Diversity and difference in communication
Diversity and difference in communication

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Diversity and difference in communication

3.11 Ethnic matching

As Robinson acknowledges, effective practice in inter-ethnic communication is fraught with difficulties and dilemmas. It has been suggested that communication may be assisted by appointing health and social care workers from the same ethnic background as patients and clients and that this promotes greater understanding between care providers and users (Papadopoulos et al., 1998). The next activity provides an opportunity to explore some of the issues surrounding ‘ethnic matching’.

An account of ethnic matching

[GL] So you are saying then really that management definitely have a view on ‘race’ and ethnicity? How would you describe this view?

[Participant] Their view is difficult to pin down and it always strikes me as being convenient because on that level they won’t challenge black workers because they don’t want to be seen as racist. But on another sort of level, a practice which is common where white workers feel or will say ‘I think this family needs a black worker’, but it is often convenient to get us to work with black families. The white workers can’t cope really in that case.

The contradiction is that for black workers they will be working with white families, very complicated cases because of the nature of the work and you get stuck sometimes, it gets difficult, because we can’t say we think this family needs a white worker. What I’m saying is that white workers when they are stuck use us as an excuse, their whiteness to get out of work, and then it is said to black workers ‘what it needs is a black worker’.

Now that is quite convenient for managers, because managers are white yeah?… And they often agree with the white worker, that this case, that they are not getting anywhere with them, yeah? Whereas if you have a black worker take it, somehow you are expected to be able to work with them …

White managers, white workers won’t acknowledge or are [not] even aware of these sorts of intrinsic sort of issues involved for black workers, professionalism and boundaries, how you negotiate relationships with black families when they see you as a befriending person, you are having to assert that you are a professional person and that it is a professional relationship.

(Source: Lewis, 2000, pp. 147–8)

Activity 10: Ethnic matching

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

The extract above is from an interview with a black social worker (participant) carried out by social policy researcher Gail Lewis (GL). As you read it, make notes on any problems that you identify with ‘ethnic matching’ as an approach.


You may have agreed with the suggestion that this approach assumes homogeneity within ethnic groups and does not take account of other differences such as gender, class, age and sexuality. In addition, religion may present challenges and complexities. Often the subtleties of religious beliefs are not recognised or indeed the fact that religious practices are not homogeneous. It could be argued that this ‘ethnic matching’ solution is based on a fact file’ approach to ethnicity that reinforces racial and religious stereotypes. Not only does it assume that individuals in particular ‘racial’, ethnic or religious groups have the same values and beliefs, but also it assumes that individuals of the same ethnic group give the same meanings and understandings to particular words and phrases. Thus communication difficulties’ are addressed purely by providing a worker of the same ethnic, religious or ‘racial’ background, and diversity is ignored.

Yasmin Gunaratnam, a writer and researcher on ‘race’ and ethnicity, challenges this assumption and claims it is important for people to reach a shared understanding even though they may be from different ‘racial’ or ethnic backgrounds, by taking the time to explore meanings through discussion and dialogue (Gunaratnam, 2003b). She further argues that the present literature on cross-cultural communication in health and social care focuses on the technical aspects of communication and hence takes attention away from the difficulty of dealing with the emotional pain of the client:

I would argue that technical preoccupations with meaning in cross-cultural encounters can serve as a defence against the anxiety of witnessing and holding emotional pain in health care interactions.

Gunaratnam, 2003b, p. 1 19

Perhaps you noticed that in this quotation Gunaratnam uses psychodynamic language. Psychodynamic writers on issues of ‘race’ and racism, such as Rustin (2000), argue that it is important to acknowledge the emotional component of cross-cultural encounters, and the ways in which racism can build on unconscious defences and anxieties.


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