People don’t get along because they fear each other. People fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they have not properly communicated with each other.
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In my work with individuals from other cultures, I always start the conversation around our differences and how these differences can improve the quality of the counseling relationship. There is so much we can learn about ourselves, and then so much we can expand if we put our differences to work. If we start the conversation about what makes us different, as opposed to pretending that “we are all the same under the skin,” we expand the periphery of our visions and enrich the texture and depth of our own cultural identity.
When we adopt something from one culture, we are adding depth to, and changing, our cultural identity. This subtle process of change refers me back to Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis or "self production." The theory of autopoiesis is concerned with the active self-maintenance of living systems whose identities remain constant while their components continually change, and I would add that in that change there is also expansion. If we allow it, that is. The autopoiesis, in the context of cultural identity, needs the nourishment of an open mind and heart.
I forget from whom I heard the term “diasporic people,” but regardless of its source I will adapt it to illustrate part of my point around the importance of understanding the cultural identity of those we counsel. The term “diasporic people” is used to define people such as those who leave their countries to embrace the culture and way of living of another country, implying that these people have poly-identities. They may adopt a political identity, a civic citizenship, let’s say for instance, an American citizenship, but their ethnic identity cannot be traded. They cannot escape their ethnic identity, since it is biologically tattooed on the bodies. I, for instance, cannot change the fact that I am a brown-curly-haired-brown-eyed-woman, my freedom to attempt to alter it notwithstanding. We cannot say the same thing about cultural identity, which is a mutant identity with ample space to be modified and expand.
Diasporic people are cultural hybrids who can maintain their inherited cultures while contributing to the expansion and transformation of other cultures. This makes it crucial for us to foster an atmosphere of acceptance and embrace when clients from other cultures gift us with their cultural uniqueness, immediately impacting ours. Cultures are not fixed, still waters, they are living, and therefore constantly changing and evolving. We learn as much from our clients as they learn from us, if we remain open and willing. In our work and interactions with clients we can celebrate difference, help them shine in their unique colors so they can harmonize with the dominant culture, without losing their essence. I have found this to be crucial in working with individuals from other cultures. If we don’t recognize the cultural spirit of those we come in contact with, we are bound to fail in building genuine relationships with them. Our culture of origin is essence, and in understanding people, we need to get close to that essence.
For instance, in understanding individuals who come from the Spanish Caribbean, we need to focus on how culture was transmitted and shaped by the different cultures that have passed through our lands (Indigenous, African and European). Because Caribbeans have poly-identities we should look at them also with polyoccular lenses. The cultural identity of those who have undergone colonization is also a matter that we ought to take into account. Colonization is a brutal, imposition that taints the spirit of a people. I believe in the impact of a collective unconscious in the formation of a person’s self-perception. I cannot imagine that the atrocities, for instance, that colonizers brought upon Caribbean ancestors do not somehow impact the self-perception of their offspring. Asking individuals how they view themselves as a people is not going out on a limb, but an acknowledgement of individuals being more than what meets the eye.
A good and respectful counseling relationship starts with getting along with our clients— with not fearing our differences, but seeing differences as strengths. To paraphrase Dr. King, when both counselors and clients properly communicate their beliefs and their underlying philosophies, they have taken a significant step toward eliminating their fears of the “other.” It falls to us, as counselors, to take the lead in manifesting this behavior.
Marianela Medrano-Marra is a counselor and Dominican writer living and practicing in Naugatuck, CT. She writes poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction; with publications including essays and four books of poetry.