I first heard the term cultural competence from a professor at Dominican University two weeks ago. I heard it again a week later from Dr. Tiffany Brunson, the principal of Field Stevenson here in Forest Park.

Curious as to what it meant, I went online and found, “cultural competence: the ability to understand, appreciate, and interact with persons from cultures and/or belief systems other than one’s own.” 

What it’s not

Sometimes the best way to understand a concept is to start with what it is not. Take many in the U.S. Congress, for example. Remember Mitch McConnell saying, “my goal is to make Obama a one term president”? He had closed his mind to hearing anything good from the other side even before they had started talking. It’s heard in the exasperated statement, “Why can’t those people be more like us?”

It’s also more than “getting along” with your team mates, classmates and co-workers. In each of those relationships everyone—black, white, Hispanic, Asian—is playing by rules applied to them by a “third party culture.” Jose Abreu doesn’t even have to speak English in order to play baseball here. The rules are the same in Havana and Chicago. Anthony Rizzo was born in Florida and Starlin Castro was born in the Dominican Republic, but all that matters is a high batting average or a low ERA. That’s the way the game is played.

It’s a different story, however, when they look for a barber to cut their hair. Many white barbers wouldn’t have a clue regarding what to do with Castro’s hair. Rizzo probably would not like some of Castro’s favorite foods, let alone know how to cook them, and wouldn’t get some of the jokes in his team mate’s home town. First, because he can’t speak Spanish well enough, but also because he wouldn’t understand why the joke is funny to the shortstop’s home boys, because he doesn’t understand the culture. 

What cultural competence is

Cultural competence is first of all an awareness that the culture in which I grew up provides me with a set of glasses, so to speak, through which I view other people. When that is understood, then what seems to be distorted to me might have less to do with the behavior I’m observing and more to do with the lenses through which I’m looking.

Therefore, when experiencing another culture, it’s important to withhold judgment for awhile, usually a long while, before deciding if it’s good or bad. For example, in my ten trips to Thailand, I’ve learned that the Thai way of handling tension is to smile. At first I found that to be charming, but after being with the Thai congregation here for 22 years, sometimes I’ve felt like screaming, “Why don’t you say how you really feel, so I can know what’s going on inside you!?” Until, I realize that they might be thinking that white Americans should learn that they don’t always have to announce to the world how they are feeling at the moment.

Have you ever been given a shirt—say by your mother-in-law—in a color that doesn’t flatter your complexion or in a style that doesn’t go with the rest of your wardrobe? In other words, you think it’s ugly. But when she visits, you always suck it up and wear it, because if your mother-in-law gets offended, your wife gets mad at you, and you value the relationship with your wife more than how you think you look?

Cultural competence is a willingness to wear the shirt another culture gives you as a present, even though you may not like it … at first. It’s a willingness to try something on even if you don’t think it will be comfortable. Not just try it once, but wear it several times to see if it grows on you. To your surprise, you may learn to enjoy it and even find yourself buying a pair of pants to go with it.

Here’s the paradox in acquiring cultural competence. In order to be able to experience some intimacy with folks from a different culture, you have to feel secure in your own. Developmental psychologists tell us that adolescents have to find their own identity, to gain a healthy sense of who they are, before they are able to move on to the next stage of life which usually involves becoming intimate with another person. 

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote a book entitled Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She wrote, “As one’s awareness of the daily challenges of living in a racist society increase, it is immensely helpful to be able to share one’s experiences with others who have lived it. Even when White [sic] friends are willing and able to listen and bear witness to one’s struggles, they cannot really share the experience.”

I first met Derek Peterson in Moose Lake, Minnesota in 1980. Moose Lake is all white, mainly of Norwegian heritage and therefore mostly Lutheran. At Christmas time they loved to eat lutefisk, which is codfish soaked in lye and then boiled. To me it tasted as bad as it looked. Derek was in the high school youth group at Hope Lutheran Church where I was an intern.

The next time I saw Derek was twenty years later in Juneau, Alaska where he was working for the state board of education. His job involved working with ethnic Russians, Yupiks living above the Arctic Circle, Athabaskins and whites. After listening to fascinating story after story, I asked him, “How did a boy from Moose Lake wind up working with so much diversity?”

“It was growing up in Moose Lake,” he replied, “that enabled me to appreciate so many different cultures. Moose Lake gave me a strong sense of who I am, and that allows me to not only work with but really appreciate so many different kinds of people.”

Derek had cultural competence.