chapter  4
Culture and Community-Based Work
Pages 3

There has been relatively more concern with culture among those who do community-based work. The idea that economically and politically disadvantaged communities are more culturally diverse, while incidentally valuable in stimulating interest in culture among those who work there, is based on a false and damaging premise. The premise is that people who are non-white are per se diverse. This idea arises from the cultural presumption (in the United States) that whiteness is not itself a multidimensional cultural and ethnic location. Whiteness, however it is defined, arrogates to itself the sense of being the “standard” or unremarkable baseline from which people “of color” (itself a false notion, since no one is literally white until they die, so everyone has color, and even white is a color) deviate. People who are not included in the category of “white” show up as ethnic or having a culture, while those who are classified as white show up as simply the norm. This way of thinking has a damaging effect, in that a norm automatically creates deviation, and deviation easily slides into deviance. When there is the normal norm, and the deviant “other,” the stage is set for denigration, dehumanization, and exploitation. The presumption of a norm and deviation from the norm shows up in the literature on culture in two major ways. The first is the discussion of various nonmainstream ethnic and cultural groups, and only nonmainstream ethnic and cultural groups, in terms of their cultural characteristics, without identifying the cultural vantage point from which the author is observing and characterizing. Clinicians, normally of middle class socioeconomic status, working in public clinics, commonly bemoan missed appointments or the lateness to appointments of their patients, who are likely to be of lower socioeconomic status and/or people “of color.” In the context of frustration and conflict, or bemusement, around timeliness, denigrating generalizations might be made about the sense of time in this or that ethnic or socioeconomic group. Rarely is it acknowledged that the middle class sense of time in the United States or Northern Europe, to which most therapists subscribe, can be seen as obsessively exact, sometimes at the expense of the human needs of the people concerned. The clinic itself is likely to be organized around the principle that time is money. The clinicians, if they did not already keep close track of time by virtue of culturally syntonic personality characteristics, are required to do so by administrative pressures to have high numbers of

billable visits. In this context, patients may be seen by clinicians as dysfunctionally oblivious to time, while patients may see clinicians as overly focused on time at the expense of responsiveness to their needs. Time, of course, has many levels of meaning. Promptness can convey, and be read as, respectful and caring, or as rigid and insensitive. Flexibility in time can be read, likewise, as responsive to the needs of the other, or as careless and inattentive. When there is polarization around these issues, people may retreat to culturally stereotypic generalizations about the other that posits a norm or a desirable way of considering time in relation to other factors, and dismisses the other as deviant. If, however, one considers that there is no “normal” way of dealing with time, only differences and similarities, the question in each case is how will two or more people come to an approach to time that works for both of them? How will they find common ground, or a negotiation of differences? What sense of time works in a particular circumstance? What are the pragmatic considerations? This approach takes the normalizing, judging, and assessing function out of the picture in favor of a pragmatic approach. Judgment instead of judging.