A​ndrea Sawyer-Kirksey leading the "Cultural humility" seminar at the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City. Photo by Travis Duerksen.

United States

Cultural humility: From being right to being human

By Laurie Oswald Robinson
Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Below are distilled excerpts from a recent Mennonite Mission Network-sponsored webinar presented by Andrea Sawyer-Kirksey. She is executive director for DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection). This Mission Network agency partner is based in Atlanta, Chicago and Denver and provides middle- and high-schoolers with experiential service-learning focused on justice for marginalized people and the dismantling of systemic racism.

How do we develop cultural humility?

Cultural humility requires a consistent, long-term commitment to explore, embrace and respect the differences among people. It is not satisfied with the one-and-done approach, i.e., taking a workshop in systemic racism. Rather, it is the willingness to be transformed in one's attitudes and practices through self-examination over a lifetime. It implies that one will remain open-hearted, listening, and reflective in the light of messy, mutual, and often painful dialogues evoked by boundary crossing and disrespect. White people can foster cultural humility when they explore the power dynamics of systemic racism and their privilege, and are willing to be accountable for their place in that society and system. This humility is evident when an offending person nondefensively admits when he or she has wronged someone. Being accountable means that you do your own work and reflection and not expect someone of another race or culture to do it for you.

What happens when individuals, communities or societies don't practice cultural humility?

We live in a society that is not built for minorities or marginalized and stigmatized people. The American Dream is not their dream. This disparity pits people against each other, and we often react negatively to each other's cultures. Diversity is not only about Black and White, but many other binaries: the socially excluded groups based on nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and spiritual beliefs and practices.

Since 9/11, when something bad happens, we now connect a whole group of people to that action and fail to account for massive diversity within a particular people group. That diversity can include the way we worship or don't worship, mental abilities, age, educational or family status, health, and customs. … None of us are just one "thing." For example, I am a Black woman who is a lesbian and who is married to another woman who is a pastor. I experience a lot of pain when, because of a lack of cultural humility, people put labels on all that I am.

When we don't practice cultural humility, we become blind to the realities of power, and how to better share it. We become unwilling to ask who has a right to be in the room or at the table. … Many of us, myself included, resist change. … But when our eyes are open, and we are exposed to inequity, and the lack of inclusion and diversity, we can either close our eyes and pretend it's not there, or we can address it.

COVID-19 has brought a lot of this stuff to the forefront. When this thing first started breaking, the higher rates of virus cases among Blacks caused non-Blacks to believe that was because they love to party. But when we engage cultural humility, we practice love and wonder, we listen, we observe, we care, we dig a little deeper. As a result, we uncover institutional racism. The anti-Blackness is played out in the medical field and the workplace. People of color haven't had access to testing. And the majority of our essential workers — people delivering our groceries or working in Walgreens and CVS without masks — are people of color. So, yeah, they're dying at a higher rate than other folks, because their lives are less protected. Cultural humility allows us to have an open-hearted questioning stance about the stories we hear in the media. We get a fuller understanding and are forced to choose between being right or being human.

How can we forge cultural humility in our communities?

Folks in churches sometimes say they have multicultural worship spaces. But that isn't true, unless they find out how every single word in that service sounds to all sets of ears, and explore how something said or done triggers pain. Also, we must recognize the privileges of citizenship. … If an undocumented person suffers domestic abuse, for the fear of being deported she will suffer in silence rather than report the abuse to the authorities. … The ones responsible for creating policies for a church or business must ask the people they serve what they need, or what in the current space is not quite working for them. Cultural humility is about asking questions, being curious, and inviting a diversity of folks to the table of leadership to mutually work through the complexities of life.

What was your first experience of developing cultural humility in your own life?

I was a Black girl who grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago, where we moved when I was 3 or 4 years old. The movie Roots came out when I was about 9 or 10. I was very excited, because it was the first time that many African Americans traced their heritage back to Africa. But the opening scene of the movie messed me up, because it depicted a lot of White people chasing Black bodies. My reaction was to start a Black hate group along with six Puerto Rican girls. We wore bandanas and began torturing White kids in our neighborhood by treating them badly and calling them names.

One day I came home from school and noticed there were boxes outside our front door. I asked my mother, "What's going on? It looks like we're moving or something." My mom sat me down and said, "You're correct. It has become apparent to me that you are biased and prejudiced. And I am not interested in housing, clothing, or feeding someone who has that kind of hate in their heart. I don't want you to live here anymore because I don't want you to influence my other kids."

Mom was willing to act on her values by being committed to not allowing that stuff to happen in her house. We ended up having a long conversation … and I cried a lot. She said, "Be careful that you don't become the very thing that you say you hate." She modeled for me the hard work of developing cultural humility. … Whatever space we are in, be it a church, a school, your house, your mama's house, your business, we need to start doing some kind of race audit, or cultural humility audit, or lack thereof. We need to find out who is invested and at what level, because it's important who we put into leadership over other people. The hard work involves changing how we think and behave among diverse groups, and together unlearning and relearning what is important. 






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​Laurie Oswald Robinson is editor for Mennonite Mission Network.