Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Lifelong Quest for Humble Competence and Competent Humility

I have been involved in anti-racism, anti-oppression, multi-cultural work for a while now.  In that time I have learned a lot about the history of our country that has been supressed and denied in the mainstream, both intentionally and unconsciously.  I have learned much about white privilege and the ways that it has created a pervasive system of racial oppression, which takes discussions of racism beyond the more observable acts of racial animous by mean-spirited people to a recognition of racism as "part of the air we breathe."  I have learned a lot about what it means to be a white person in a society that has made "white" synonymous with "human" so as to perpetually keep people of color in a state of otherness.  (This includes, but most certainly isn't limited to, learning about some of the ways I have benefited from these systems of oppression, and some of the ways that I continue to support them even as I, consciously, strive to dismantle them.)  

It is important to note that what I now claim to have learned are "learnings" only because of all that I didn't know before.  People of color have always known this stuff.  When I am shocked and surprised by some new revelation, it is "new" only to me -- whereas for me it is a revelation of a reality beyond my own lived experience, for people of color it is a daily lived experience.  (As the sign in the image above says, "It is a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life!!!")  It is only because of the willingness, the courage, the compassion, the anger, the desperation, the hope, the need that has led people of color to share, to shout, their reality to people like me (e.g., White) that I can now say with the poet E. E. Cummings, "now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened."    And, of course, I still have a long way to go.  My eyes and ears close again, and I go back to sleep, so easily.

In all of this work there is a phrase that I have heard many times:  Cultural Competency.  It's often put forward as a goal, an ideal to strive for.  In a nutshell, the idea of cultural competency is that people in the dominant culture must to learn to be competent in their dealings with people from minority cultures.  This is because whites, or cis-males, or heterosexuals, or any other dominant identity swim in the water of our own culture so unconsciously that, like fish, we're not even aware of the water.  To us, in other words, our culture isn't a "culture" it's simply "the way things are."  If we want to deal sensitively and respectfully with people of other cultures, then, we need to be able to see them for who and how they are, rather than interacting with them as though our norms and assumptions are their norms and assumptions as well. 

This morning I was introduced to a new phrase that, as sometimes happens (if we're lucky), really deepend my understandings.  In 1998 two doctors in California coined the term "cultural humily" in their paper, "Cultural Humility versus Cultural Competence:  A Critical Distinction in Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural  Education."  In its article on cultural humility, Wikipedia summarizes the distinction that Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jan Murray-Garciá in this way:
"Cultural humility was born out of the medical field for medical educators looking for a new way to frame multicultural understanding for new health care professionals.  It was introduced as an alternative to cultural competence, which has many negative connotations.  Competence assumes that one can learn or know enough, that cultures are monolithic, and that one can actually reach a full understanding of a culture to which they do not belong.  Cultural humility can also be associated with cultural sensitivity, which encourages individuals to be thoughtful when considering culture.  However, sensitivity does not touch on the necessity of learning, reflections, or growth.
The Wikipedia article continue (drawing on the work of Lisa Asbil):
Cultural humility incorprates a consistent commitement to learning and reflection, but also an understanding of power dynamics and one's own role in society.  It is based on the diea of mutually beneficial relationships rather than one person educating or aiding another in an attempt to minimize the power imbalances in client-professional relationships.  There are three main components to cultural humility:  lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, fix power imbalances, and develop partnership with people and groups who advocate for others.
I am commited to such on-going learning and reflection, to keeping "the eyes of my eyes and the ears of my ears" (and most importantly, my heart) open.  I will no doubt make mistakes -- lots of them -- as I find myself tripping anew over that "invisible backpace."  This is why Drs. Tervalon and Murray-Garciá's concept of cultural humility appeals to me so much.  Once again, people of color have shown me a new way of understanding what is needed of me, as a white person, if I am really serious about dismantling racism.  I cannot express my gratitude.  But I can express my commitment to doing my part and encouraging others to do this hard yet oh so important work.  As the song has it, "We'll get there.  Heaven knows how we will get there.  But we know we will."

Pax tecum,


A Note About the Video:  Woyaya was written by Ghanian drummer Sol Amarifio, and is the title song of a 1971 album by Oisibisa, a musical group of Ghanian and Caribbean musicians.  It was frequently heard in work camps throughout central West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.  "Woyaya," like many other African scat syllables, can have many meanings.  According to the song's composer, it means, "We Are Going."  (from the information provided about the songs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Journey.)

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