The AMCD Multicultural Counseling Competencies: a critically flawed initiative.
Authors: Weinrach, Stephen G.
Thomas, Kenneth R.
Pub Date: 01/01/2004
Publication: Name: Journal of Mental Health Counseling Publisher: American Mental Health Counselors Association Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 American Mental Health Counselors Association ISSN: 1040-2861
Issue: Date: Jan, 2004 Source Volume: 26 Source Issue: 1
Accession Number: 113300347
Full Text: This article responds to four reactions to Weinrach and Thomas's (2002) critique of the AMCD Multicultural Counseling Competencies. Among the major points made in the present article are the following: Although racial discrimination exists, both within and outside of the counseling context, the Competencies do little to combat it. In fact, the Competencies actually promote viewing persons primarily as members of specific racial and ethnic groups. The Competencies exist at a symbolic and an applied level Significant problems exist for mental health counselors at both of these levels. The Competencies' greatest flaw is their preoccupation with perceived deficits in clients, the counseling profession, and American society. It is virtually impossible to separate the content of the Competencies from the political process that has surrounded efforts to promote their universal adoption.


It has been our goal in the several articles that we have written about multicultural counseling in general (Thomas & Weinrach, 1998a, 1998b, 1999, 2002a, 2002b; Weinrach, 2002a, 2002b; Weinrach & Thomas, 1996, 1998) and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development's (AMCD) Multicultural Counseling Competencies (the Competencies; Arredondo et al., 1996) in particular (Weinrach & Thomas, 2002) to advocate for an agenda that responds to the needs of all clients in an environment that is ethical, moral, and as free as possible from external political pressures. In this present article, we will respond selectively to points made by the other contributors to this special feature as well as address issues that we believe will move the debate forward.


In this section, we focus primarily on where we agree and, to a lesser extent, disagree with our colleagues. Not unexpectedly, we tended to agree more readily with the sentiments expressed in this January issue by Patterson (2004) and by Vontress and Jackson (2004), who were selected because of their having previously taken stands in opposition to the Competencies. We agreed less with Arredondo and Toporek (2004) and with Coleman (2004), whose views in support of multicultural counseling, in general, and the Competencies, in particular, are well established. That said, we found Coleman's comments in support of establishing some type of multicultural counseling competencies to be particularly thought provoking.

Patterson (2004) started from the philosophical and clinical premise that humans are more similar than dissimilar and that cultural differences cannot possibly justify differential treatment for clients. Therefore, he concluded, there is absolutely no need for any form of multicultural counseling competencies. His logic is persuasive. There is insufficient evidence that cultural differences account for sufficient variance in the mental health of clients from different groups to justify unique treatment protocols. And even if there were sufficient evidence, the myriad of permutations of protocols would be impossible to achieve.

Vontress and Jackson (2004) have been equally long-standing critics of the Competencies and advocates for multicultural counseling. We agree with Vontress and Jackson that mental health counselors should be involved in community contact insofar as it enables them to establish better rapport with clients and potential clients. They restated our (Weinrach & Thomas, 2002) and their own objection to the limited or selective scope of the Competencies at the expense of other culturally distinct groups. Vontress and Jackson are correct that the environment can influence mental health, though we do not have a science that results in clear predictions. We wish to emphasize Vontress and Jackson's position about the imprecise distinction made in the Competencies between the terms multicultural and diversity and the implications on the unequal delivery of counseling services. Vontress and Jackson astutely observed:

Finally, there is perhaps no stronger an indictment of the Competencies than Vontress and Jackson's having labeled them as "anti-therapeutic." (p. 79)

It is imperative to note that there were points in the important contributions made by Arredondo and Toporek (2004) and by Coleman (2004), with which we wholeheartedly agree. For example, we agree with Arredondo and Toporek that the 119 Explanatory Statements provide greater specificity and, in many cases, greater flexibility and a nod toward greater inclusiveness than do the vast majority of the 31 Competencies, themselves. We also agree with Arredondo and Toporek's assessment that "the arbitrary distinction [between multicultural and diversity] was an attempt to maintain culture, ethnicity, and race as the principal constructs of the Competencies" (p. 50). However, it was at the expense of other equally valuable client characteristics. Moreover, we agree that its developers see the Competencies as "a living document ... subject to further refinement, development, and validation based on continuing and new sociocultural and political issues that impinge on the lives of individuals and families" (Arredondo & Toporek, p. 50).

The central focus of the Arredondo and Toporek article (2004) is that it would be unethical not to observe the Competencies. Clearly, when a client's salient concern is culture-related, mental health professionals have an ethical responsibility to address it. On that point Arredondo and Toporek were correct. However, were one to focus on a client's race, when the client's primary or salient concerns were developmental or related to sexual identity, for example, the mental health professional would be committing a serious error in diagnosis and treatment. Assuming automatically that race is salient because a client is a member of a visible minority is to ignore the broad spectrum of issues that potentially affect clients, in general. Moreover, there exist no data, other than anecdotal, about how frequently culture, race, ethnicity, age, or developmental level are salient. To focus on that which is not salient merely to fulfill a political agenda or impose the Competencies on a client is possibly injurious to a client and, therefore, profoundly unprofessional and unethical. Mental health counselors are professionally obligated to make these important clinical distinctions.

Coleman (2004) makes a strong case for the interactional nature of the individual with his or her environment. Also, as Coleman eloquently stated "it would not be an improvement to merely replace external factors with internal factors" (p. 61). It is true, as Coleman asserted, that visible minorities have often encountered discrimination in the United States and elsewhere. Coleman called upon "mental health professionals to be aware of the manner in which their own racialized experience has served to organize their sense of the world, and use that awareness to serve the needs of clients" (p. 60). We strongly support the notion that social action or advocacy is appropriate when it has a direct bearing on the welfare of a specific client, as opposed to the radical reorganization of society. Also, we could not agree more with his assertion that "there is a glaring lack of controlled research on the degree to which a mental health professional who has these competencies is more effective than one who does not" (p. 63).


The status of the Competencies and their meaning within professional organizations is fluid. At its March 2003 meeting, the American Counseling Association (ACA) Governing Council, unanimously passed a motion endorsing the Multicultural Counseling Competencies (American Counseling Association, p. 11). The endorsed version of the Competencies was taken verbatim from Arredondo and D'Andrea (1995) and was based upon the 1992, not the most recent 1996, version of the Competencies (see Arredondo & D'Andrea, 2003). The Dimensions of Personal Identity Model, which we believe is perhaps the most insightful and inclusive component of other versions of the Competencies, was not included in the endorsed document. It must be emphasized that the Governing Council selected the word endorse rather than adopt in its action regarding the Competencies. Had the Competencies been mandated, all members of ACA and its divisions would have been obligated to follow them, which is not the case with their being endorsed.

A similar situation recently took place within the American Psychological Association (APA). Arredondo and Toporek (2004) claimed that APA (2002) created new policy by approving the Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists. However, upon closer examination, one would learn from this 99-page document, which is due to expire in 2009, that its authors specifically differentiated between the purpose of guidelines and standards as follows:

The authors of this APA (2002) document were enlightened on several levels: They developed discretionary guidelines, not mandatory standards; they recognized that the guidelines may not be applicable to every situation; they do not preempt the psychologist's professional judgment; and they set them to expire in 7 years. Both ACA and APA have backed away from the adoption of, and thereby mandatory compliance with, any version of multicultural counseling competencies.


The Competencies exist at both the symbolic and applied levels. Their adoption at the symbolic level, regardless of content, has a special meaning for many of their advocates. At the symbolic level, the advocates of the Competencies appear to employ as a litmus test (of an individual's or organization's commitment to an anti-racist agenda) whether one has embraced the Competencies. On the applied level, the Competencies suggest specific standards for the provision of multicultural counseling to visible minorities.

Symbolic Issues

A knowledge about the published debate surrounding the historical development of the Competencies is as essential to an understanding of their content as is a knowledge of the issues that surrounded the writing of the U.S. Constitution. An explication of the underlying philosophical and theoretical disparities between the Competencies' advocates and critics serves to inform readers of the nuanced complexities not readily apparent in reading the document alone.

Upon close inspection, it is clear that much of the Competencies' tone and style fall within several definitions of manifesto. A manifesto is defined as "a published statement of political beliefs and policies" (Roberts, 1971, p. 121). According to Scruton (1982), manifestos "serve not so much to inform people as to give political identity to the groups that issue them, by focusing their antipathies" (p. 283). Gorski (personal communication, January 30, 2000) contended that "the roots of the multicultural movement are political and revolutionary in nature." According to our reading of the literature, rejection of the Competencies evokes, in some, a similar emotional reaction as does the waving of a Confederate flag at a NAACP meeting. The Competencies have become a symbol.

The rhetoric invoked by the Competencies' advocates has often been that of false opposites, hyperbole, and innuendo. Those who "resist" have often been accused of being racist. The application of the word racist, according to Cose (2002) is "so loaded with inflammatory connotations as to have little meaning outside of describing the behavior of certified kooks--the kind who march around in sheets with burning crosses" (p. 37). People who wish to win an argument often use words like racist and racism as weapons of attack, or the words are used to cut off debate and inhibit scientific inquiry. It is unfortunate that dissent has been met with name calling, not substantive debate of the issues.

For example, Ivey, Ivey, D'Andrea, and Daniels (1997, p. 5) claimed that those who refuse to adopt the Competencies may be displaying, what they referred to as "unintentional racism." Arbuckle (1997) in response to Ivey et al. (1997) retorted:

Arbuckle's criticism, in turn, was labeled as "a good example of ... racism" by D'Andrea and Daniels (1997, p. 8). Similarly, Sue (1996, p. 9) portrayed reluctance to adopt the Competencies as a result of "the insidious ethnocentric aspect of our cultural conditioning." Brown (1996, p. 3) found the Competencies "a bit arbitrary" and having "no rationale, empirical or otherwise."

We believe that members of the majority are systematically demeaned and diminished by advocates of the Competencies through the repeated use of such intentionally provocative terms as: ethnocentric, Eurocentric, monolingual, monoculturist, racist, White privilege, and White supremacy. For example, Sue stated: "One of the greatest difficulties white Americans have is that they perceive and experience themselves as moral, decent, and fair people. Thus, they often find great difficulty realizing that their beliefs and actions may be discriminatory in nature" ("Derald Wing," 1997, p. 18). Whites are stigmatized routinely as racists.

The publication, in this journal of A Critical Analysis of the Multicultural Counseling Competencies: Implications for the Practice of Mental Health Counseling (Weinrach & Thomas, 2002) precipitated a plethora of criticism by Parham (2002), who claimed, among other things, that "Weinrach and Thomas seem to have lost their desire to be considered serious scholars" (p. 31). Johannes (2003, p. 31) described Parham's comments as "caustic." D'Andrea and Daniels (2003), joined Parham in his condemnation of the Weinrach and Thomas article by stating:

The labeling of one's opponents invariably diminishes the intellectual vigor of any professional dialogue.

The professional counseling literature is filled with examples, some of which have been cited above, of how the advocates of the Competencies have operated at the symbolic level. It is virtually impossible to separate the content of the Competencies from the political process that has surrounded efforts for their adoption. The Competencies' content is understandably a reflection of their authors' values. We see the search for universal adoption as a case study in creative, relentless, and zealous social action. Further, it seems to us that, to a large extent, the Competencies have been ignored, except by those who have a passion for a particular socio-political value system that, seemingly, drives them to foist it upon others. By way of contrast, no discernable passion seemed to be inherent in the authors of similar competency statements (e.g. , the National Career Development Association's 1997 Career Counseling Competencies).

Applied Issues

Even if one believes that racism is rampant in the mental health professions, it does not necessarily follow that the implementation of the Competencies will reduce or eliminate racial discrimination. Moreover, if one subscribes to the notion that mental health professionals have a professional responsibility to function as social activists so as to reorganize society, who will address the day-to-day counseling needs of the minorities that the Competencies are intended to help? Taken literally, we think that the Competencies would have mental health professionals abandon their clients to work as social activists so as to ostensibly reduce the need for future mental health services. We are more deeply committed to providing quality mental health services to all those who need them than we are to the notion of failing to provide these very same services, so that mental health professionals can assume the role of political or social activist. It is counterintuitive, and unethical as well, to limit the availability of needed treatment. Legitimate attempts at prevention do not justify limiting services.

Our opposition to political advocacy is limited to those occasions when irreplaceable mental health professional time is taken away from assisting clients. Pogrebin (1996) captured the struggle with the following metaphor: "Some have to serve the soup and some have to fight the system that makes soup kitchens necessary" (p. 297). We believe that mental health counselors need to actively provide counseling services, and those professionals who wish to change the system should do so on their own time and according to their own political orientation.

According to Arredondo and Perez (2003), "social justice has always been the core of the multicultural competency movement and the aim of those working with the Competencies" (p. 284). Recently, it has been argued that the operationalization of the Competencies must be grounded in a commitment to social justice, and that such a commitment requires an expansion of professional activities beyond just counseling and psychotherapy (Vera & Speight, 2003). In our view, the meaning of the term social justice, or what constitutes social justice, is a bit murky. For example, as we argued previously (Thomas & Weinrach, 2002a), one could favor the use of school vouchers to ensure that inner-city African American and Latino/a students have access to better educational services, thus supporting social justice. Others, however, could object to school vouchers because they believe such expenditures will divert monies from the public schools, thus penalizing poor children. Similarly, one could see it as being socially just that the wealthiest 25% of Americans pay 75% of federal income taxes; whereas, others might believe strongly that the only fair way to tax the populace is through the use of a flat tax, where everybody is taxed at the same rate. For mental health professionals to decide what is socially just, and what is not, is a significant departure from their particular areas of professional expertise and from the activities that probably attracted many of them to mental health counseling in the first place.

Discrepancies between theory and practice, or the ideal and the real, abound. Granello, Wheaton, and Miranda (1998) conducted a thematic analysis of interviews with rehabilitation counselors to determine their reactions to the 1992 version of the Competencies. The participants in this study expressed little support or appreciation for the utilitarian value of the Competencies. For example, the participants "were able to cite very few examples of times or situations when they used specific, multicultural skills" (p. 243). Moreover, the participants "tended to question whether multicultural knowledge, as they interpreted it, was a useful and helpful competency" (p. 244). It is important to note that the 1992 version of the Competencies, to which the participants in this study were unfavorably disposed, is the same version recently endorsed by ACA. In general, there remains insufficient evidence to support the notion that practitioners find multicultural counseling competencies, at the applied level, particularly useful.

In conclusion, the Competencies are probably more intensely supported at the symbolic level than at the applied level. Those of us who criticize the Competencies typically do so at the applied level, while recognizing that, for some supporters of the Competencies, the specifics of the document matter far less than does their universal adoption and concomitant mandatory implementation. It seems to us that, on the applied level, when taken literally, the Competencies pose a potential threat to client well-being. It is only on the symbolic level that they may be considered somewhat benign.


Specifically, we think that mental health practitioners will need to resolve some or all of the following issues for themselves. First, we see the Competencies' greatest flaw as their preoccupation with perceived deficits in clients, the profession, and American society. To its credit, one of the primary distinctions between mental health counseling and clinical psychology is the former's focus on mental health as opposed to mental illness (Gerstein, 1993; Ginter, 1991; Ivey, 1989). Conducting a positive asset search (Ivey, 2003) with clients enables mental health counselors to assess clients' strengths and appropriately circumvent the deficit model. According to Ivey:

The practice of conducting positive asset searches may be extended beyond just their use with individuals. Conducting a positive asset search of the members of the American Mental Health Counseling Association would likely reveal a vibrant, diverse professional membership who often share a common purpose, but not necessarily common political views. A positive asset search of American society, at a minimum, would likely indicate that: (a) members of society generally abide by the rule of law laid out in the Constitution, (b) the Jeffersonian notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a largely attainable goal for a population of 300 million very diverse people, and (c) the United States is a magnet for immigrants from all over the world.

Second, mental health counselors must recognize that "while culture may influence behavior, it does not determine it exclusively" (Weinrach, 2003, p. 443). The preceding statement contradicts the underlying premise of the Competencies and, therefore, requires mental health counselors to reconcile two opposing points of view. Ivey and Ivey (1997), two of the most outspoken advocates for the universal adoption of the Competencies, have wisely admonished members of the profession to "never make an assumption about an individual based solely on cultural understandings. Treat each other first and foremost as an individual. But, never consider an individual out of social context" (p. 40).

Third, the authors of the Competencies tend to overemphasize the belief that mental illness is caused primarily by external societal forces such as racism and minimize intrapsychic causes. Arredondo and Perez (2003) have gone so far as to state that "in no way are intrapsychic approaches advocated" (p. 285). Yet the fact remains that mental health counselors are confronted everyday with clients experiencing mental illness or developmental struggles primarily as a function of intrapsychic processes.

Fourth, we fully expect that some well-intentioned and highly informed mental health counselors, even after considering our reservations above and elsewhere (Weinrach & Thomas, 2002), may support the universal adoption of the Competencies. We wish to caution these supporters, in particular, that no intervention, model, theory, or set of standards is risk-flee for the client. Mental health counselors must constantly assess the impact of the assumptions they are making and their corresponding interventions on the process and outcomes of each individual counseling relationship. Just because a behavior is rooted in culture does not make it functional and enhancing to self, others, and society at large (Thomas & Weinrach, 1999).

Fifth, we believe that, sometimes, following certain aspects of the Competencies makes perfect sense. There are clearly legitimate and well-conceived aspects of the Competencies. However, at no time should the Competencies be considered universal. On those occasions when one suspects that observing a provision of the Competencies could be harmful to a client, the practitioner should initiate a consultation with a colleague who has an expertise in professional ethics. We believe that morality always trumps cultural relativism. We consider it a higher order moral responsibility for mental health counselors to differentiate between what they believe is in a client's best interests and any standards, including but not limited to the Competencies, that have been created and imposed upon them by their professional association. The lesson of the Nuremberg Trials (Fest, 1970), where officers of the Third Reich were held accountable for blindly following their superiors' orders (and not making an independent moral decision), is one that all humanity must heed. Those who follow the Competencies as well as those who do not should be held accountable for their professional judgment. Mental health practitioners may be confronted with an ethical dilemma not unlike finding oneself at a broken traffic light when it is stalled on red. The decision to adhere to some or all of the Competencies should depend less on whether the professional association to which one is a member has adopted them than whether it makes good clinical sense.


We believe that the Competencies, created as a logical consequence of the 1960s civil rights movement, are often used as a litmus test of one's commitment to a non-racist society. Among other goals, they were intended to sensitize White mental health professionals to the unique cultural distinctiveness of male clients on the basis of membership in four visible minority groups. At the symbolic level, they have successfully brought to professional counselors' awareness the importance of attending to the diverse counseling needs of visible minorities. On the applied level, they have been a failure, as we see it. We would prefer to see their demise in order to foster the recognition that client needs should not be assumed to be based upon group membership alone, but rather on the unique constellation of individual client characteristics, including but not limited to cultural distinctiveness. Nonetheless, the Competencies should be remembered for what we see as their major contribution--a valiant symbolic, historically important plea for deserved recognition. The problems of race are different today than they were in 1982 when the first version was published (Sue et al., 1982). The remedies necessary to provide bias-free counseling need to be different as well.


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Stephen G. Weinrach, Ph.D., is a professor of counseling and human relations at Villanova University, Villanova, PA and a Fellow of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York and the National Career Development Association. E-mail: Kenneth R. Thomas, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Rehabilitation Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Authors' note: We are grateful to Mike Duckwitz, the program assistant in the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for his patience, tenacity, and technical expertise, on this, and numerous previous manuscripts, for enabling as to communicate electronically, despite different operating systems, word processing versions, incompatible email formats, temperamental fax machines, and our own limitations as technophiles. We also wish to express our appreciation to Bethany Coover and Jesse Clancy who provided important editorial support for our articles and others in this Special Feature.
that mental health counselors should look at all factors impacting
   a client's situation. Race may or may not be one of them. In
   general, race is not the real problem in the United States today.
   The significance that clients attach to it is the most important
   consideration. Individuals who perceive their race to be an
   impediment to achievement in life usually create for themselves a
   self-fulfilling prophecy. (p. 76)

The term guidelines refers to pronouncements, statements or
   declarations that suggest or recommend specific professional
   behavior, endeavors or conduct for psychologists (APA, 1992).
   Guidelines differ from standards in that standards are mandatory
   [italics added] and may be accompanied by an enforcement mechanism
   (APA, 2001) ... Guidelines are not intended to be mandatory or
   exhaustive and may not be applicable to every professional and
   clinical situation. They are not definitive and they are not
   intended to take precedence over the judgment of psychologists.
   (pp. 2-3)

The Ivey, Ivey, D'Andrea and Daniels article [1997] is among other
   things, pompous. They sound as if they were coming from on high,
   with periodic references to [Derald Wing] Sue as the
   one-who-knows-all, and any disagreement with them is to be
   dismissed. (p. 4)

Members of the counseling profession (especially those counselors
   who are part of the dominant cultural-racial group) do expose their
   own racist tendencies and help perpetuate the types of white
   supremacy that continue to be manifested in our profession when they
   repeatedly criticize the AMCD competencies and do not offer viable
   alternatives to the work that has been done in this area. (p. 28)

People grow from their strengths. The positive asset search is a
   useful method to ensure a more optimistic and directed interview.
   Rather than just ask about problems, the effective interviewer seeks
   constantly to find positive assets upon which the client can focus.
   Even in very complex issues, it is possible to find good things
   about the client and things that he or she does right. (p. 185)
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