The Fork in the Road: Moving Beyond Cultural Competence and Towards Cultural Humility

Dr. Ashley White, We-Collab

June 6, 2017

At some point in time we all have been a part of a training or course focused on teaching us how to be culturally competent. Cultural competence suggests that one has the ability to understand, communicate effectively, interact, and be responsive to persons from cultures other than one’s own. Yet when we left that training did we really have the tools and knowledge to indeed be “competent” in someone else’s culture? For years, I’ve been grappling with the freedom in which we use the word cultural competence to suggest that we are in fact equipped to work with people and communities unlike our own. How do we know when we are truly culturally competent? Is it a certain level that we reach? A magical number of interactions with racial, ethnic, or socioeconomically diverse communities? Or is it simply quantified in the number of CEUs and college credits we have attained throughout the course of our careers. At what point does this competency give us the authority to speak and make decisions on behalf of the community?

As the nation has continually changed, we have come to recognize the need to incorporate health equity into every facet of our work. We’ve made great strides in community-based programming and creating messages that are culturally-tailored. Yet, the push for health equity not only requires a shift of language, programming tactics, and delivery, but it requires us as practitioners, researchers, community advocates, and policy makers to move away from the idea of competence to that of humility. Cultural competency suggests that one can act with a consummate knowledge of the values and beliefs of another culture. Although gaining knowledge and becoming aware of the differences among us is encouraged, this does not make one an expert nor does it give us the sole right to act on behalf of the community. However, the approach of cultural humility goes beyond the concept of cultural competence by recognizing that it is impossible to be completely knowledgeable about cultures other than one’s own and that cultures are not monolithic. Cultural humility operates within three dimensions: lifelong learning and critical self-reflection, recognizing and challenging power, and institutional accountability.

Cultural humility requires that we place the lens upon ourselves and be willing to accurately evaluate our limitations, recognize gaps in knowledge, and be open to innovative ideas and information. Cultural humility is a true commitment. It does not end at the completion of a course but is a lifelong practice of self-evaluation and self-critique within the context of our relationship with the community.

In our continued efforts to decrease health disparities, we must ensure that we are earnest and genuine in our efforts to learn about the communities in which we engage. When we enter communities under the disguise of cultural competence, without sincere appreciation, understanding and lacking cultural humility, we endanger the individuals and further exacerbate the effects of health disparities. As we approach this fork in the road we must make the decision to either continue our travels with only knowledge as the final destination or turn right and embark upon a continuous journey of self, culture, and humility.


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