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Moving Beyond Cultural Competency

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

Cultural competence became a buzzword for trying to address equity issues in the 90s and early 2000s, whether they were looking to improve team dynamics among employees, or training staff how to serve diverse clients. In some fields, particularly in healthcare and law enforcement, this is still a standard approach to topics on "diversity and inclusion."

Cultural competence is the ability of individuals to respond with awareness and respect to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors.

In theory, this sounds wonderful. People should be taught to value the worth of individuals and communities and recognize and celebrate their differences. However, there is an inherent assumption within cultural competency that people and cultures can be boiled down into a memorizable list of values, beliefs, and behaviors. This is problematic, since:

1. Culture is not static. It is constantly evolving just like us.

2. People do not fit in such simple boxes. We have multiple, intersectional aspects of our identity.

3. There are way too many cultural cues to identify and memorize. It would be an overwhelming and impossible task to ask any one individual to know everything about how to approach another specific individual based on their preferred cultural norms.

And then, of course, there's the lingering question of how to assess this as a competency. Even assuming cultural competency were possible, how would you know you are doing it right or improving?

Read more articles like this on our publication Transformative Readership


During the decade I spent working with and in refugee and immigrant communities, I was frequently asked for "cheat sheets" by well-meaning providers looking for answers in how to approach unfamiliar communities. They wanted simple, bulleted lists that would outline what they needed to know about specific groups so as not to offend them. I had to patiently and candidly reply that there was no such thing; that no list would ever be complete and that even with some kind of resource like it, it wouldn't work the way they hoped.

Certainly, some degree of anecdotes can be helpful to start a dialogue with people about how often we misunderstand one another. For example, I had some success working with police officers and teachers when explaining that in many Somali communities, particularly when being disciplined or scolded, it is customary to lower your eyes to indicate respect and to intentionally not meet the"person of authority's" eyes. This came as a shock to those providers who believed looking away indicated lying or disrespect.

The challenge is that this information is limited in app