4 Culture and Diversity

Learning Objectives

In this chapter, the student will be reviewing the following:

  • Consider key terms: culture, race, ethnicity, inclusion, diversity, and equity.
  • A review of prominent diverse populations
  • NASW position cultural competency
  • An overview of diverse populations
  • Cultural competency and advocacy

If ever there was a moment in our society that we need to be exploring such topics as culture, race, ethnicity, and diversity, that time would be now. We are witnessing in our national discourse an outpouring of public demonstrations following several recorded acts of police brutality. Not since the 1960s has there been such large- scale marches throughout this nation as well as in major cities throughout the world. Triggered by the recorded acts of police violence on African Americans has expanded into a national discussion on the history of race in this country. This chapter will be a consideration of race, culture, diversity, along with a discussion of several at-risk populations.

What is Culture?

Let us begin with a discussion of culture. What is culture? Many individuals think of culture as something that is different from them. They may think of culture as something they desire to have; they mistakenly do not realize that everyone has culture. Culture is something that all of us have but because we live it, we do not realize that it is there. When we think of culture, we think of many ways of life for others; we often neglect to understand that what we do in our everyday lives is different than others. We simply think of our lifestyles as “normal,” not cultured.

Garthwait, MSW (2012) as: customs, beliefs, ideology, worldview, and values common to a group of people and which guide their individual and social behavior. More specifically, it is the product of the values, ideas, perceptions, and meanings which have evolved over time. These values, ideas, perceptions, and meanings constitute the individual’s knowledge and understanding of the world in which he or she lives.

They derive from:

  • physical environment of birth and upbringing
  • language
  • institutions
  • family and social relationships
  • child rearing
  • education
  • systems of belief
  • religion, mores, and customs
  • dress and diet
  • peers

What Is Race?

Stated simply, race is the word used to describe the physical characteristics of a person. These characteristics can include everything from skin color, eye color, facial structure, or hair color. This term is physiological in nature and refers to distinct populations within the larger species. Race was once a common scientific field of study. Today, however, most scientists agree that genetic differences among races do not exist which means we are all the same inside. Clearly, we all have the same make-up which consists of vitamins, minerals, water, and oxygen.

What do you think?

What are your thoughts on this consideration of race that pertains to the many varied physical variations for humankind, but that “we are all the same inside?”

What Is Ethnicity?

Ethnicity denotes groups, such as Irish, Fijian, or Sioux, for example, that share a common identity-based ancestry, language, or culture. It is often based on religion, beliefs, and customs as well as memories of migration or colonization (Cornell & Hartmann, 2007).

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is the word used to describe the cultural identity of a person. These identities can include language, religion, nationality, ancestry, dress, and customs. The members of a particular ethnicity tend to identify with each other based on these shared cultural traits.

What do you think?

What is the difference between race and ethnicity?

Race is identified through biology and described by physical characteristics such as skin color. Ethnicity is cultural expression and identification. (Blakemore, 2019)

A Cultural Questionnaire

Cultural expressiveness: dress, food, music, arts, holidays: ____

Beliefs about education: ____

Beliefs about family, family structure, kinship bonds: ____

Beliefs about children & child rearing: ____

Partnering: ____

Gender roles: traditional vs. more modern gender roles: ____

Social values, sense of community: ____

Religion & spirituality: ____

Help-seeking behavior: use of indigenous & traditional healing practices: belief about the dying process (advanced directives, post death practices): ____

What is Cultural Competency?

It is important for social workers to understand the concept of culture in order to have cultural competence. This can be defined as a set of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or program. It can also be among individuals, enabling them to function effectively in diverse cultural interactions and similarities within, among, and between groups. Another way to describe cultural competence is a point on a continuum that represents the policies and practices of an organization, or the values and behavior of an individual which enable that organization or person to interact effectively in a culturally diverse environment. The competency of social workers is limited when they do not possess tools of acknowledgment that can affect them when working with diverse populations.

NASW Code of Ethics on cultural competency: Standard 1.05(c): “to obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression.” NASW’s National Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity (NASW, 2001) highlights this necessity by identifying standards that make up culturally competent practices, including self-awareness, cross-cultural knowledge, skills, and leadership.

Social workers must possess the skills to be able to understand a broad spectrum of varying cultures and understand important and influential beliefs related to that specific culture. An informed social worker will better understand how culture and diversity may impact, how we present services and treatment and what interventions could produce better outcomes for those we serve. It would be useful for a social worker to be bilingual but not required as most agencies have access to interpreters.

What do you think?

  • What does cultural competency mean to you?
  • How do you envision a social worker being culturally competent?
  • What makes it an important skill for the professional social worker?

A Cultural Competency Activity:

McIntosh (1989) further describes white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets, which one can count on each day. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

McIntosh’ White Privilege Checklist: http://also-chicago.org/also_site/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/white-privilege.pdf

A consideration of diverse populations

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population:

Recognition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as a minority group or groups has gained prominence in Western culture since the nineteenth century. The abbreviation “LGBTQ” is currently used to group these identities together. The term queer is sometimes understood as an umbrella term for all non-normative sexualities and gender expressions but does not always signify a minority; rather, as with many gay rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s, it sometimes represents an attempt to highlight sexual diversity in everyone.

There is a growing realization that sexual and gender groups face discrimination, violence, and criminalization. For example, nearly eighty countries criminalize homosexuality in some way (Park, 2016). Cultural stigma prohibits sexual and gender groups from reaching their full potential. Stigma is an attribute, or mark on, another person. In the context of social interaction, it is a shared belief about someone’s characteristics and traits.

Diverse gender identity groups can be identified and grouped according to any one of the three different categories:

  • People whose inter self-identity does not match gender assigned at birth
  • People whose gender expression (or socially assigned gender) does not match gender assigned at birth
  • People whose social expression does not conform to relevant cultural norms and expectations of gender.

Diverse sexual orientation groups can be identified and grouped according to:

  • People who describe themselves using sexual diverse terminology
  • People whose sexual partners are the same gender
  • People who experience attraction to individuals of the same or a diverse gender

Religious populations:

Persons belonging to diverse religious groups have a faith which is different from that held by the majority population or the population group that is in power. It is now accepted in many multicultural societies around the world that people should have the freedom to choose their own religion as well as including not having any religion (atheism or agnosticism) and including the right to convert from one religion to another. However, in some countries, this freedom is still either formally restricted or subject to cultural bias from the majority population.

According to the US Census:

Expansion of religious groups in America

Fastest growing religious groups are Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism

People with Disabilities:

The disability rights movement has contributed to an understanding of people with disabilities as a minority or a coalition of minorities who are disadvantaged by society, not just as people who are disadvantaged by their impairments. Advocates of disability rights emphasize differences in physical or psychological functioning rather than inferiority: for example, some people with autism argue for acceptance of neurodiversity in the same way opponents of racism argue for acceptance of ethnic diversity. The deaf community is often regarded as a linguistic and cultural minority rather than a group with disabilities, and some deaf people do not see themselves as having a disability at all. Rather, they are disadvantaged by technologies and social institutions that are designed to cater to the dominant, hearing-unimpaired group.

Immigrant and Status Delivery:

Immigration involves the permanent movement from one country to another. Social workers are often called upon to work with immigrants. Immigrants represent a significant portion of the U.S. population. In 2010, 40 million people (12.9%) of the total population were foreign-born (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

People with different national origins often find it difficult to integrate into mainstream culture, especially when language barriers exist, or they experience immigration issues. Social workers play a crucial role in many immigration cases. A social worker is often the first-person people talk to about their immigration struggles. Social workers often help clients gather key evidence, write detailed evaluations, assist with citizenship, or change of legal status, or are the primary contact with police officers. There is a range of immigration status which immigrant children, youth and parents may hold. Immigrants may fall into one of the following categories:

  • legal permanent residents
  • naturalized citizens
  • refugees
  • undocumented persons

ESource: NASW Quick Resource Guide, 2013

Ethnic Diversity:

Based on the notion that effective social work practice must include an understanding and appreciation of diversity, the following section provides such information. The following section discusses some of the values, beliefs, and perspectives assumed by several cultural groups in our society: Hispanic, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Muslim Americans.

African Americans:

There are about 41.8 million African Americans in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). African Americans, like other racial, cultural, and ethnic groups, reflect great diversity.

Common themes: importance of extended family, role flexibility, high respect for older adults, and strong religious beliefs and a close relationship with the church.

For more information on African Americans: African Americans in U.S. History in Context

Hispanic American Heritage


As we know, no one term is acceptable to all groups of people. Hispanic and Latino/Latina have generally been used to refer to people originating in countries in which Spanish is spoken. However, we have also established that the terms refer to people originating in a wide range of places. Others prefer to be addressed by their specific countries of origin. For example, people from Puerto Rico prefer to be addressed as Puerto Ricans. The three primary Hispanic groups in the United States in terms of size are Mexican Americans (over 66% of all Hispanics), Puerto Ricans (almost 9%), and Cuban Americans (almost 3.5%) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Other groups include those from the Dominican Republic and from other countries in Central and South America (Santiago-Rivera, Arredondo, & Gallardo-Cooper, 2002). It is important not to make stereotyped assumptions about such a diverse group.

Common themes: The first theme important in understanding the environment for children growing up in Hispanic families is the significance of a common language. A second theme reflecting a major strength in many Hispanic families is the significance placed on relationships with nuclear and extended family, including aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, as well as close friends. A third theme characterizing many Hispanic families is the importance of spirituality and religion. Catholicism is a defining role for family and gender roles for Latino or Hispanic people. A fourth theme often characterizing Hispanic families is the strict gender roles.

For more information on Hispanic Americans: http://www.dimensionsofculture.com/2011/03/cultural-values-of-latino-patients-and-families/

Tribal Nations & the United States: An Introduction

In the United States, there are about 700 native groups (Indian and Eskimo) that still exist. Of that number, about 556, including some 223 village groups in Alaska, are formally recognized. (For a listing of federally recognized groups, log on to https://www.ncai.org/about-tribes) (Sutton, 2004).

Each Native American group has always had a name for itself – a name that often translates to something like “The People.” However, groups have often been known to the outside world by other names (i.e., American Indian, Native American, and First Nation’s Peoples) (Weaver, 2008). Whenever possible, it is best to identify the participants’ specific group. As part of their increasing pride and power, many groups are trying to revive their original names and asking that these be used instead of other names. For example, the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi want to be called Anishinaabe (“The People from Above”).

Common themes: Several themes characterize many Native American people. These include the importance of extended family and respect for older adults, noninterference, harmony with nature, the concept of time, and spirituality.

For more information on Native Americans: http://pluralism.org/religions/native-american-traditions/

Asian Americans:

In 2001, Asian Americans in the United States numbered more than 12.5 million and represented more than thirty different nationalities and ethnic groups, including Samoan, Tongan, Guamanian, and native Hawaiian from the Pacific Islands; Lao, Hmong, Mien, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Burmese, Malay, and Filipinos from Southeast Asia; Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, and Sri Lankan from South Asia; Afghani and Iranian from Central Asia; and Korean, Japanese, and Chinese from East Asia. In 2000, the three largest Asian nationalities in the United States were Chinese, Filipinos, and Asian Indians. The diversity of Asian Americans, in terms of their various languages, cultures, and histories, is remarkable (Kiang, 2017). Obviously, there is a huge variation among these groups despite the fact that they are clustered under the same umbrella term Asian Americans.

Common themes: Four themes tend to be similar throughout the diverse groups. These include family as the primary unit and individuality as secondary in importance, interdependence among family, filial piety, and their involvement in patriarchal hierarchy.

For more information on Asian Americans: http://www.asian-nation.org

Muslim Americans:

Since the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask questions about religion, there is no official government count of the U.S. Muslim population. It has been estimated, by Pew Research, in 2015 that there were 3.3 million Muslims of all ages in the United States. Islam is the second largest religion in the world and third largest in the United States (Lipka, 2017). As a social worker, it is likely that you will work with an individual who identifies as a Muslim.

It is important to understand that, unlike the previous cultures discussed, we are attempting to give a brief overview of the religion Islam and not the people. Like any religious group, religious beliefs and practices of Muslims vary depending on many factors including where they live. Each of these cultures’ practices Islam to a different degree just as many Christians practice their religion at different degrees. For example, a Muslim individual from Saudi Arabia may be extremely strict with the way that women should dress while an individual from Turkey may be more relaxed.

Common themes: Social values are divided into three groups: necessities (dharuriyyat); convenience (hajiat); and refinements (kamaliat). Human basic values consist of life (al nafs), reason (al’aql), descent (nasab), property (al mal) and religion (al din) (Akunduz, 2002). Islam protects these primary human values and prohibits any violation of them.

For a brief introduction to Islam go to: http://www.islamicity.com/mosque/Intro_Islam.htm

For more information on Muslim Americans: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/muslims-united-states


Being culturally competent and having cross-cultural awareness is an ongoing process. It clarifies the circumstances and social issues from a client’s perspective. Competency is also important as social workers must attend to their own perspectives about their own cultural identity and how the client may view us. The need to assess all aspects of a client’s belief system, values, and how they view themselves within their own culture is as important as assessing their whole bio- psychosocial history. By having some understanding of and sensitivity to other cultures means that we can also help others learn about different views and perspectives. Most importantly, we can dispel any generalizations or myths about a certain culture. With better insight we can appropriately match clients’ needs in respect to resources and services.

Related to one of the unique roles for social workers, being an advocate, cultural competency is about being the voice of our client(s) whether it is for an individual, a group, a neighborhood, or organization, in order to make sure that their rights are not violated, and they are treated with dignity and respect. Learning to deal with how and what types of social issues regarding injustices exist will help when we are dealing with real life discrimination and inequality that occurs and may be affecting our clients. By understanding and identifying social injustice and inequality, we can offset mechanisms of oppression and how they work.

In summary, social workers must possess the skills to be able to understand a broad spectrum of varying cultures and have an understanding of important and influential beliefs related to that specific culture. An informed social worker will better understand how culture and diversity impacts our clients and we can more effectively provide the necessary services and treatment.


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Introduction to Social Work: A Look Across the Profession by James Langford, LCSW and Craig Keaton, PhD, LMSW is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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