Cultural Competence: What’s the Point?

Originally posted on Dr. Malouf’s LinkedIn page on May 1, 2015

On the heels of a week of protesting in Baltimore city following the death of Freddie Gray (and over 100 police brutality lawsuits since 2011 and decades of racial disparities), I had a reaction to a friend’s friend’s Facebook comment about cultural competence.  Since, I didn’t know that person and typically don’t find semi-anonymous social networking forums the best ways to engage in emotionally charged conversations, I vented to my friends and several of them asked me to share it (see italics below for my initial FB post).

I was frustrated at this person’s comment in part because it was something I hear a lot (often during cultural competence trainings) and seem to never be able to address enough… the belief that “cultural competence” is just some trendy idea that is secretly political correctness, repackaged, and therefore not worth learning about.  In my experience, comments like these have typically been uninformed, have often been dismissive, have never been followed by an alternative proposal for improving interactions between people and usually completely miss the point of cultural competence. And yes, I get it… we’re all jaded from sitting through ineffective “diversity trainings,” and being sensitive to others when you’re already burnt out is challenging, and acknowledging our own privilege/lack of privilege isn’t always comfortable… but that doesn’t mean cultural competence should be thrown out with the proverbial “diversity initiative” bathwater. To help folks understand that the following aren’t interchangeable…

“Political correctness” = you don’t change your views about some other group of people, you just learn when and where not to say them and what people might disagree with you if you say them out loud. The goal is for people to like you for not being biased.

“Appreciating diversity” and “diversity training” = you may or may not change your views about some other group of people but you learn lots of facts about the group in general and ways to interact with them. The goal is for you to like yourself for not being biased.

“Cultural competence” = you change your views about YOURSELF and acknowledge the ways your own culture might impact what you currently know about other cultures, and, more importantly, what you’re going to come to know about other cultures in the future and how you’re going to interact with other individuals irrespective of their culture. The goal is to interact better with people who aren’t like you because you acknowledge your biases… regardless of whether others like you, you like them or you like yourself.