Cultural Competency

February 28, 2018

The National Association of Social Work charges those who wish to demonstrate cultural competency to do the following (paraphrased):

  • Understand how culture interacts with people’s behavior and the general society while recognizing that strengths exist in all cultures.
  • Have a knowledge base of others’ cultures and demonstrate an ability to provide support that is sensitive to others’ cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups.
  • Get educated about social diversity and oppression around race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical disability.

How do I Know if I am Culturally Competent?

It’s hard to admit to not being culturally competent, either as an organization or an individual. This may be because of the guilt and shame we experience for not having figured out how to talk about race, culture, and identity, which can sometimes feel like heavy topics. We want to do it right, but we don’t always know how. And sometimes, the fear of messing up can lead us to not try at all. I want to offer a different way of moving toward being culturally competent.

Steps Towards Cultural Competency

Our society attaches privilege and higher value to some identities over others. Often, at first, we go along with that system. Some of us who are hurt by that system, necessarily question it sooner than those who are helped by the system – it’s the way we learn to love ourselves.  Some of those who receive privilege also question the system when they notice injustice. They may even move past questioning into the work of changing it.

I believe cultural competence, and the journey toward it, is a series of steps an individual makes every day towards creating balance in an unbalanced system. I don’t believe that anyone can say they have figured it out. I do believe we can always be moving closer toward it.

My journey towards cultural competency was recently impacted by a workshop called “What About Race?” by Vernon Coulon at the Center for Holistic Therapies. I learned that it is possible to over-empathize with my clients. I might approach a session with a client from a place of “we,” and focus the session on what the client and I have in common, rather than focusing on the client as an individual. I may forget the differences between us and absorb the client into how I understand them based on my experiences of the identity we share, rather than understanding them as they are – separate from me.

Therefore, as a Black person who works predominately with other Black folks, I still have room to grow when it comes to cultural competency. That being said, I have learned a few things over the years, whether from others or my own experiences and I’d love to share some of those things with y’all today.

Why is Cultural Competence Important?

The obvious answer is because some people are unfairly judged and mistreated based on their identities and they don’t deserve that. I would like to offer another answer, but I think that one should be enough.

Having an imbalanced system means that some people’s mistreatment is directly linked to another’s privilege. An analogy for understanding this might be how much “space” people take up in important conversations. Mistreated people have been told that their voice does not deserve to be heard. Privileged people are told that what they have to say matters. In order for mistreated people to have the opportunity to finally speak up for themselves, privileged people will have to say less to leave “space” for mistreated folks to join in the conversation.

Right now, certain identities and experiences are treated as normal – white, heterosexual, cisgender, etc. Because of this, these experiences are what we expect for everyone to have and we structure our world around them. For example, imagine a speaker in front of a crowd. They don’t want to use a microphone. They think their voice is loud enough to be heard without one. In that moment, those that can hear the speaker without the microphone are seen as normal, and anyone who would not hear the speaker without the microphone, is excluded from the experience.

This is an involuntary transfer of power from the person who wanted to hear the speaker and cannot without the microphone, to the speaker who did not want to be inconvenienced and so they assumed something about everyone else in the room. Cultural competence requires people to not assume anything about anyone else. It requires people to remember that someone in the room may be different from them and that difference can be a good thing. And it also requires people to reject the pattern of their own convenience coming at the cost of others’ well-being.

What Does Cultural Competence Look Like in the Day-to-Day?

Cultural competence is a daily practice of shifting the imbalances to create space for identities and experiences that are systemically erased. You can do it by withholding your assumptions and taking people as they are. You can do it by correcting those around you who are forcing their perspective onto others’ realities. You can do it by looking for what is strong in the differences that you see in others.

One way to work toward cultural competency is to check your surroundings. Consider the incomes, races, bodies, and connectedness of the people around you. Who’s there? Who’s not? Which identities and experiences are represented and which are absent? Of those around you, who has identity-based power? How are they using that power? Who is made smaller because of their identities? How does that impact them?

As you are noticing these things, look for how you can encourage those with power to share the space. Look for assumptions that are being made about what is normal and point them out to the people around you. Look for ways to support those without power being heard – the way that they want to be heard.

That last piece is essential. Cultural competency cannot come from a place of pity or saviorhood. It must come with the knowledge that the traits our society looks down on are often a source of strength. It must come with the knowledge that when you work toward cultural competency, you are doing your duty to yourself, not a favor to anyone else.

What if I Mess it Up?

Of course, you will! But it’s OK! You are human and you are reprograming yourself after years of absorbing toxic cultural norms. It is key that you don’t become defensive or give up. If you notice you’ve made a mistake, correct yourself quickly, and move on and try to not make the same mistake again.

If you let guilt overwhelm you, you may give up. Remind yourself that this is a journey. It is not a class you can attend to become certified. Rather, it is an ongoing process of humbling yourself, learning from others, and trying to apply what you learn to your everyday life.

Find people with similar goals. Challenge yourself to learn new things. Look for articles, listen to podcasts, and watch documentaries that are created by the people who are most impacted by injustice. Listen closely. Listen closely. Listen closely to folks who are oppressed if they are willing to talk with you. Learn from your mistakes. Consider your journey toward cultural competency an investment in yourself, personally and professionally. You can do this.

The following articles may be helpful in your journey toward cultural competency:

About the Author

CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.

CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.

CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.