By Linda Wallace
The roads to cultural competence are sometimes scary, and the shoulders are often littered with failure and disappointment. Many travelers grow weary and give up on the journey.
Cultural competence, you see, often is acquired after we make a mistake, experience disappointment or we are victimized by a racist act or attack. For learners, this is the time to dig deep so you can move forward. If diversity is to become a national asset, Americans first need to figure out how to be less judgmental, more patient, and more skilled at viewing the world through the cultural filters of various ethnic groups.
A few years ago, I watched as two white female nursing students at the local community college approached a crowd of African American men clad in baggy shirts and droopy pants. A boom box was blaring, and the youths were standing on a corner mouthing the words to rap lyrics.
Our heroines were selling toothbrushes to raise money for a class project. They walked over, smiled, and by the time they had finished their spiel, each of the young men had sprung for two or three toothbrushes.
I stood in awe of one of these young ladies. She approached the group with an air of confidence, and showed deep respect. She was culturally competent, and highly skilled at moving outside her comfort zone. Too many of us remain in our own neighborhoods, where the people look and talk like we do. We avoid culturally different places that are harder to understand and harder to be understood.
Striving toward cultural competence often is a painful process. You’ll make mistakes and you will get confused. If you do, find an ally or a coach. Avoid the hidden detours. If you take them, you will find yourself trailing behind in the job market and in the global economy.
They, in turn, opened up to her. Her ability to move outside of her comfort zone enabled her to seize an opportunity that countless others would have fearfully passed by.
Here are five roadblocks that will lead to prompt unwanted detours along the road to cultural competency.
1. Fear or lack of tolerance for differences. Fear blurs our cultural filters so we can no longer clearly see the full range of responses and opportunity. Not many of us would have looked at the young rappers and thought, “They look like folks who really care about their teeth.” The fact that the nursing students were unafraid gave them a distinct advantage. If they had shown concern, the young men might have responded to that fear rather than the message.
2. Fear of getting out of our comfort zone. Many of us expect to acquire cultural skills without setting one foot outside our own neighborhoods. One way to quickly improve our cultural competency is to befriend people of different ethnic groups and faiths and to spend time in their social environments.
3. Desire to take huge leaps, not tiny steps. When we try to tackle huge challenges without the right tools, we are likely to get hurt and likely to give up. Not all of us can run a billion-dollar company, not all of us can throw a football, and not all of us can sell toothbrushes to young rappers. All of us have to be aware of our own limitations and develop individual action plans.
4. An “it helps them but not me” attitude. Developing cultural competency solely from a desire to help minorities would likely result in a loss of motivation when the burden gets heavy. Cultural competency provides us with the tools companies need to grow. Therefore, we are the primary beneficiaries of any investment we make.
5. “They are all alike.” While it is important to learn about diverse cultures, keep in mind that there are also differences within cultural and religious groups. Cultural literacy is only a general road map — complete with red flags and yield and warning signs — that helps us to navigate the potholes.