Hardly a week goes by without an article in the newspapers about racial profiling, usually in the context of some police officer hassling a citizen on the basis of assumptions made from their skin color, facial features, appearance, clothing, etc.

A case in point: A few months ago a Concordia University student was arrested after refusing to show identification to police officers. She had been sitting on a bench at 2 AM after leaving the library. She was wearing a “Palestinian” scarf with its characteristic design, and she had “Middle Eastern” facial features. She had committed no crime and there had been no crime committed in the neighborhood that might lead to the “We were looking for a suspect in a robbery” excuse.

We also hear a lot about racial profiling from people who believe that it should be used at airport security. Certainly if you’ve flown recently, the universal hassling of Paris Hilton lookalikes with their teddy-bear knapsacks, old men and women in wheelchairs, putting nine-year old kids through body scanners, etc., begins to show the rather insane side of treating everyone the same way. OTOH, there are those who might legitimately proffer that a clever terrorist would look anything other than a young Middle Eastern man!

But did you know that racial profiling has a schizophrenic side to it?

One of the hottest topics in Psychology and Psychiatry today is the need to adapt assessments and treatment methods to the characteristics and needs of the increasingly diverse population endemic to multicultural societies like those in Canada and the USA. Not only is profiling a good thing, it is now the expected standard for appropriately helping people in a health-care context!

Major hospitals in large urban areas have “Cross-cultural teams” that are capable of providing expertise to other health-care staff on treating people from various cultures. These “centers of excellence” will even provide services to health care professionals in other institutions and in more remote areas. Understanding the differences characteristic of certain cultures, and adapting methods to respond to those differences is the new standard of quality in health care. For example, it’s important to realize that when dealing with an Asian family in therapy, it is extremely unlikely that the kids will openly criticize the parents, even if the parents are central to the family conflict. The kids may need to be seen individually.

Ironic, huh? We are expected as humans to profile others in order to better help them, but are forbidden to do so in order to protect ourselves.