I am not an Object or a Commodity. I’m a Person.

by Ryn Farmer, Community Organizer, Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC) 

I have really been soul-searching over the last few years about what it means to be culturally competent. It is a term widely used in the social work field and has also gained a lot of traction in the medical field over the past few decades. I think it is something we need to really think about because we all come from such different experiences and ways of living. The idea behind “cultural competency” stems from the desire to respond respectfully across cultures and provide sensitive, holistic care to clients. It is about educating ourselves, before we meet people, about their culture so that we can respond thoughtfully and effectively. All of that sounds great, right? But for some reason this phrase has never really resonated with me.  

Before I talk more about cultural competency, I want to make sure we are defining culture the same way. So as a basis for my thoughts, I’m defining culture as our traditions, norms, customs and beliefs in relation to gender, age, race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion, language, etc. We operate from our core beliefs – both the internal and external elements that influence our life – and that affects (but does not determine) the way we think, how we behave and what we believe. 

The phrase “cultural competency” indicates to me that we can arrive at something, that there is an ending point. That seems rather presumptuous because I know I could never be fully culturally competent. Of course, the philosophical underpinnings of cultural competency are good and desirable, and it is definitely a starting point. Many individuals won’t even begin a conversation about race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing or because they have no idea what to say at all. We keep quiet because we are afraid of offending, or we decide to speak up and sound like a blundering idiot. So what is the answer? Don’t say anything at all and keep living in a world where deep injustice exists and too afraid to do anything? Speak from our limited knowledge and interactions with people and end up saying something foolish? Maybe there is another way… What if we approached culture in a slightly different manner? What if, instead of guiding our approach with the notion of “competence,” we approached with humility?  

The idea of cultural humility is much more meaningful to me than cultural competency. In cultural humility, I can come from a place of learning rather than of expertise… a place of openness and of asking questions to better understand where someone is coming from, rather than assuming I already know them.  

Dr. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia have produced significant and meaningful information about cultural humility and describe it as a “life-long process of self-reflection and self-critique.” Self-awareness and reflection are the main ideas behind it, but there are other factors that come to play as well. It also involves recognizing and seeking to change power imbalances that exist in our communities and developing institutional accountability so that as institutions we are responding sensitively to the needs of people. For me, the notion of cultural humility takes away the idea that each culture has a set of rules that everyone follows. I think if we hold to the cultural competency way of thinking, then our interactions with people are limited to what we think are the beliefs and ways of living that exist in their “rulebook”.  

I was at a meeting recently and one of the women at my table started speaking about how she wished we would quit viewing each other as objects and commodities but rather view each other as people. She talked about how we need to focus more on building relationships with each other first rather than focusing on yet another task to get done. We often assume we know each other because we run in similar circles or go to multiple meetings with the same people. But we don’t. We have only scratched the surface. So my friend was saying we need to take time to actually know each other. At the end of the meeting, my friend who said she didn’t want to be an object anymore was asked to lead a group. The person asking her said, “Because we need some color on our leadership team. And you’ve got color!” [Insert deep sigh of frustration and anger]. We have so far to go in being sensitive, in stopping to think about what we say before we say it and in truly looking at someone as a person. We must ask questions to really understand who someone is and not assume we know them because we have one gay friend, or one African American friend, or one Jewish friend. 

If we really want to understand each other and start collaborating more together, we cannot paint a picture of any culture with a broad stroke of our brush. To do so would be foolish and circumscribed. So rather than viewing the individuals in our life as a token-something-or-other, why not actually view them as people? View them as someone with strengths to be discovered, and value them for what they can bring to the proverbial ‘table’ of life. Ask meaningful and engaging questions while coming from a place of appropriate inquisitiveness and openness. And before we do any of that, let’s start by seeking to discover our own beliefs and assumptions, and challenging ourselves in the idea that our values should be held above others.  

We need to come from a place of learning. Of humility. And we need to never feel like we have arrived. Because when we believe we understand an individual because we think we understand their culture, we lose sight of the uniqueness of who they are and the gifts they can offer. Of course, there has to be grace and patience wrapped up in this whole process. I am so incredibly thankful for all of my friends who have poured out both of those things on me over the years as I struggle to better understand them. But I hope that if I, and others, come from a place of listening, of love, of reflection and of acceptance, we can accomplish a great deal more living in community together in this messy, beautiful and diverse world.  

If you are interested in learning more about cultural humility, you can watch this 30 minute documentary produced by Vivian Chavez, an Associate Professor at San Francisco State.  Also, my friend Jody Fernando has compiled incredibly thoughtful reflections from her blog Between Worlds into a book called Pondering Privilege: Toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith 

ryn farmerThis Week’s Act Locally Waco Blog post is by Ryn Farmer. Ryn is a Community Organizer at the Waco Community Development Corporation (Waco CDC). Waco CDC helps to inspire and cultivate healthy neighborhoods. They consider a healthy neighborhood to be one that is safe, clean, and diverse; one in which it makes economic sense for people to invest and one where neighbors manage change successfully. If you would be interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco blog, please send an email expressing your interest to [email protected].




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