About a month ago, I taught a group of folks about trauma-informed care. During the presentation, I talked about the impact of inter-generational trauma. Specifically, I delved into how racial inequality, food insecurity, and other systemic injustices, such as police harassment stack up to create a traumatic effect. The goal was to get the group to realize how significant the impact of systemic inequality can be on the human system.
And when I spoke those words, in the Zoom chatbox came the phrase “Post Traumatic Slave Disorder” from the only black man in the group of 22. I was floored because it was so poignant, so true, so shockingly accurate. And I was honestly unprepared to be met with such a hauntingly visceral example of one if the most obvious systemic injustices.
This provided the perfect opportunity to touch on the concept of what some schools of thought call “cultural humility”.
Cultural Competency vs. Cultural Humility
Professions that often must deal with “diverse” (read: difficult) often have to take some class, workshop or continuing education course in diversity and inclusion. For many, the result is assumed to be “Cultural Competency”, a mastery of the ins and outs of how to work with diverse populations and workforces. But what “cultural competency” truly has become, is a massive cop-out for a lack of true inter-sectional solutions and equalized outcomes.
As an employer. especially in the social justice and nonprofit sector, the number of times I’d read a cover letter or resume that listed “culturally competent” was about as common as the word “passionate”. It doesn’t really say much to me, so when I’d interview, I would toss them a question or two about “why do you think people are homeless?” and watch as their supposed competency was revealed to actually just be complacency. The judgment and derision, the inability to grasp the systemic problems that contribute to if not directly causes homelessness and poverty were appalling for folks with masters’ level degrees.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in working with vulnerable populations it is that there is no single-serving, one-size-fits-all knowledge that prepares you for the rich variance in circumstances, stories and attitudes that we will encounter. We must be open, teachable and prepared to realign even our most cherished paradigms to the lived realities of those that we serve.
Of the people I hired or had a hand in hiring, 100% of them had lived experience in the system – such as personal experience with poverty, homelessness or disability or systemic barriers caused by racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, For many, their experience included being shoveled to lower paid positions or denied meaningful opportunities for advancement. Of the folks I hired, roughly 40% were black, 45% were white and 15% were Latinx. Within those races & ethnicities, 10% were Queer or Trans (self-identified) and 10% were immigrants and 35% disclosed a disability. I found them each to be highly qualified and worth hiring.
But I’m not going to applaud myself for my hiring practices, because I also know that for all those numbers, I was not always the best boss. I am constantly working through my conflicted feelings with being Chicanx from one side of my family, but wholly white in appearance and privilege from the other side. This often blocked me from seeing how I was using that to talk over others’ experiences or centering myself in discussions of race or bias.
I was a new supervisor, a new leader who was wholly insecure about my worthiness to even be in that seat. That insecurity often played out as arrogance and erratic decision-making which made work life miserable for some of my employees. This contributed to white supremacy in ways I was not even aware of at the time. It’s easier to see now that the stress is no longer clouding my reactions, I can see even more clearly where I still have lots to improve. Devoting sincere energy to better unfuck my own paradigms, dismantling the entanglements I have with white supremacy on levels I might not have seen before is just one way I can fix the impact of my mistakes.
Cultural humility is admitting that I do not have all the answers, that I’m not “competent” and thus, I have more to learn. It is about admitting when my own stupid white-influenced entitlement and pride can get in the way of hearing and seeing someone fully for who they are, letting them have the floor to share their experience without interruption or needing to tell my story. It is about listening, integrating, and implementing that knowledge to shape an even better framework.
So, what does this have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?
Where cultural competency says, “You’ve said enough for today”, cultural humility says, “Please tell me more?” One is a constraint, the other an invitation. Competency is a shield to vulnerability whereas humility is an open-hearted embrace of it. And when we are dealing with traumas as deep as racism, for example, where centuries of ancestors are calling out for help, it is a big risk for them to trust us with those soul truths. We must prove our worth for that trust by being open, vulnerable, and willing to be good stewards of that precious fragment of their soul they choose to share with us.
As discussions have accumulated and unraveled online, I see too many white friends and acquaintances declaring “I’m not racist”. Definitively. As if they earned a degree and were granted a ribbon bestowing the title of “World’s Best Ally”. They flaunt it, like it is a settled fact. Except it’s not. It’s an opinion and a woefully incomplete one at that.
They are neither teachable nor rational. Racism is bad, they are good, therefore they aren’t racist. Their lizard brain says “danger! Someone might expose the evil racist we have within and it will make me feel bad about myself”. So they threaten, they point fingers and prove in every meaningful way that being seen as “not racist” means a hell of a lot more to them than the work of actually NOT BEING RACIST.
And when it comes to racism and systemic inequality, we MUST remain teachable and open to learning more. As we encounter more stories, more people who are awakening to this gross level of inequality, as more data surfaces and systemic biases become easier to recognize, we cannot truly say that we are “competent” in knowing how someone’s myriad of cultural experiences have molded them. There are no shortcuts or declarations that we’re done unfucking our own paradigms. We need to listen, learn, integrate, evaluate. Lather, rinse & repeat for the rest of our lives.
Humility requires us to turn the mirror on ourselves
After 2 years as a lobbyist, 3 years negotiating contracts, 5 years as a mediator and 5 years in disability and poverty law, the greatest lesson I learned is that we cannot ever assume anything. People will always surprise us with a lived experience that is counter to what our formal knowledge and personal experience has taught us. And yet, our personal experience isn’t any more valid than that other person’s – unless, we have chosen to value them less for some reason, to assume they are lying or exaggerating. Is that really about them, or it is really about just bolstering our own confirmation bias?
Right now, the most dangerous thing we could do is white-out the lifetimes of experience our black friends, co-workers, neighbors, and celebrities are sharing with us. There is no integrity in indulging our denial, our obstinance, our vanity by denying that we directly benefit from racism. It was codified, allowed, protected and none of us, particularly those of us who are white, are immune from its bloody inheritance. Not only does it dishonor the authenticity of that other person’s story, but it likewise absolves us of the responsibility of learning how to dismantle our own white supremacy to ensure it doesn’t continue.
We must challenge our internal echo chamber that presumes our own innocence and white-as-light purity. We ignore the vulnerability required to recognize, admit and understand our own roles in propping up white supremacy. Our ego resists, clinging desperately to the illusion that “I would never say something racist.”
And yet we do. All the time. Including and especially me.
We try to shift the burden because racism is so distasteful to us and yet, we aren’t the ones bearing our share of the load. We must dig deep to unroot it from the core processes of our own lives because we benefit in some way from this patriarchal, racist system. For all our presumed “cultural competency” we are awfully quick to uphold a system of inherent inequalities to avoid the humility of confronting our own racist attitudes and behaviors. We would rather trust the broken systems, the social and legal contracts of our nation, than fully examine the mortar and bricks that are crumbling under the ethical and moral weight of justice withheld.
I often say that all people want in life is to be heard, seen, and understood. And yet, the ability to do this is entirely dependent on our willingness and skill at setting our own opinions aside for a moment and being present with another person as they tell their story. The humility of that moment, to de-center yourself to listen to another, is where empathy awakens. And as we see things through someone else’s eyes, this is the start of a more transformative, connective and collaborative healing. Only in humility can we find hope.
We cannot survive unless and until us non-black people can humble ourselves enough to listen to the lived experience of black communities that we have silenced and talked over for so long.
Resources for more reading
Want to know how dismantle white supremacy in yourself and these arcane systems? Here are some resources to get you started:
- Layla Saad: “Me and White Supremacy: A 28-Day Challenge to Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor leads readers through a journey of understanding their white privilege and participation in white supremacy so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on black, indigenous and people of color, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.”
- Racial Equality Tools – Compendium of tools, resources, and curriculum for examining white privilege and racial equity.
- Katie Couric, “A Detailed List of Anti-Racism Resources” Books, movies & more
- Showing Up for Racial Justice: 5 Ways White People Can Take Action in Response to White and State-Sanctioned Violence
- HealthLine: Anti-Racism Resources for Parents & Kids
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