Close Cousins, But Definitely Not The Same

Recently I have had two conversations in very different settings where people with whom I have done Racial Justice (RJ) work were talking about their overall organization’s decision to move toward Cultural Competency (CC) work now that they have “done” RJ work. Before I go on, I want to say quite clearly that there is great value in true Cultural Competency training, but that it is a mistake to use that as a substitute, or even a pathway to Racial Justice work. What I mean by “true” CC training is one where cross-cultural skills are being presented and developed, rather than some woefully anemic “cultural diversity” or “cultural awareness” conversation. Honest and effective cross-cultural skill development is incredibly necessary in a society that is as culturally diverse as the United States, and even more so in a state like mine, Minnesota, which has historically been fairly monocultural, but which over the last two decades has become ever increasingly culturally diverse. However, to presume that Cultural Competency training is a sufficient substitute or even the equivalent of Racial Justice training is not only incorrect, but in fact feeds White Privilege and allows multigenerational white US-ers an “out” with respect to their own accountability regarding their privilege.

Some of the facilitators I know who make their bank on Cultural Competency training would perhaps be offended by this assessment. But if they are honest they have to acknowledge the two key elements of Cultural Competency work that allow White people the above “out”. First, CC does not sufficiently (if at all, depending on the facilitator) attend to the deep and insidious aspects of structural, institutional power in this society and therefore there is rarely a conversation about the historical and systemic aspects of oppression in the United States. This, then, precludes any possibility of entering into conversation about White privilege, Racism, or even the social construction of Race and its corresponding Racial Narratives. What a relief this is for White participants, and what a vastly different experience they have – none of the discomfort that comes with honestly talking about privilege, no chance of being identified as the “dominant” group who gained their privilege through slavery, genocide, colonization, internment, broken treaties and overall exploitation, and no reason to make systemic changes or amends because there is nothing really to make amends for. The profound absence of a deep analysis of the “system” in Cultural Competency conversations allows the “Wizard” of Whiteness to stay safely behind the curtain, and thus any possibility of identifying the tap roots of centuries of racial oppression (and any chance to change them) are gone. It is for this reason that organizations with which I have conducted RJ work consistently turn to Cultural Competency training precisely when we begin to get more serious about systemic change at the level of White privilege and White Supremacy. It is one of the most consistent means by which White dominant organizations avoid the deepest work regarding Racial Justice and it is unfortunate that more Cultural Competency trainers do not see this and call those organizations on that behavior.

Compounding this dynamic is the fact that even though most multigenerational, White U.S.-er’s families have, at some point, made the trade of “Culture” for “Race” (in this case, for White) and have thereby gained access to all of the corresponding opportunity structures open to Whites in the U.S., in a Cultural Competency training these same White folks can still claim some attachment to their “culture” and thereby assume a parallel position to people and communities for whom the U.S. is not their first nation and standard U.S. dialect is not their first language. This brash form of equalizing in the form of these multigenerational White folks claiming “they have culture too” does not create true cross-cultural awareness, but instead offers white CC participants a profound amount of cover for their Whiteness. For example, while I do not speak German and none of my family holds a British passport anymore, the mere fact that a Cultural Competency training allows me to harken back to those days and use that as a means to equate my family’s experience with Hmong, Somali, or Chicano/a communities in Minnesota derails any attempt to identify me as a privileged person in this state. Again, this is why so many White folks from the U.S. like this conversation – it’s not a matter of power and privilege in most CC trainings, it’s a matter of understanding each other’s “story” or “location in the world” or that “we all have culture” and then finding ways to appreciate that about each other and thus more effectively relate across these cultural lines. Perhaps this would be the optimal approach to solving intense divisions of access and equity in this society except for the pesky fact that Black folks in this country do not get pulled over for “driving while Haitian” or Brown folks for “driving while Peruvian”. No, for both of these racial groups in the U.S. they are pulled over for their Race not their culture. These divisions along racial lines reach to the heart of the “disparities” in our society, not culture. I am not dismissing the critical issues of access regarding some cultural dimensions such as language. But I can say that while living in Western Massachusetts, I never heard New Englanders complain about the English and French on their potato chip bags nearly the way I hear White people complain about English and Spanish on the forms at the DMV. Why the difference? Could it be the ways that cultural issues such as language get heavily racialized in this country and that French is seen quite differently than Spanish because of the Racial Narrative attached to the skin color of the majority of folks who speak each language in North America? Of course it is.

In sum, I want to say again that I am not disparaging good Cultural Competency training because I feel it is a powerful and necessary component of a highly culturally diverse society such as ours here in the U.S. What I am asserting is my frustration with White dominant organizations who “prefer” Cultural Competency work to Racial Justice work, or who switch to CC training just as we’re getting down to the real deal with Whiteness in our RJ work, because it provides cover for their Whiteness and ultimately does not demand that they change anything about the core of their practices, policies or procedures. It is my hope that organizational leaders will see the dangers of this and choose to stay the course with Racial Justice work, and even more so that Cultural Competency trainers will take the time to find out if they and their work are being used as a means to not lean into RJ work and perhaps approach those organizations quite differently.