• Montriel V. Jamari

What is Culture?

Updated: Mar 6, 2018

This is one of the most important questions that therapists must ask themselves when beginning to work with diverse families, in this particular case, African American families. Culture is an important barrier against the ravages of institutionalized racism, discrimination and prejudice. The powerful aspects of culture provide positive coping mechanisms through rituals, customs, ceremonies, stories, and various forms of rites of passages. We are experiencing a paradigm shift in our understanding of the effectiveness of therapy in relation to cross cultural interventions and mental health practices. What is culture is an underling premise to the progressive turning point and movement when considering psychotherapy as a means to gain an understanding of the family. Culture can be interpreted broadly. In order to treat individuals it is important to have a clear operationally defined understanding of the construct of culture. Perdersen (2000) describes culture as associated with a racial or ethnic group as well as with gender, religion, economic status, nationality, physical capacity or disability and affectional or sexual orientation (Perdersen, 2000). Pedersen (2000) also describes culture as including demographic variables such as age, gender, and place of residence; status variables such as social, educational, and economic background; formal and informal affiliations; and ethnographic variables of nationality, ethnicity, language, and religion are also a part of culture. No one is without culture, rules, codes, redundancies, and practices are aspects of culture that organize one’s life activities. “Culture provides the guideposts that direct or daily living. It provides a lens for filtering our internal and external world experiences, and it guides our behavior it provides the framework for observing and identifying problems an orients us toward methods of problem solving” (Sanchez, p. 675, 2006).




Unintentional racism is a concept that is ineffective in the relationship between the family and the therapist. The way in which a therapist avoids unintentional racism is to be aware of his or hers own beliefs along with understanding the meaning, value, and significance of culture. Unintentional racism is very discrete, often it is indirect, and outside our awareness; this can be the most damaging and insidious form of racism (Sue, 2005). Cultural pluralism is a perspective that recognizes the complexity of cultures and values the diversity of beliefs and values. This type of belief system helps to mediate forms of unintentional racism. Cultural pluralism also recognizes the various outside “pressures” that have shaped the client’s outlook on life, religion, beliefs, political beliefs, socioeconomic status, family structure/dynamics, education level, etc. (Cory, 2007). Cultural competency refers to the practitioner’s level of awareness, knowledge, and interpersonal skills when working with individuals of diverse backgrounds. This form of thinking recognizes that the client must be viewed from an individual standpoint as opposed to receiving streamlined therapy. An understanding, cultural competent counselor recognizes the many facets of family dynamics. They also understand how these dynamics are influenced by struggles within the family as well as external factors that are an attack on cultural subsystems.

Family symptoms are often intercultural conflicts that are resonating within the family unit, sibling rivalry, divorce, parental inadequacy, intergenerational conflicts, inadequate social skill development and abuse (Sanchez, 2006). Culture is a powerful vehicle in understanding the language and the behaviors of the family. Understanding culture essentially helps the therapist to view difficultly from the eyes of the family. From this lens, it allows the therapist to have a clear coherent unbiased perspective on how African American families function as a system. “Cultural sensibility requires counselors to first have an awareness of their counseling worldview (cultural values + professional orientation) and knowledge of their cultural referents (ethnic cultural values) associated with their clients’ ethnic grouping” (Sanchez, p.677, 2006). Berkel and colleagues found in their research titled It take a village: Protecting Rural African American Youth in the Context of Racism that, parenting and community influences contributed to adolescent racial identity and self image, which protected against common negative responses to racism; including academic underachievement, succumbing to peer pressure and aggressive tendencies.

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