Skip to main content

Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

The Impact of Difference

Natasha Aruliah, MEd

Reprinted from the "Culture" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (4), p 5

It is a pleasure and great honour to be guest editor for this culture-themed issue of Visions. In both my professional and personal life I have found that culture has profound impacts on people’s lives, and yet—like breathing and the air itself—it’s so often invisible and unconscious to us. Skimming through this Visions, you might wonder why it claims to focus on ‘culture’ when there are so many articles on diverse topics such as youth, indigenous people, men and the influence of pop culture and media. Well, this issue embraces a broad definition of culture, which recognizes that cultural groups are not limited to just racial, ethnic or religious groups.

Most definitions of culture state that cultures are shared by a group of people and define the group’s values and beliefs, ways to behave and how they organize themselves. Culture is said to be passed on between members of the group, learned and reinforced by them. It is always changing, rather than being fixed or rigid.

This broader definition includes many groups other than ethnic, racial and religious groups; groups with other commonalities such as gender, sexual orientation, regional, generational, professional or class identities. Examples include working-class, East coast, business, health-care, hip-hop or youth cultures.

This broader definition also means that we all belong to more than one cultural group. For example, I could be viewed as Sri Lankan, but I am also a woman and at times it is that ‘gender culture’ and identity that might inform my experience and behaviour in a given moment and not my Sri Lankan culture. At other times it may be my professional culture and identity that is more relevant, or my generational/age culture and identity. Additionally, each of these identities can be viewed and experienced individually (i.e. something in common with all women) or can intersect with other identities. For example, being a South Asian woman has a specific experience that is different to being a South Asian man or being a white woman.

Unconscious bias

Culture is mainly unconscious. We are born into or choose to belong to certain groups, and therefore learn how to behave as members of those groups, but this can happen in very subtle ways. Behaviours are taught by example, and we are instructed both overtly and covertly as to how to behave and what is acceptable or not within the group. How and what is considered rude behaviour can be explicitly told to us—“don’t talk with your mouth full,” “don’t spit”—or implicitly by stern looks from parents or others when you do something they don’t approve of without naming the ‘bad,’ unacceptable behaviour.

Thinking about this and its implication in mental health, most cultures communicate to members that mental illness is a taboo subject, not to be talked about publically, but in private, behind closed doors, in hushed voices—that somehow being mentally ill is shameful and wrong. And while we all know these ‘rules’ of our culture, did anyone explicitly tell us this was the rule?

In teaching behaviour it is implied that everyone would recognize a specific behaviour as the ‘right’ behaviour. This is often at the root of stereotyping and bias and has huge potential for miscommunication. Based on our learned cultural values and beliefs, which we think are universal, we evaluate and judge others—usually unconsciously—when they behave differently. However, what is right or wrong behaviour to one group or culture is not necessarily right or wrong to all. Being loud or emotionally expressive, for example, might be rude for some groups/cultures and not for others.

Additionally, failure to recognize that many people have complex and multi-layered cultural identities also contributes to bias. Using my example as a middle-class, educated, UK born, Sri Lankan, immigrant woman, I am often treated based on stereotypes of South Asian women. Assumptions are made about how ‘traditional’ I am; how little autonomy I have as a woman, having an arranged, loveless marriage; I even get comments on how good my English is and so on. These assumptions about me fail to recognize that even in my racial identity, not all South Asians are the same and that there is great diversity within ‘brownness.’

As practitioners and service providers, we all hold some degree of unconscious bias, which can impact our behaviour.1 Research has demonstrated that when we have high levels of unconscious bias, the more likely it will influence our behaviour. For example, emergency room doctors who held high levels of unconscious bias were less likely to provide life-saving treatments to African American patients than white patients, despite believing that they treated everyone equally.1 In Canada, we only have to consider the experience of our indigenous people, or people who are addicted, mentally ill or homeless to see how bias can impact services. The research also demonstrated that, while we all have unconscious bias, we have the ability to reduce our bias and therefore change our behaviour.

Why is it worth focusing an issue on broadly defined culture?

There are a couple of compelling reasons for me. Thinking about culture in this broader way moves us from seeing cultural groups as just ethnic or religious groups and recognizes we all belong to numerous groups, which all influence our behaviour and worldviews. It allows us to introduce notions of belonging and identity and recognize that in belonging to many groups and cultures we have rich and complex stories and identities that shouldn’t be reduced into one piece that is visible, assumed or stereotyped. When parts of who we are and how we are identified are denied or devalued in society it has potential impacts on our sense of belonging, self-esteem and potentially on our mental well-being.

Also a broader definition raises awareness and questions about power and influence. Our cultural identities, however complex, are also connected to power and access. Some groups and cultures hold power and influence, and others do not, which can also impact our sense of belonging and our self-esteem.

Defining wellness

In recognizing the pervasiveness of cultural/group values, it stands to reason that definitions of wellness and health are culturally-based. When we think about notions of ‘deviant’ and ‘abnormal’ behaviour as possibly being expressions of culture values and ways of being, then the question of health and wellness can be challenged. Who gets to define wellness becomes an important question. Are we approaching health and wellness from a limited mono-cultural view that excludes other perspectives?

The dominant cultures are the ones with power and influence, so they get to define (based on their own cultural values) what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ behaviour. For example, in a male-dominated society, women tend to be labelled based on ‘male cultural norms.’ An obvious example is the cultural differences between how men and women experience and express emotions. In general, regardless of ethnic or other cultural identities, men are socialized to be less emotionally open and expressive than women and are the dominant group, allowing them to set the norms and standards, and thus we see women labelled ‘hysterical’ or ‘overly emotional.’

When we, both as cultural group members and as practitioners, think about health and well-being, our unconsciousness about our own cultural worldviews can lead to misdiagnosis and labelling. If our culture tells us how to behave, then those who don’t behave the way our cultural group defines as the ‘right’ way run the risk of being labelled as ‘bad,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘deviant’ or ‘abnormal.’ The non-dominant or marginalized groups, whose ways of being are merely different, are often labelled as deviant or wrong.

Although culture tends to be unconscious and yet has huge influence over our behaviours, the fact that culture is always changing and that individuals and groups can change is important. As we learn more and raise awareness we are transforming ourselves, our organizations and our society. In particular, recognizing and learning how our cultures influence us, about different cultural groups and their perspectives, and the power and influences of dominant groups helps us move from providing services based on dominant-group values to more inclusive and appropriate service provision for all.

So, as you read through this issue, my question and challenge for all of us is to reflect on whose cultures and values are being reflected, whose voices are being muted, and what the impact of that is. How can we provide appropriate interventions and services in all this diversity? There is so much more to say on this subject—it is, after all, just the tip of the iceberg. But I hope this Visions stimulates you and provides food for thought and action.

About the author

Natasha is a Psychologist, in intercultural, couples and family therapy. She has worked with international students, immigrants, refugees, youth, aboriginal people and people of colour in a variety of settings in Canada and Britain. Currently, she is an independent consultant in diversity, equity and social justice. She facilitates courses in the UBC Certificate in Intercultural Studies, delivers courses at the Justice Institute of BC, and is a guest lecturer at the Vancouver Art Therapy Institute

  1. Carpenter, S. (2008). Buried prejudice: The bigot in your brain. Scientific American Mind, Apr/May, 33-39.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our various e-newsletters featuring mental health and substance use resources.