Cultural Humility and Social Justice Interview with Dr. Sherry Wang and Liliana Ramos, LMFT, Director-at-Large

Sunday, October 09, 2022 5:35 PM | Anonymous

Fall 2022 Newsletter

I interviewed Dr. Sherry Wang, an associate professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University and a licensed counseling psychologist, who identifies as an Asian American cisgender woman and a feminist multicultural psychologist. 

As an anti-racist educator, Dr. Wang’s research is focused on working with and advocating for the voices and experiences of those who have been historically under represented and underserved; for the most part Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as sexual and gender diverse communities. Her research focuses on the need to address systems to improve the quality of life for the mental health and well-being of individuals when dealing with societal oppressions such as racism, sexism, and heterosexism. She trains clinicians in the field and consults with companies regarding anti-Asian racism and issues pertaining to diversity-equity and inclusion. She educates lawyers to be more trauma-informed, and facilitates spaces to talk about difficult topics such as race, power, privilege, and oppression.  She has given talks at corporations regarding race, privilege, quality of life, and burnout and her private practice focuses on people of Color and women. So far, she is primarily working with Asian American women so that her practice can be accessible

Dr. Wang often gets asked how can clinicians include social justice and advocacy into their clinical work? She said we already do it when our goals are to improve our clients’ lives.  On the topic of privilege and power, which have become "ugly" words for some, she says, “The truth is that power and privilege are not bad words. Everyone has power and privilege of some type. The question is what do we do with power and privilege in terms of sharing it with people whose voices cannot carry. Social justice and advocacy work begins with being able to recognize where we have power and privilege; being grateful for that power and privilege, and being aware of those who don’t have it and our role in that.”  She clarifies how a person can feel conflicted with having privilege and power, but what matters is how we deal with our internal conflict. She gives the example of a therapist who might decline to work with someone who is gay because of concerns surrounding competency. While that may be acceptable once or twice, if the therapist continuously says no without seeking further training, then the clinician needs to ask why they are choosing not to see clients in this demographic and why they are not seeking training to develop the competence to work with them. How are they using their power and privilege affecting their decisions to choose some clients and not others? Where are their blind spots? How are they improving themselves so that they can serve those clients that may need our field the most?

One power-sharing example from Dr. Wang’s lived experience is using her platform to speak up on anti-blackness and the need to dismantle anti-Black racism. She is aware that when she speaks up about this topic, the issue is taken much more seriously than if a Black person were to talk about anti-blackness. In this case, Dr. Wang has much more privilege and power to have her words be taken seriously.  Similarly, it would be so much more powerful for someone who is a man to speak up on issues of sexism and misogyny so that it is clear that sexism isn’t simply a “women’s problem.”  “It is so crucial for White clinicians to be able to name racism; for male clinicians to recognize the sexism within the therapeutic context, and to convey to clients that they are able to understand what it is like to have power and to use the power for those who do not.”  Dr. Wang conceptualizes this as a way of sharing power and privilege; and is similar to when a therapist writes a letter for a client to get access to hormone therapy or surgery.  As providers, it is not only our knowledge, but also our awareness that contributes to whether people are willing to sit with us to share their vulnerable, intimate information.  

Moreover, Dr. Wang reminds us how we all carry privilege and marginalization.  For example, a Latinx woman might be marginalized as a woman, but have privilege because of her education and lighter skin color. Or a man might have more privilege than a woman, but be marginalized in his experiences as a Person of Color. By speaking up with each other and for each other, we can advocate for all of us so that those who are marginalized never have to do the lonely work of having to speak for themselves. She goes on to offer that there is beauty in the community using their power to prevent suffering and helping each other with our needs since we are all marginalized in some way.  This is in line with Greene-Moton and Minkler (2019) calling readers to action in their paper on cultural humility by stating that inequitable power, privilege, and injustice affect the well-being of people. Thus, Dr. Wang says, “We can be more effective partners across a wide range of barriers and divides if we work collectively toward racial, social, and health equity. And the more just and habitable society and the planet will be, on which our work and our future depend.”

As we have all experienced in our field, we take one multicultural course and the message is we can work with anyone. This is not quite true. However, to say that we are not competent to work with a certain group of people is also an excuse. Dr. Wang states, “There are two extremes: one is someone who thinks that they’re competent when they’re not; and the other is when we keep referring clients out because we choose to lack the competence in serving select members of our society.”  Dr. Wang would like to challenge therapists to ask themselves why they keep referring clients of a certain demographic or identity background. We might not have competence, but we need to gain competence.  She goes on to say that “Our personal development is our professional development.”  When working with marginalized groups, “It is a duty for us to learn, as opposed to ‘it’s just something I don’t ever have to deal with’”.  According to Dr. Wang, we grow by challenging our assumptions, ourselves, and worldview. We also need to “challenge ourselves so we are doing more than surviving.” Thus, part of social justice and advocacy is also about having compassion for ourselves so that we can set a bar for ourselves and our clients to thrive, not just survive.

When asked what topics are close to her heart when it comes to social justice, Dr. Wang talked about how current events are important because they are what our clients need and address current social needs.  She talked about how everything is interrelated. Indeed, if people care about racial justice, then they care about climate change because of its disproportionate impact on People of Color and those who are at the lowest rungs of the socio-economic level.

A foundational piece to social justice is cultural humility, says Dr. Wang.  “Multicultural competency has the components of knowledge, awareness, and skills.” She describes the three components as follows:  knowledge about other groups; awareness of self; and skills in applying it to the client.  Dr. Wang states, “The piece that is missing is the process piece, which is cultural humility; knowing what you don’t know and how you approach that.”  We approach it from a place of humility because we will never understand the client’s “lived” experience.  To explain further, Dr. Wang gives the example of what happened at her first clinical encounter in graduate school when working in the correctional community. The client was an older, homeless, married, African-American man who identified as being Christian. He took one look at her and questioned her credibility and legitimacy to be able to understand any part of his life experiences. The advice she received from a supervisor, was to give herself the permission not to be defensive.  Instead of, “But I’m not what you think I am…” she was encouraged to think about the root of the pain and to focus instead on: “What can I do to earn your trust?” This is an example of cultural humility, which is part of practicing social justice. It is about validating other people’s worldview. Dr. Wang advises, “Even when your client may have more power and privilege than you, we, as clinicians will always have more power. Which is why it is crucial for us to help someone feel heard and validated in their worldview.” How do we do this? We can start by validating our client's appropriate distrust of us. We can recognize our need to have to earn our client’s trust, and to also share parts of our vulnerability—all of this being a part of our striving for social justice.  This is all the more crucial, according to Dr. Wang, if we look like the people who have harmed them or their ancestors. She mentioned the Tuskegee syphilis study that is still taught in counseling psychology classes as an unethical study conducted on African-Americans. With this in mind, it makes it our responsibility to gain our client's trust since we have the power and the privilege in the room even when we are feeling small.

When I asked Dr. Wang, how can social justice and cultural humility help the client in the therapy room, she spoke about how, when we listen to the client and understand their “lived” experience, it may be the one time the client feels heard, validated, and accepted.  As a feminist multi-cultural psychologist, she believes in appropriately sharing those aspects of her “lived” experiences to be able to bond with a client and grow in their journey together.

Finally, Dr. Wang wanted to leave the SCV-CAMFT community with two things. One piece is knowing how much power we hold as experts in the room. “We are experts, so what we say holds a lot.”  She reminds us to be mindful of our defensiveness: “It’s like being a parent. How do we hold our client gently and with compassion and with a sensitivity even when they are trying to rile us up …. We have the power to do harm. So how can we harness that power in ways that we can do a lot of good?”  The second piece is cultural humility: “I feel that it (power and privilege) is connected.” Similar to Dr. Wang’s message, Greene-Moton and Minkler (2019) describes cultural competence as striving to know more about communities and cultural humility as a mental health professional recognizing their own biases, stereotypes, and beliefs (pg. 4). Noting that everyone has some type of bias. So it is up to us clinicians to become culturally competent, notice, and work on our own biases to practice cultural humility with our clients. Cultural humility is a lifelong commitment and a gift of power and privilege that we can offer our clients and our communities.


Greene-Moton, E. and Minkler, M. (2019). Cultural Competence or Cultural Humility? Moving Beyond the Debate. Health Promotion Practice. 21(1): 142-145. doi. 10.1177/1524839919884912

Shaw, S. (2016, Dec). Practicing Cultural Humility. Counseling Today.

Sherry C. Wang is a licensed counseling psychologist practicing in Santa Clara. She is also an anti-racist educator, mental health media contributor, consultant, and professor at Santa Clara University’s Counseling Psychology Department. Her research is rooted in advocating for the voices of underrepresented groups (e.g., People of Color, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ populations). At the national level, she co-chairs the Asian American Psychological Association’s (AAPA) Division on Women (DOW). She previously chaired the American Psychological Association (APA) Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs and was also a member of APA's Committee on Psychology and AIDS, which has since been expanded and renamed as a committee on health disparities. Since the start of COVID-19, she has been featured, cited, and interviewed in the media on the topic of anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, and cross-racial coalition-building. She lives with her husband, her dog, and their twin girls.

Fall 2022 Newsletter


  • Tuesday, October 11, 2022 10:40 AM | Rowena Dodson
    Really excellent suggestions for how we can hold ourselves in the room with our clients, and what our responsibilities are to educate ourselves and do our own work. Thank you.
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