This notion, that through education we can truly understand the lived experience of our neighbor, has proven problematic. It’s flawed. In teaching cultural competence, we make the assumption it’s possible to fully understand the vast and diverse array of experiences of all of those with whom we come in contact. Perhaps we can learn more, and get partially there, but in teaching this to our students and our communities, our friends and our families, we are setting up a false expectation that competence is an end goal which is fully attainable and concrete. Complete and thorough cultural competence is not attainable. How many among us even fully understand our own lived experience?
It is dangerous to assume that we can completely understand the lived experience of our neighbor, and when we do we create spaces primed with opportunity for misunderstanding, exploitation, marginalization, and structural oppression.”
We must shift our efforts from the pursuit of an attainable understanding to the development of a new habit: cultural humility.
There are significant differences between cultural competence and cultural humility. Cultural humility is a process that one engages in, rather than a level of education one seeks to attain. Cultural humility focuses on moving the emphasis away from our own lived experience, and even the way that we ascribe meaning to the lived experience of others, to give value to the practice of listening to and embracing the voices of those other than ourselves.
What our university, our community, our nation, and indeed our world needs at this time, more than ever, is the expansion of this habit. Less talking. Less assuming we understand what it feels like to be someone else. More compassion. More listening and accepting what others tell us they’re experiencing. As an educator, I’ve found that perhaps the most difficult lesson to teach is when I try to explain to a person who has lived through adversity, that through complicated layers of privilege, or the lack thereof, others may have had an even smaller chance of success than they did.
None of us is without some degree of privilege. Some of us have more than others. None of us has lived without having to endure adversity of some kind. Some far more than others. All of us have the ability to engage those around us in a habit of cultural humility. It is a choice. Perhaps this is one of the only things that will give us the ability to genuinely and authentically unite and move forward together.