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Why I want to eradicate “cultural competency”

Only a quarter of white Americans have a friend of color.

And for most, their first meaningful interaction with someone of a different racial background will be in the workplace.

This explains why I felt like an outsider during the majority of my corporate career in U.S. white-run organizations: my colleagues simply didn’t know what to make of me. My distinct name and unfamiliar accent gave rise to my white colleagues inadvertently reminding me…I was another.

This “othering” phenomenon is a direct result of over relying on cultural competency, and not cultivating cultural humility. Let me explain:

It’s long struck me how many white Americans have commented on how weird, quirky, or “different” they think Indian people are, right in front of me — a Singaporean of Indian descent.

It seemed they wanted to show how much they knew about Indian culture from watching tv shows about Indian people, or travels or business relationships. Unfortunately, their observations always came out in amusement and condescension.

It made me profoundly uncomfortable. And their follow up never helped: “oh, but you’re not really Indian” (because I don’t have the kind of accent they expect? Because I’m Singaporean? I've been told both of this and other explanations.) I think they meant that as a compliment, to signal to me that I was “one of them.” They were banking on me having the cultural competency to understand why they found Indian people quirky and weird, and that I’d laugh along.

But it was never funny, and it was always demeaning.

The problem is cultural competency

I believe we all have a personal responsibility to be respectful of others, but I’m not casting all the blame for this behavior on my individual colleagues. The problem is greater than any one person, and it’s the notion of cultural competency itself.

Being competent in your understanding of other backgrounds and cultures while still clinging to the notion that you’re of the superior culture is NOT the same as being respectful, open-minded, curious or empathetic.

The successful addition of other cultures, genders, and backgrounds in your workplace requires more than just accommodation. It takes some humility as well. This can be as simple as taking the time to pronounce a colleague's name properly. Or recognizing that you DON’T know everything about the culture of others and being open to learning while taking cues from other people, not assuming how they'll behave.

This is why I recommend we strive for cultural humility over competency. This mindset shift primes us to understand different cultures not from detached amusement or “othering”, but from a place of empathizing with people, letting their expertise and leadership shine through. It asks us to understand that people’s wants and needs, comforts and preferences and practices could be different, but of equal importance, if not more than the dominant culture’s. Cultural humility demands us to share power.

One of my favorite visual examples of the difference between cultures (in this case, eastern and western cultures, broadly speaking) comes from the artist Yang Liu. Having lived in both, I love how spot-on this is. AND, I don’t see one as better than the other. In fact, so much of the eastern way of doing things, particularly centering a collective vs individual approach, has unique merit especially right now.

To that end, it is both our individual and collective responsibility to do better at being inclusive in the workplace.

This requires constantly interrupting our instinctive approach to a situation, and cultural humility helps.

Remember: inclusion doesn’t happen naturally. It takes daily intentional acts to ensure a diverse and inclusive workplace today and tomorrow.

Now, I’d love to hear from you: Have you ever felt like an outsider at work due to a cultural, racial, or gender (or any combination of the three) difference? On the other side, have you experienced someone who showed cultural humility when learning from and about you?


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