Social scientists wishing to learn about people of different cultures or racial groups should be exposed to negative as well as to positive aspects of the culture of focus (Eisenman, 1998). In all probability, all cultures have imperfections, and social scientists should feel free to discuss the shortcomings of any culture in a dispassionate way. Yet, ethnic and racial groups are often characterized in multicultural textbooks in almost exclusively positive terms even when explaining characteristics that probably have fallible causes. A case in point is Christensen's (1989) discussion of illegitimate Puerto Rican children being reared by their father's lawful wife (instead of by their mother who was their father's mistress). Christensen attributed this to Puerto Ricans' "love for children" and indifference to illegitimacy. This explanation ignores the more likely reason, which is to minimize the negative social consequences of the illegitimate birth to both the child and the mistress due to the general lack of acceptance of Latin American women having sexual relations outside of marriage (Falicov, 1982; Stevens, 1973).
Another example is Nwadiora's (1996) portrayal of Nigerian families living in the United States. Regarding Nigerians' respect and appreciation for children, Nwadiora reported that Nigerian families are quite democratic when solving family problems and "sometimes invite younger family members to express their views" (p. 129). Later, Nwadiora writes that "children are extremely important, because they ensure the longevity and continuity of several generations," (p. 136). Yet, in the same passage, Nwadiora states, "Girls are perceived as sources of potential wealth to families because of the anticipated dowry the bridesgroom will pay." In other words, children—particularly girls—are commodities to be traded as wives in exchange for money. Nwadiora also denies the extent to which female circumcision is a problem among Nigerian girls by claiming that the practice is "extremely rare" in Nigerian society and that the "much ado in the media about clitorectomy" is the result of institutional racism on the part of United States media.
How are therapists supposed to fully understand diverse clients' problems within a cultural context if the social science literature that provides them with information on other cultures is replete with defensive and romanticized cultural characterizations? It seems that one of the greatest challenges multicultural psychology poses to contemporary United States psychotherapists is for therapists to respect and appreciate diverse cultures while simultaneously having to acknowledge (and occasionally deal with in therapy) the fact that many specific practices in various cultures clearly violate fundamental human ethics and sometimes United States law (cf. Fowers & Richardson, 1996).
In my practice with low-income Mexican Americans in the southern portion of Texas, I commonly encountered parents reporting that as a form of punishment, they required their children to kneel down, often on bottle-caps (fichas) turned upside down, for a specified period of time. Not every low-income Mexican American parent utilized this form of punishment, but this version of "time-out" used by many residents in that region of Texas was common enough that virtually all practitioners who resided in that area were aware of this form of punishment. Because that practice was unique to this subgroup of minorities in the United States, should I have adopted, as a therapist, a relativistic stance and condoned it? In order to sensitize both the parents who engaged in that practice and the Mexican American graduate students I trained as therapists to the unacceptability of that behavior, I would invite them to imagine the supervisor at their place of employment mandating them to roll up their pants and to kneel on bottle-caps whenever the supervisor became angry at them. In this example, my commitment to treating children humanely took precedence over respecting a specific behavior commonly practiced by members of a diverse culture.
As Sue and Sue (1990) have indicated, researchers should not be tempted to "selectively publish findings that perpetuate 'good' characteristics of minority groups and that censure 'bad' ones" (p. 26). Not all cultural practices are ethical (McGoldrick & Giordano, 1996), and therapists will need to balance their commitment toward not imposing their cultural values onto clients with not ignoring specific cultural practices that most thoughtful individuals would find unacceptable.
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