one might look particularly at the words, “gay/lesbian/bisexual.”  Where is the mention of “straight” or “heterosexual”?  Here, clearly, a majority of us are talking about others among us.  (Moreover, a straight person might reasonably ask, is the reader to infer that we need not ask gay, lesbian, or bisexual applicants whether they accept or are comfortable dealing with people different from themselves?)

It could appear that this question expects me to trot out my clients, colleagues, relatives, friends, roommates, and lovers of various religions, socioeconomic and disability statuses, sexual orientations, and so forth, like so many Warner Brothers cartoon characters crossing a stage, so that I can say, “See? Some of my best friends are X.”  It would be demeaning, to those persons and to me, to suggest that I should shine the spotlight on their personal characteristics, as though I considered them circus freaks.

The question also asks about ability to work with people of different religions.  Religion has indeed been an important divider of peoples historically.  But the issue of religious diversity is more complex than the question seems to contemplate.  We know of the Crusades.  But absent any Muslims to slay, Christians for many centuries have demonstrated their willingness to fight one another in the name of their common God; and they have done this, not only on the fields of Europe, but in the genteel churches of nearby suburbia, as schism ever renews the diversity of denominational species.

In all of these ways, the question points to certain historical flashpoints of difference between this society’s majorities and minorities, and asks, in essence, whether I (as a member of some such majorities) entertain nasty attitudes that others of my type have been known to entertain toward the people we are talking about.  One can scarcely imagine any minority individual being asked such an offensive question on this school’s application form:  “Do you have this problem that we have noticed in other blacks (or gays, or Jews)?”

There is also a question as to what it would mean to work well with a given population.  Maybe some immigrants want their children to learn English; maybe some do not.  Some African-American families may want to live among whites; some may not.  Such views doubtless fluctuate according to time and culture, but they can also fluctuate according to individual preference; and those individual preferences, themselves, can vary according to context.  Few of us behave consistently across all times and settings.

It may be entirely appropriate for statisticians to generalize about likely tendencies of a given population.  But social work is not statistics.  For those of us who must work with these divergent peoples as individuals, the reference to “populations” poses the danger of dressing up disreputable stereotyping in the respectable garb of science.  Moreover, successful work with persons categorized according to one shared trait may imply very little about suitability for work with other categories.  For instance, one’s ability to speak a foreign language, and experience in collaborating successfully with a totalitarian ruling junta in a country where that language is spoken, could well be contraindicative of any ability to work with (or to care at all about) the citizenry of that land.

To summarize, it is in the nature of diversity to be different from whatever the generalization or alleged standard may be.  Use of the “diverse” label to include a broad assortment of peoples could imply a belief that the ostensibly diverse persons are actually united in their common deviance from a norm.  In the worst case, that could lead to a caricature of diverse individuals as being, in the aggregate, “those people,” like the caricatures by which one political party may deride another as a loose coalition of random crackpots.

In the foregoing paragraphs, I have probed the posed question, and have identified some ways in which I am uncomfortable with it.  For those reasons, I will proceed to identify several limited questions that may address much of the information that the original question intended to reach.

Related Questions

In one of my textbooks from last semester, the Coreys cite Paul Pedersen with approval.  They summarize Pedersen as saying that “cultural diversity” includes factors of age, gender, residence, status, formal and informal affiliations, and even “subjective perspectives hidden within individuals.”  The Coreys paraphase Pederson as concluding, consistently with his definition, “All counseling occurs in a multicultural context, given the complexity of every client-therapist relationship.”

So broadly defined, diversity becomes meaningless:  I occupy a different culture from my brother by dint of age, residence, affiliations, and perspectives.  No doubt I do; but using the same word for that relatively trivial truth could implicitly belittle “cultural” variations that provoke great, groupwide pride or concern (which my differences from my brother do not).

Pedersen appears to be driving toward the point, in the Coreys’ paraphrasing, that “The multicultural perspective is relevant to all aspects of counseling practice rather than being limited to exotic populations and special interest groups.”  I would not be certain how I should respond to the implication that we all have diversity in common.  It seems there may be some ambiguity, with “diversity” being used sometimes (per Pedersen) to denote everyone’s uniqueness, and sometimes as an aggregator of commonly stereotyped minority groups.

The posed question could be, in part, a request for assurance that I will practice and teach appropriate forms of behavior toward persons who vary from whatever might seem to be the “normal” or “majority” characteristics or behaviors within a given situation.  In response, I can aver that I, personally, should (and would want to) be keen to recognize my own cultural baggage, particularly where it appeared likely to get in the way of my dealings with someone possessing or practicing a different view, trait, or behavior.  I cannot claim that I would always be willing or able to jettison such cultural baggage upon identification, however; another culture may endorse behavior that I would consider murderous, racist, rapist, incestuous, cannibalistic, alcoholic, or in untold other ways unacceptable to me.  I could certainly try to see the thing their way; I am just not confident I would succeed at that.

There may also be an implicit question of whether I have good intentions toward people of varying descriptions and, regardless of intentions, whether I can avoid offending them.  The latter implies knowledge of what offends them; the former implies striving to use that knowledge to promote constructive interactions.  For instance, I might need to know that a certain religion prohibits work on Saturday, but perhaps also (to refine the point) that some liberal adherents to that religious heritage may bristle when others assume that they do not work on Saturdays.  Anything less than full knowledge of such distinctions poses at least the risk of ignorant offense.

The best one could do, I would think, would be to have such information, to be open to receiving such information when one does not have it, and to apply such information in a spirit of kindness and respect toward the other person.  But in saying so, I have reduced the culture-level generalization to a matter of individual decency.  While that individualist orientation may be an artifact of my Christian upbringing, I am inclined to suspect that it is primarily a logical response to my life experience, in which I often experience persons of other cultural backgrounds as isolated minorities whom I can best interpret as individuals rather than as members of a group – as when, for example, I see that the women, or the African-Americans, in a classroom do not always, automatically enjoy a special camararderie with one another vis-à-vis everyone else.

One question, then, is this:  to what extent do I actually have useful information about human variances, and how adept am I at applying it?  In response to the first part of that question, I would guess that my many years, occupying several different social roles, in urban centers, may have exposed me to a greater-than-average set of variations and preferences among humans.  As for the second part, as the comment about Christianity may suggest, I think I may tend to be more accommodating toward persons whom I perceive as being markedly different from myself, than toward those of whom I think I have some right to expect treatment exactly like that which, I imagine, I would give them if I occupied their position.  For example, I thought my Korean roommates’ kimchi stank, but I doubt I ever dreamt of asking them to dump it; but if they had been from Morristown rather than Seoul, I am sure I would at least have teased them about it.

Having thus worn the question to a frazzle, I will conclude by saying that I have worked, played, and lived with a great variety of people, and that the individual differences that have mattered to me, in terms of ability to cooperate and work with people, have generally had to do with such things as intentions (e.g., to befriend or hurt me) rather than appearances.

I appreciate the reader’s indulgence in this extensive verbiage.  I do consider this question important, and I understand that there may be good reasons for posing it.  Hopefully, my reply, however ignorant and verbose, has managed to display at least a modicum of teachability and good will, with respect to the crucial topic of differences among people.

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