On cultural humility

Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia in conversation on cultural humility

As an anthropologist I am always learning from others, looking for new ways to understand other cultures and groups, and new approaches to engage in making social change. Recently, a student drew my attention to the work of Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia on cultural humility vs cultural competence. I find the concept of cultural competence which emphasizes knowing, rather than learning, truly disconcerting. As someone who has been engaged for over two decades in learning about my own and others’ cultures, I am consistently aware of how much more I need to learn in order to participate in collaborative efforts to make change.

The concept of cultural humility draws our attention to achieving equity and addressing power imbalances through lifelong learning and critical self-reflection. Our intelligence can only be useful to us when we have the humility to recognize what we do not know. We must commit to learning from others, seeking to understand what they want and need. It is a process we engage in daily, not something we learn and then know. Most importantly, cultural humility is a tool that enables us to recognize power imbalances and to seek ways to mitigate these imbalances in our relationships. When we work with others, we need to listen to when we use I, we, or you. More importantly, we need to ask ourselves, who is included in the I, the we, and the you? Who is being left out of the conversation? We also must be willing to share our history, our perspective, and our assumptions. By doing so we can position ourselves to learn from one another and develop respectful partnerships to address racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of inequity and discrimination.

So, what does this mean in our efforts to collaborate with and serve our communities and people elsewhere? It means that we can never assume our knowledge is enough. We need to exercise humility and recognize that we can always learn from others. It also means that we need to question our assumptions about ourselves and others, about the needs and desires of the people we serve, about the problems we see in the world and seek to change. We must always exercise curiosity in a respectful manner. It is in collaborations when we share our varied histories and knowledges that we can strive to make living life better for us all.