The Delicate Balance of Profiling & Ignoring Stereotypes

In the social work profession, the practice of cultural competence is largely talked about and desired in any practicing social worker. It is so sought after, that the National Association of Social Workers has Cultural Awareness listed in the Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibility to Clients section of the Code of Ethics. As it is spoken of in many freshmen-level courses, the goal of cultural awareness and competence is not color blindness, but to adequately and effectively use a client’s cultural practices and beliefs to find the best interventions and provide the most effective assistance. Being color blind would hinder the social worker from incorporating all aspects of an individual’s lifestyle for best practice.

In terms of statistics and research, many stereotypes emerge out of statistically significant data, whether it be positively or negatively impacting for a group of people. Too many times, however, people get it all wrong. We take the research and we twist it around to say that every individual in a group is more likely to adhere to behaviors, or conform to a statistic – And if they do not, it is because they are an irrelevant exception.

But this is not the statistic. The statistic is based on a sample of individuals – hopefully a representative sample based on the population the study wants to establish hypotheses about. There are a multitude of studies that have utilized varying sample sizes, time periods, demographics, etc., and many studies that time and time again have conflicting results. Research, something of which is wonderful for humanity, is more or less a double-edged sword. Because is it really reliable? How do we know for certain that a smaller portion of people is accurately measuring the larger group? The fact is, we do not know, but we try to be as accurate as possible to obtain the best results.

From this, we can distinguish a balance when working with individuals of backgrounds we are not familiar with. (Side Note: People tend to say diverse background here, but this is assuming the social worker is from a majority group and also does not conform to any differing or minority characteristics.)

Assuming that because a person from a particular nationality, religion, or race practices certain traditions or behaviors, is stereotyping. In order to wisely use statistics, it is best to put the individual first. Gather background information on the person prior to the automatic instinct of researching the client’s history based on face characteristics and checked boxes on paperwork. Get to know the person. I cannot tell you how many times, in my area, people have assumed I am Catholic just because I am a Christian. Not only is there a wide array of Christian denominations within Protestantism, but even within the denominations, people differ on minuscule details of beliefs and practices. To make your life and your client’s life easier, do not assume ANYTHING.

Now, it is good to have a general idea of what issues groups of people are statistically more vulnerable towards, and what advantages others have on the rest. This is necessary for macro-level change and widespread societal advancement. However, in terms of direct practice, every-day controversial news stories, and basic human decency, IGNORE THE STATISTICS. Because when you start applying those statistics to every person you see – who you assume fits into that category, you have turned useful research into discriminatory stereotypes.

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