A Church-Based Approach to Ending Family Homelessness

Cultural Competence & Cultural Humility

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the phrase “cultural competence,” I can’t shake the feeling that the concept is a bit arrogant.  The idea of cultural competence is a great thing.  If I were routinely working with a group of individuals of a different culture than my own, I would want to learn everything I could possibly know about that culture so that I could understand and relate to these individuals as well as I possibly could.  But when I consider the notion that a social worker (or board member or mentor) should be “culturally competent,” my competing feelings are that the notion is at once both presumptuous and overwhelming.

Let’s start with a definition: Cultural Competence

  1. An ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, particularly in the context of human resources, non-profit organizations, and government agencies whose employees work with persons from different cultural/ethnic backgrounds. 
  2. Cultural competence comprises four components:
    1. Awareness of one’s own cultural worldview
    2. Attitude towards cultural differences
    3. Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews
    4. Cross-cultural skills
  3. Developing cultural competence results in an ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures.

There are many strengths in the above definition, strengths that will enhance our work and relationships with those of a different culture than our own.  But when I think about the variety of people and cultures that I have encountered in my work and personal life, I am overwhelmed at the prospect of learning the cultural values, practices and mores of each of these unique cultures, particularly if I encounter only one individual or family from a particular cultural experience and for a limited period of time.  Is it really even possible? How do I know when I’m competent enough?

Let’s suppose that I do develop a strong degree of competence in understanding and relating to people from a particular culture.  Now I can approach persons from that culture with skill and confidence.  Or can I?  There is an inherent risk in assuming that I know everything I need to know to relate effectively across cultural lines.  My knowledge could translate into assumptions about the individual based on a single culture alone.  But each individual will have unique experiences of their broader culture and unique subcultures of which they are apart – family, faith, economic, education, employment, etc.  My belief that I am competent in a certain culture could impede my sensitivity to the individual experience and expression of culture.

So what are we to do? 

Without tossing cultural competence to the curb, I invite you to consider and embrace the concept of “cultural humility.” This concept was born of the medical community as they sought to train medical professionals to provide care to people of all cultural backgrounds (I’m embarrassed to say it didn’t come from social workers).  Here’s a brief definition:

“The ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the [person]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_humility

This terrific video (see 7-minute version or 30-minute version) posits three principles of cultural humility.  They are as follows:

  • ž  Lifelong learning and critical self-reflection
  • ž  Recognizing and challenging power imbalances
  • ž  Institutional accountability

For me, the gift of “cultural humility” is that I no longer carry the burden of feeling that I have to know everything about every culture that I may encounter in my work.  Fear about not knowing enough doesn’t need to impact my confidence and approach to someone from another culture. Cultural humility also invites me to check my assumptions (sometimes an outgrowth of knowledge) at the door.   Rather, I can approach each relationship as a learner, open in my own spirit and inviting the individual to teach me.  Becoming a learner in a helping relationship might even level the power imbalance a bit, empowering the other to help me to understand the richness of her culture.  In becoming a learner, I can see the individual, setting aside assumptions about her culture in order to encounter her unique experience.  Even if I am encountering a culture that is completely unfamiliar to me, I may effectively enter into relationship by bringing a humble spirit, a self reflective posture, and a high value for the experience of other. 

So I ask you to consider, can we be culturally competent without being culturally humble?  Again, it might be arrogant to assume that we can.  But can we be culturally humble without being culturally competent?  We sure can.  And it might just be enough to form meaningful relationships/friendships across cultural divides.

Wendy Hoke Witmer
Director of Program Services
Bridge of Hope National