Juliana Mosley on Cultural Humility (Full Transcript)

Full text of educator Juliana Mosley’s talk titled “Cultural Humility” at TEDxWestChester conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Juliana Mosley – Chief Diversity Officer at Chestnut Hill College

Namaste. Perhaps, you’re wondering why I’ve just greeted you with a bow, a curtsy and a Namaste welcome.

As many are aware, in other countries, cultures and social engagements, these gestures would be accepted and even expected when meeting someone or ending an encounter. The bow, used in East Asian countries such as China, Japan and Thailand is often commonly used at the beginning and ending of a martial arts competition.

The curtsy would be the appropriate gesture if a lady had the opportunity to meet the Queen of England, and also for dancers to say thank you to an audience at the end of their performance.

The Namaste welcome is used in the Hindu culture and religion and also at the end of a common yoga class, and it literally translates to the divine in me bows to the divine in you.

These gestures highlight the concept of humility, literally being able to bow to the culture, persona and the position of someone else. Yet for many of us, Americans that is, we would struggle with the concept of humbling ourselves. We would not go as far as to say ‘I’m superior’ but we definitely don’t believe that we’re less than.

So, it begs the question that if I humble myself, am I by default saying that I’m less than or giving power to someone else? Allow me to offer you a counter perspective this evening.

Let’s think about the physical posture of being able to bow and curtsey. It actually takes physical strength in one’s back and knees to be able to do such. Even for me, I would have to have a good weather day, not including today, where the twins; good old Arthur and Rydus, don’t bother me to be able to do a proper curtsy.

Thus, to yield to the concept of cultural humility means that you are so self-aware that it’s okay to have the introduction of another culture, someone else’s viewpoint because you’re going to be grounded in who you are.

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In retrospect, I find that I had one of my greatest humility experiences during my senior year of high school, the spring of 1992. I know I don’t look that old. Anyway, so I was attending at the The Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities. This is a special boarding school for academically gifted juniors and seniors. And due to our advanced curriculum and our college prep focus, we were offered foreign language courses, not typical to high schools at that time, such as Russian, German, Japanese and Chinese.

Me being who I am, I figured if a quarter of the world will speak in Chinese, I needed to be in the majority. So, after nearly two years and learning almost 300 plus characters, our teacher decided that we needed to have a true cultural immersion experience. And, by the way, that’s enough characters to actually be conversational.

So, I know what you’re thinking, we went to China. No, school didn’t have that kind of money, but she gave us the next best opportunity to our rural Indiana location: Chinatown in Chicago. There you go.

My classmates and I were extremely excited. The opportunity to use Mandarin for the first time with native speakers. So, we spent most of the day walking around town, buying souvenirs of course and taking in the sights. Finally, we decided to have a little lunch and eat. What we thought was pretty authentic China’s food.

We sit down at the restaurant, we opened the menu and we’re excited, we can actually read most of the characters. One by one, my classmates start to order their meals. And the waitress, you can tell that she was impressed through her smile and even a slight bow.

I was the last one to place my order, trying to give myself more time to get my words together but I got a very different response. After only three or four words, the waitress literally takes off running to the back of the restaurant. I look at my teacher and I ask her ‘did I say something wrong?’

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For those who don’t know, Chinese is a tonal language, therefore the meaning of a word changes based on one of the four tones. She assured me that my Chinese was fine, had no idea why the woman ran off.

Just as we were finishing our conversation, the waitress comes back with what appears to be the entire kitchen staff and she says to me in Mandarin to speak again. And so, I finished placing my order. I can tell by the huge smiles and even the head nods that that great mystery had been revealed. Perhaps they were used to white Americans speaking their language but I think I may have been the first black person they ever saw speak Chinese.

As a cultural diversity trainer, I have learned that this was truly one of my greatest cultural humility experiences. I didn’t know then what I know now but I have been spending about two years yielding who I was as a black person, American and native English speaker to learn and appreciate the culture, history and language of China.

I wanted so desperately to be a part and to be immersed in this wonderful culture. And so we have this concept that I realized that was really the pinnacle moment for me. The kitchen staff or the restaurant staff was impressed, perhaps even honored that we as outsiders had learned their language. And I was trying so desperately to give it right.

I wanted to pay honor to the country and the culture and the language that I had become so fond of. And so this type of cultural surrender and the increasing multicultural diversity in our society, I believe, is the foundation that led Doctors Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray Garcia to develop the concept of cultural humility in 1998. These physicians were looking to develop a concept and a model that would be an extension or go beyond the limitations of cultural competency but yet create a cultural framework that would help them to better serve their patients.

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Essentially, they realized they’re the experts in medicine but not the experts in culture of their patients, yet they understood fundamentally that culture weighs heavily in someone’s thoughts, their beliefs, their habits and the choices that they will make for their life.

You see, cultural competency is learned knowledge and also skillset that you need to manage cross-cultural relationships. But it actually can have some shortcomings and cause prejudice because the focus is heavily on what you learn and not necessarily looking at and evaluating your own personal experiences.

Thus, cultural humility was created to be a process-oriented approach that takes into consideration who you are, your experiences, how you live the world, how you view the world through your own identities.

Let’s take me for an example this evening. I see the world through my lens of being a black woman who’s Christian, middle class and heterosexual to name a few.

As a cultural diversity trainer, I’ve used the concept of cultural competency for many many years but I see cultural humility as an evolution of that work, not to say that cultural competency is bad but just that now we’ve taken it another step.

And so what we’ve done is have that focus on who we are and then also being able to value what others bring to the proverbial table.

And so let’s evaluate these two schools of thought tonight. Cultural competency suggests that learning is finite, which means I can take a course, I can take a workshop and learn about a group of people. So, you may have someone say ‘hey, I understand Mexican-Americans in their culture. Prior to my teaching in Houston Texas, I took a cultural diversity workshop’.

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