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Excerpt from Practice Perspectives (August 2014)
Below is an excerpt from a recent "Practice Perspectives" article. NASW Members can view the full .pdf article by clicking here, or by visiting the National NASW website here. Not a member? Join NASW

Multiculturalism: Implications for Culturally Competent Social Work Practice

Rita A. Webb, MSW
NASW-DC Senior Practice Associate

“With multiculturalism’s focus on the interrelationships between race, class, gender, ethnicity, and age, the social work profession can produce the next generation of practitioners who are not only competent in working within communities of color but also cognizant of differential impact of social policies on diverse client populations” (Lee, E., & McRoy R. (2008a) p. 280.


In the United States, there has been a continued population demographic shift, with an increase of people of color from diverse cultures and ethnic identities. Many of these families who seek social services are poor, immigrants, or survivors of generations of racism and discrimination. For many social workers, this change in demographics can mean increased exposure to the complexities and richness of diverse experiences and needs which are reflected in caseloads, communities, and work places.

Simultaneously—for social workers, organizations, and communities—these experiences with culturally diverse populations present both challenges and opportunities for personal, professional, organizational and community growth. Culturally competent practices must be integral parts in the provision of services, agency operations, and policies. By understanding the perspective from which families view the world, as well as the elements of culture and cultural-specific variables, social workers can deliver appropriate services amidst the complex issues presented within a multicultural context.

Demographic Changes

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is estimated that by 2060, Hispanics will represent the greatest immigration population in the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). It is also projected that immigration to the Unites States by people from Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America will increase. This projected growth increases the likelihood that social workers will experience an influx of diverse populations within their practices and workplace settings.

Implications of the Increases in Immigrant Populations to the U.S.

The immigrant populations entering the U.S. represent a wide variety and range of backgrounds: some may be from regions with high rates of poverty; some have experienced the tragedies of terror, genocide, and war; some speak another language other than English; while others are predominately people of color who encounter misdirected biases and discrimination. The nation’s intention to accept various groups’ cultural an d racial differences is often overshadowed by racial intolerance, mistrust, misunderstanding, and misconceptions about religion, ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. This dynamic has evolved into a mixed societal and political reaction to multiculturalism that ranges from sustained negativity towards diversity to welcoming and appreciating the contributions these differences can make to this country. Too of ten, however, these multicultural populations confront barriers and access to services because of their limited English proficiency (LEP). Increasingly, with demographic changes in people, families and communities, multiculturalism is an ideal that must be realized within the framework of social work practice and attitudes.

Multiculturalism in Context

Throughout the early history of the U.S., multiculturalism concepts were often negatively viewed, as illustrated by the exploitation of Native Americans, forcible enslavement of Africans brought to this country, and subsequently with the later arrival of immigrant populations (Lee, E. & McRoy, R. (2008b). During the Civil Rights movement, however, racial and economic inequities were core factors that advanced multiculturalism approaches towards the recognition a nd valuing of diversity.

Multiculturalism is defined “as an ideology that suggests that society should consist of, or at least recognize and include with equal status, diverse cultural groups” (Sue, 2006). The NASW Code of Ethics provides guidance to social workers regarding their work with multicultural individuals, families and communities by identifying core values, principles, and standards that supp orts work with diverse clients and communities. To provide services in a multicultural context, social workers can first examine their own individual cultures and “how these impact their personal and professional lives, including their self-awareness, knowledge, and skills.”p. 18 (Ahmed, S., Wilson, K, Henriksen, R, Jones J. (2010). Through this reflective process, social workers can open themselves to realizing the multicultural attributes of diverse people.

Cultural diversity is a fundamental principle of multiculturalism. Through a multicultural orientation there is an opportunity to: “broaden representation of perspectives, world views, lifestyles, language, and communication skills and increase understanding, recognition and appreciation of these diversity factors to better work with clients served by the agencies.” (Social Work Encyclopedia, 2008). As shifts in the United States’ population are heavily influenced by immigration and the increased birth rates of racial and ethnic groups, social workers will need to prepare for increased population diversity within individuals, families and communities. (Congress, E. & Kung, W. 2013)

Social Workers and a Multiculturalism Approach

Teaching and learning from a multiculturalism perspective increases knowledge, awareness and understanding about race, ethnicity, gender, and immigrant populations, and is likely to contribute to culturally competent social work practice. With the continuous growth of numbers of culturally diverse individuals and groups of people, social workers will be challenged in their ability to meet the multicultural needs of a diverse society. Cultural competence considerations included in multicultural practice include:

  • Social workers need to be aware of their own values and biases
  • Social workers need to be aware of the client’s world view
  • Social worker need to be able to deliver culturally appropriate interventions

In order for social workers to provide culturally informed services, they must integrate their attitudes; knowledge; and skills into practice. (Kohli, H, Huber, R, Faul, A., 2010). In an advocacy capacity, social workers can be essential to responding to and facilitating the cooperation between mainstream sociocultural attitudes and the populations seeking acceptance and recognition...

End of Excerpt - READ THE FULL ARTICLE  (.PDF) 

Full article includes...

  • Social Work Ethics and Multiculturalism
  • Practical Tips For Social Workers to Consider in a Multicultural Practice
  • Self-Assessment Tool for Cultural Competence
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