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In a crowd leaving the theatre, a white matron in a hurry rudely pushes a dawdling black child out of her way.  Co-workers cringe in embarrassment when their Latino colleague shows up for a casual Friday meeting in the vivid colors of his Mexican culture.  White moms pushing strollers in the mall give a too-obvious wide berth to a group of mixed-race teens raucously hanging out together.  And in the worst case, an unarmed Black man is shot by a police officer who says he feared for his life.

Systemic racism is one curse that U.S. culture faces.  Individual members of racial majorities--most often Whites--may feel, and actually be, respectful and inclusive, but we are still parts of racst systems of employment, law enforcement, lending, and voting.  It's damn difficult to resist systemic racism by yourself.

The other curse is individual racist practices, and these are ones we can individually do something about.


Humility is one vital attitude and practice that we can shape.

Cultural humility means holding your own cultural identifiers lightly, rather than with white-knuckles.  It means accepting that your ways of doing things are not the only ways.  It requires continuous self-reflection and self-critique as a lifelong learner.  

Every ethical and religious program urges its followers to practice humility.  The Old Testament teaches that "humility goes before honor" (Pr. 15:33) and in the New Testament, Peter instructs his readers, "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another" (1 Pe 5:5).  Praying Muslims bow low in humility and affirm that "Humility is one of the greatest blessings that God can bestow on human beings."  Unfortunately, these teachings get lost when people in power encounter a cultural difference that makes them uncomfortable.

Even the most scientific professionals are beginning to recognize that this is a mistake.  In an editorial written to physicians who treat poor and underserved patients, two experienced MDs argue that cultural competence in clinical practice is defined more by a health provider's humility than by his or her intellectual knowledge of cultural patterns and differences.  They give an example of an African American nurse who ignored a Latino doctor's concern about the moaning of a Latina post-surgery patient because, the nurse said, she'd taken a course in cross-cultural medicine and knew that Hispanic patients "over-express the pain they are feeling."  Cultural competence doesn't come from just taking a course; it requires attending to individual needs, with humility.  The authors conclude, "Cultural humility incorporates a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and critique, [and] to redressing the power imbalances in the physician-tatient dynamic. . ." (M. Tervalon & J. Murray-Garcia, "Cultural Humility versus Cultural Competence," Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 9, 1998, p. 123).


 Humility does not mean that you have to give up your own cultural identifiers.  Even though you can't understand arranged marriages, for example, you can accept the fact that they work well for millions of couples. Even if you can't accept same-sex marriage, you can inform yourself about LGBTQ cultures and listen respectfully to those who do.  You can be curious rather than defensive about people who look different from you.  And, especially if you're white, you can sharpen your awareness of all the ways your whiteness gives you privilege.  

For example:

  • Whites are the only racial group who don't have to think about race and experience inequity every day.
  • Everybody has prejudices; they're part of how we make sense of the world.  But racism means prejudice + power and whites still dominate all U.S. power structures--government, education, financial institutions, law enforcement, etc.
  • Equity is different from equality.  When the playing fields are tilted in favor of whites, equity (justice, faiirness) sometimes means giving more to those who have less.
  • Growing means learning; learning requires listening; and listening demands humility, knowing that and what you don't know.


 Inventory your own cultural identifiers.  How important is your gender in your world?  Your age?  Religion?  Class?  Sexuality?  Ability?  Race?  For me, the facts that I'm white and male have the most impact on my experience.  So these are two cultural identifiers that I need to hold lightly.  At work, what am I doing to help empower women?  When I get defensive about criticism from a woman, is it legitimate (she's being picky?) or my problem?  What am I doing to be an effective ally to the NAACP, LULAC, or the Black Students' Union?  When I'm questioned by an assertive Black woman, how carefully am I listening?  

Scores of cultural equity leaders have pointed out that, often, the real problem is that "we don't know each other."  What am I doing to develop relationships with people who don't look like me?  With those who practice an unfamiliar religion or celebrate unfamiliar holidays?  Do I have Facebook friends in these cultural groups?  Am I connected with them on LinkedIn?  Each day provides at least one opportunity to be an ally to someone culturally different from me--at work, in my community, even in my family.  How many do I follow up on?


I've written before in this space that Curiosity, Humility, and Platinum Empathy are the 3 most effective ways to deal with Difficult Difference.  Of the three, I'm finding that Humility may be the most difficult.  How well are you able to hold your own cultural identifiers lightly?





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