Academic journal article Social Work

The Misconstruing of Multiculturalism: The Stanford Debate and Social Work

Academic journal article Social Work

The Misconstruing of Multiculturalism: The Stanford Debate and Social Work

Article excerpt

The 1990 census shows that the racial and ethnic composition of the American population changed more dramatically in the past decade than at any time in the 20th century, with nearly one in every four Americans identifying themselves as black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, or American Indian (Barringer, 1991). In 1980 one in every five Americans had a nonwhite background. White people (excluding people who classified themselves as having Hispanic ancestry) now make up slightly less than 76 percent of the resident population. These statistics also reflect the fact that in recent years, more than four in five legal immigrants to the United States have been of non-European ancestry (Barringer, 1991). The 1990 census shows that the number of foreign-born residents reached an all-time high of 20 million. The previous peak, in 1980, was about 14 million (Vobejda, 1992).

Moreover, these trends certainly underscore the need for the social work profession to speak out publicly to urge a societal commitment to the values of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity - values that have been recognized as being part of the profession's "system of ethics" (Council on Social Work Education [CSWE], 1988). However, at this point, there is an equally compelling reason for the profession to present its perspective on cultural diversity, a challenge that has been generally unheeded. I am referring to the current social discourse on multiculturalism, or rather the misconstruing of the concept of multiculturalism, which has polarized the debate in society, the educational community, and. even the social work field (Lawrence, 1992). Although this controversy initially started on college campuses, there are so many hidden levels to this discourse that it has catapulted an academic debate into a public exchange involving the popular print and broadcast media (see, for example, D'Souza, 1991b).

This article undertakes an analysis of the concept of multiculturalism to demonstrate the complexity of this perspective, which has been lost in the acrimonious exchange surrounding the term - a debate that also covers other issues and that has given rise to the term "political correctness" (Hartman, 1991). Specifically, some of the main ideas and value imperatives involving the dispute over the definition of multiculturalism are outlined. This background information provides a framework to investigate how the social work literature has dealt with the concept of multiculturalism and whether the profession's long-term experience in dealing with cultural diversity has left it with any better ability than the current campus advocates to implement a multicultural curriculum. The discussion then considers an alternative model - one that uses the original definition of multiculturalism developed in the literature on intercultural communication. The author argues for a paradigmatic shift to a framework that informs thinking at a transcultural level rather than a model that merely provides specific strategies for ethnic-sensitive practice. The shift might extricate the profession from the forced dichotomies of white people versus people of color, established immigrants versus new immigrants, and American minorities versus Third World cultures. As Hartman (1990) said, "a new world demands new responses and major changes on the international, national, professional, and personal levels" (p. 291).

Assumptions, Values, and Interpretations

All sides of the debate on multiculturalism seem to agree that the fact of demographic change has altered the complexion of U.S. society. Hence, there is no dispute when the definition of multiculturalism simply implies the existence of a culturally pluralistic society. However, as soon as the model moves beyond this basic descriptive level and suggests a prescriptive dimension, especially one that implies a transformation of professional and societal roles, the lines become sharply drawn on prospective strategies. …

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