In the last few years there have been many efforts to start healing the wounds that continue to separate and alienate the different races and ethnic groups living in the United States. “Multiculturalism” and “diversity” have become buzzwords turning up in training titles, conference keynote addresses, organizational program names, and mission statements. Both nonprofit agencies and for-profit corporations are dealing with these issues, either of their own volition or due to outside pressures. More recently, the phrase “cultural competence” has begun showing up. Other terms used occasionally are “cultural knowledge,” “cultural awareness,” and “cultural sensitivity.” But what do all these words really mean?
Recently I was asked to help lead a cultural competence workshop. In particular, I was supposed to answer the question: What is cultural competence? So I did some research and was surprised to find that the term originated in the field of medicine. It may have appeared for the first time in 1989 in a book called Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care. It is defined as “a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals and enables that system, agency, or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.” It is a definite improvement over other “cultural” definitions. Cultural sensitivity is defined in Journey Towards Cultural Competency: Lessons Learned, a 1997 report from the Texas Department of Health, as “knowing that cultural differences as well as similarities exist, without assigning values, i.e., better or worse, right or wrong, to those cultural differences.” And Diane L. Adams, editor of the 1995 book Health Issues for Women of Color: A Cultural Diversity Perspective, defines cultural knowledge as “familiarization with selected cultural characteristics, history, values, belief systems and behaviors of the members of another ethnic group,” and cultural awareness as “developing sensitivity and understanding of another ethnic group.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with these concepts. Some of what they say is actually very important. We need to know that there are cultures other than ours; we should learn to withhold judgment about how these cultures diverge from ours; and, if we want to work in a “multicultural” setting, we ought to make an effort to get to know and understand other cultures. What bothers me, though, is not what these definitions express, but what they don’t.
For example, John Gray has argued that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and that if only “Martians” and “Venutians” understood each other better, gender problems would be solved. What Gray fails to include in his popular thesis is a recognition that Martians have much more access to power than Venutians and that the latter have for centuries lived in a system of oppression and violence created and sustained by the former.
Such a thesis is actually a very good metaphor. In the John Gray school of thought, European-Americans would be from Jupiter, Asian-Americans from Saturn, African-Americans from Neptune, Latin-Americans from Uranus, and Native Americans displaced to Pluto. If all of these extraterrestrials learned to understand each other better, it would no doubt lead to the end of the Star Wars series. But what ever happened to the “Evil Empire”? Has any of these planets tried to systematically dominate and exploit the others?
The answer to the last question seems obvious, and yet all the cultural definitions quoted above fail to mention a central fact: there is no level playing field. For better or worse, just as with gender relations, race and ethnic interactions cannot be understood without a critical analysis of the impact of oppression, privilege, and access to power. And this is where the problem lies.
Some educators, like Roberto Chené of New Mexico, have offered similar criticisms of the use of the words “multicultural” and “diversity.” These terms convey the idea of different cultures coming together, but they don’t make clear that one of the cultures has, over a long period of time, systematically dominated and exploited the others. The Men’s Resource Center, where most staff and board members are committed to addressing the issues of racism, has recently been having its own struggle with this nomenclature. Our Multicultural Organizational Development Committee has become an Anti-Racism Committee, in part to give it more focus and clarity and in part because of our recent awareness of the inadequacy of the term “multicultural.” But not everybody likes the new name. To some members of the MRC community it seems too negative. “Why does it have to be anti-something?” they ask. My answer is because we haven’t yet found the right affirmative term.
A good attempt at finding an appropriate name has been made by educators Bailey Jackson and Rita Hardiman. They see multiculturalism as a stage in the development of an institution in a continuum that starts with monoculturalism and ends with what they call “anti-racist multiculturalism.” It is a little long and a bit awkward, but certainly not ambiguous.
And ambiguity is the problem with the term “cultural competence.” When we use it, aren’t we sugarcoating the issue, finding ways not to deal with the hard part of the work? I’ve been at conferences about cross-racial relations where the word “racism” was never mentioned. I’ve had conversations with educators of color who were afraid to use the “R word” in their presentations because of fear of offending white participants or triggering strong feelings within them. I understand this hesitation. “Racism” has become an incredibly charged word, and white people are afraid of being personally labeled as racist. Other terms that work well include oppression, exploitation, domination, and privilege. And, to be fair, many of my colleagues are avoiding using the word “racism,” choosing to use these other terms instead. Some are also incorporating a clear analysis of oppression and privilege when they talk about cultural competence. But not everyone is, as evidenced from the definitions quoted above. And this is a mistake.
I am trying to steer clear of using the term “cultural competence” because it seems to mean different things to different people. Nevertheless, I like the idea of a term that conveys a fresh, positive approach to the issue of cross-cultural relationships and that emphasizes the importance of bridging the gap between the races. So, borrowing from my colleagues, I will propose my own cultural definition: “Cultural Solidarity.” It means the comprehension of the unique experiences of members from a different culture through awareness of one's own culture, empathic understanding of oppression and critical assessment of one's own privilege, resulting in the ability to effectively operate in different cultural contexts.
This article appeared in the fall 2000 of Voice Male, the magazine of the Men’s Resource Center of Western Massachusetts.
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Last modified 2004-10-17 07:43 PM