The problem with cultural competency

I have been an anti-racist activist and trainer for over 20 years. I am a white woman. Anti-racism training has been around much longer than I, and yet, we have made incomplete progress. We have bandied around terms over the years including "multicultural" and "diversity" as substitutes or alternatives for anti-racism training. A more recent favorite is "cultural competency."

Cultural competency has its place. In health services, for example, it may be very practical and efficient to offer cultural competency training to providers so that they can offer more effective healthcare to their immigrant/refugee patients. Service providers who are struggling to deal with clients of various cultures that are different than their own may need information based on culturally different approaches to healthcare. Cultural competency makes sense in certain situations. It is not, however, appropriate in all situations.

Two recent experiences remind me of the disconnect between the problem of our racism in society and the ill-fitting response of "cultural competency." In a news article about racism on campus last week (AP 4/3/15), the University of Maryland is reportedly challenging a racist climate with cultural competency programs. More locally, I recently attended a conference paper session about creating a diversity task force. This was a presentation about how a community responded to racism in local schools by creating a task force. We heard about troubling incidents in the community as well as how the author and his colleagues responded. At one point, the author, an Asian-American man, told stories about students being accused of flashing gang signs, being called names, and other examples of a hostile climate. He also told a story about how he is always asked to "bring the eggrolls" when a community gathering takes place. He told us the task force was urging the school system to engage in cultural competency training. My question was/is this: How will cultural competency stop the racial stereotyping he/others experienced? It won’t. What the community needs is anti-racism training. So why is cultural competency the goal? I contend it is because "cultural competency" is more palatable to white folks than anti-racism training. Unfortunately, it won't solve the problems.

We live in a diverse society that still struggles with daily practices of racism and bias. Systemic racism persists because privilege and oppression are built into the social institutions of our society. Education teaches a curriculum of white dominance. The banking industry offers loans in a disparate fashion based on race, geography and class. If the issue of micro-aggressions in a racialized society are central, then cultural competency will fall short. If I understand Hmong or Somali culture, am I less likely to be biased against Hmong and Somali people? I am not so sure. Could I use my cultural knowledge to further target this group? It is even more problematic to try to end bias against Blacks or Latinos through cultural competency. What is Black culture or Latino culture? There is no monolithic or homogenous Black culture. There is no one Latino culture. How would one learn to be culturally competent with Asian-Americans? If one is referring to cultural ancestry, the answer is there is not one Asian culture. There are many Asian (and Latino or Black) cultures—they are not all the same. If one is speaking of American culture, one could argue there are many more similarities than differences (most of us value family, education and social mobility). Knowing someone's culture will not stop stereotyping based on racialization—the belief that all Asians are good at math and eat eggrolls, or that all Latinos take siestas and eat tacos, or that African Americans are in gangs, rap and love watermelon. These are race-based stereotypes and will only be dismantled through ending racism.

Framing the problem as one of dealing with newcomers ignores the 400-year history of racism in this country. It ignores the privileges of whiteness. It ignores that race is not synonymous with culture. It ignores that racism is a system of material distribution of resources that has nothing to do with cultural practices of those deemed "Other" in this white dominated society. It ignores that racism is part of our culture. Racism is not a problem of "Other" cultures but of white supremacy and historical practices of systemic material disenfranchisement of people of color. We need anti-racist practices to dismantle the systems and change social norms. Cultural competency programs still focus attention on the "Other." What we need is to focus attention on whiteness.

Cultural competency is more palatable to many white people and organizations (such as universities and school districts) because no one has to admit or acknowledge a system of racism in order to admit they don't know anything about Hmong or Bosnian culture. But if we still exclude people of color from AP courses and assume Asian "looking" immigrants should be put directly into ESL programs, then we are not challenging the material realities of racism.

My students and I are studying constructs of race and racialization. We are learning the materialist and ideological realities of a racialized society. We are beginning to understand the history and contemporary realities of race-based distribution in the United States. Dismantling this system of racial supremacy and oppression takes courage and tenacity to question the daily practices of racism. It takes courage and tenacity to focus on whiteness. We will need courage and tenacity to be honest about the problems we face. We need to move beyond palatable programs and name the real problems of whiteness and systemic racism so we can begin the work ahead.

Charlotte Kunkel

Charlotte Kunkel

Charlotte Kunkel has been a professor in the sociology department since 1995, focusing on the topics of gender, stratification and visual sociology. She also serves as the director of Luther's Women and Gender Studies program. Some of her course topics include Introduction to Sociology; Constructs of Race and Racialization; Social Psychology; and Seminar: Gender, Globalization, and Development. She is active in community anti-bias education and has been a long time volunteer for diversity education and the elimination of domestic violence. Her current research interests include the intersections of immigration and systems of race and gender stratification. Check out one of her current projects: The Stories webpage.

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  • April 23 2015 at 7:50 pm
    Louis Loeb

    I taught at Luther 1971-1977 in the political science department.  I applaud your frank assault on whiteness.  It's dismaying that after all this time, we must still be reminded of this still enduring societal fact.

  • April 26 2015 at 7:24 pm
    Char Kunkel
    Thanks Louis! Yes, it is dismaying. Nevertheless, it is good to know there are others continuing the struggle. Best, Char
  • December 5 2015 at 6:30 pm
    Sandy Brown
    On of the main problem of cultural competency training is that many programs fail to account for the need for behavioral adaptation.