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.
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?’
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.
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’.
Whereas cultural humility says that learning is infinite. We are lifelong learners, who must critically self-evaluate. We must look at who we are, what we believe and why based on our own experiences.
And so I had the opportunity a couple years ago to do a follow-up training to an organization I had worked with previously, actually right here in Westchester. And at these day-long retreats, you know, we normally have food, nice little potluck, everybody brings something and so there was a gentleman who brought a dish which I fell in love with. I think I probably had two plates, anyway.
So… and what happened, I saw him and I said ‘hey, did your wife make that dish that she made the last time?’ You all already know, see. He said ‘my wife didn’t make that, I did’. And I thought ‘oh my goodness, how have I slipped into this gender norm?’, I immediately apologized and then I used it as a teachable moment for our training session.
But this is why it is so important to critically reflect and constantly self-evaluate, even for me as a trainer. What happened, I was so influenced by social norms that I slipped right into one myself even when I know what is culturally inappropriate.
Number two. Cultural competency says that it is concerned with book and learned knowledge and that that has power, which would mean that my certification as a diversity trainer takes precedence over my entire life experience of working with diverse cultures.
Cultural humility, on the other hand, seeks to fix and challenge those power imbalances, recognizing, yes, who you are but that we have to see everyone as a complex multi-dimensional being who brings to the table their experiences, their culture and their heritage.
And this is demonstrated in the formation of a pearl. So, you have a little granule of sand, who loses his way from his friends, ends up slipping into an oyster. It’s all of a sudden afraid and scared, this is a big foreign place and I don’t know where my people are.
The oyster is saying ‘hey, what’s going on? You’re in there moving around and I’m starting to itch’, so it does what I call the shimmy shake. And it starts to release this nectar. This has two purposes; one, it coats that granular sand providing a tight covering, making it feel a little bit more secure in this big foreign place, but it also stops the irritation because it no longer feels the little granule of sand moving around.
And so, essentially, what happens is the oyster and sand, they learn how to coexist. They share their power and they create something of beauty, a pearl.
Finally, cultural competency is concerned with self-advocacy, where we might have a woman, for instance, who uses her personal connections to help elevate her career, instead of using the resources before her to help all of the women in her organization to collectively break the glass ceiling.
Cultural humility then says ‘no, we want you to aspire to have partnerships so that you can learn about not only a group of people but to be able to advocate for them as well, realizing that we do not live in this diverse world alone and that we need everybody to be there’.
And so we saw this recently in the last couple of months with all of the instances of devastation. We had the hurricanes that plagued Houston, Miami, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, leaving thousands in waist-deep waters. No power, completely destroyed homes in all of their material possessions.
Then you’ll remember the hundreds of people running for their lives when all they were trying to do was enjoy a concert in Las Vegas or the complete neighborhoods burned down, leaving thousands homeless in Northern California. And even this week, a small Baptist Church in Texas, a mass shooting, leaving 26 dead.
Some of you right now are fighting back the tears and the overwhelming sense of emotion even as we recall these events. But one thing that I want you to see and remember was all the images on television and in the social media of people doing whatever it took to save someone else. In those moments, their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, political affiliation and religion did not matter.
It was the humanity of man that shined bright and cost someone to risk their life for someone else. There’s even an image that stands very close in my mind that I love and it’s of an older white woman’s face being held in the hands of a black woman.
And I would like to think that she’s saying to her ‘we will get through this together’. And so you see, I offer you the opportunity to take the road to cultural humility to position yourself and humble yourself so that you can learn best from others.
As you do this, I hope that you will do the three things that we talked about, that you will one, consider that learning is a lifelong process, take your seat in that classroom, be willing to learn from one another while sharing of yourself.
I hope that you will do whatever is possible in your power to shift and challenge those power imbalances in a way that allows us to live communally together in our diverse society.
And then finally, to be able to advocate and partner with others in a way that we charge our systems and institutions to level the playing field so that equity becomes the norm and humanity is our most important identity.