Multicultural social work education is critical to develop an understanding of how social constructs impact the way that clients identify themselves, and the meaning they attribute to that identification. My experience in Costa Rica thus far has inspired many new interests and questions about the diversity of the global community. For instance, I thought it was very interesting that in Costa Rica, Ticos have asked me on three different occasions whether or not I was also a “gringa” or “estadounidense” (a U.S. citizen) like my classmates because I clearly have African descendants (I’m African American). Initially I found this question strange because in the United States, it is usually assumed without a doubt that I am African American. However, I realized that perceptions of my racial identity were different in Costa Rica due to the fact that many people living in Central America who have African-descendents are assumed to be Afrocaribeños (from the Caribbean with roots that trace to Jamaica) or Afro-Latinos, having una mezcla (a mix) of African and Latino roots. Resulting question: How does identification based on where one is situated geographically reinforce the idea that race is indeed a social construct?
Reflecting on racial identities in Costa Rica reminded me of a concept that I learned in my Theories for Family Systems Therapy class at GSSW on how therapists must differentiate between cultural factors and cultural implications. A cultural factor is, for example, demographic information a therapist may make note of during an intake session with a client that may or may not be relevant to the client’s presenting problem (i.e. race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality). A cultural implication, however, is drawn when one of those cultural factors does indeed influence the client’s presenting problem. For example, a clinical social worker’s client may be experiencing stress due to having experienced racial discrimination in the workplace. In Costa Rica I realized that I know very little about Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean history or culture at the moment. Resulting question: If I am completely unaware of the existence of a cultural identity due to limited education and exposure to that identity in my upbringing, how could I possibly draw accurate, relevant cultural implications for a person of said identity?
I find that although U.S. inhabitants represent a variety of ethnicities, certain homogenous regions within the U.S. provide little opportunity for exposure to such diversity. For instance, I grew up in Five Points/Whittier, a historically African American neighborhood in Denver. Although my community was well represented by people of color and also enriched with appreciation for African American culture, I realize now that I was not exposed to Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean culture in my community. There appears to be a great cultural divide between the diaspora of Black people. This is where history, critical race praxis, and identity intersect. Being exposed to different types of African identities in Costa Rica has given me such hunger to learn more about how our identities differ and relate; we share African roots but we may speak different languages or have completely different customs. Resulting Question: As a social worker who is African American, what can I do in my practice to ensure that the divide in the African diaspora does not cause me to inappropriately over/under-identify with clients who also have African roots?