Culture is a term that is often overused, that is politically charged, and whose definition can be hard to pin down. Fellows (2013) describes culture as “an all-pervading construct of human existence but its conceptualization is contested. As such, it is problematic to define or measure culture as different paradigms adopt radically different approaches”. Also, Critical Race Theorists often challenge the many ways that cultural definitions are “socially constructed” and how this can often lead to essentialized concepts of race (which describes superficial physical characteristics i.e. skin colour) and ethnicity (which describes the shared culture of a group i.e practices, values, and beliefs) which often promotes racismHowever, many helping professionals recognize that while race might be a construct, racism is not. Racism is often systemic and can be a social determinant of health, where specific solutions are often required to reduce the high prevalence of disease and social issues among specific ethnic and racial groups. One such solution is cultural competency training, which is now commonplace in most health and social service organizations. However, some critics have noted that while the model can be useful in certain contexts, it can also inadvertently lead to discriminatory, and or unhelpful, practices in others. As an example, according to Arthur Kleinman and Peter Benson (Anthropology in the Clinic: The Problem of Cultural Competency and How to Fix it, 2006) cultural competency can become:

“a series of “do’s and don’ts” that define how to treat a patient of a given ethnic background. The idea of isolated societies with shared cultural meanings would be rejected by anthropologists, today, since it leads to dangerous stereotyping—such as, “Chinese believe this,” “Japanese believe that,” and so on—as if entire societies or ethnic groups could be described by these simple slogans. Another problem is that cultural factors are not always central to a case, and might actually hinder a more practical understanding of an episode”.

A persons identity is often comprised of more than their cultural background, which might not at all resemble our cultural perceptions. So, to engage or support a service user through the singular lens of culture can prove problematic. This myopic cultural (and possibly discriminatory) lens can lead professionals to overlook other — and possibly more important — factors that might contribute to who that person is (and the challenges they face). This limited perspective can negatively impact how professionals respond to and support service users. With this in mind, to better support service users, I believe helping professionals should consider looking beyond culture — or at the least view each service user as an “individual” with their own unique issues, worldview and responses to being a member of a specific race, ethnic or cultural group.

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