I have been thinking about writing this post since Friday evening when I got home from a workshop. While to a great extent, my thoughts and emotions on it are quite clear to me, another part of me just felt like it was too daunting to attempt. It won't let go of me.
The session was "cultural competence" and the presenter/facilitator, who is African American, began by relating her experience with her students: They say "why do we have to keep talking about this again" (emphasis mine). Cultural competence is the current "buzz word" in helping professions. I don't think the term is really the best one to use, because it does not convey the idea that becoming competent at working with people from cultures other than one's own is a process, not an outcome. It is not like going from Mississippi to New York, and at some point, you get there and you are done.
You could actually kind of sense the people in the session reflecting the students' experience: yeah, you are going to tell us something we have all already been told...again. (Now granted, there were 2 other sessions people could have opted to attend during that hour, so one might think that there was an interest in the topic, and there might have been. However, it is important to note also that social workers are required to now have a minimum number of hours of continuing education in cultural diversity and in ethics, so the truth is that folks have to go sometimes in order to meet that requirement.) My point is not to talk about the cultural competence, however that might be defined, but rather, the cultural denial in the room.
The facilitator said she hoped to have a conversation around this issue, and why it was important, not just present some more factual information. Competence--in any area--does not result from just absorbing facts and having knowledge, but in developing skills of doing. While a laudable goal (having a conversation), it would be one difficult to pull off in a diverse and public group of folks, some of whom know each other and some of whom do not. Whatever your background, we have all been in those "conversations" where 2 or 3 people do all the talking, and it was no different here.
In Mississippi, the conversation is often around the issue of relationships between black and white. That is not to imply that other people who are marginalized are not deserving to be in the conversation, but that so much of the deeply damaging history of the state is tied up in the reality of slavery and Jim Crow, and its continued outcomes. At one point, the facilitator mentioned the recent act of two white students who hung a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue on campus, and what that communicated, and the university response to it. A white woman said, "I think Ole Miss just gets unfair attention for things like that. It happens everywhere, but if it happens here, suddenly it's national news." Well, yeah, it is and there is a reason for that and it is historic. And then she followed up by saying, "I was so glad to hear that the boys who did it were from Georgia and not Mississippi." Really, that is your take on this? To be glad they were not from Mississippi, so now it is okay that we aren't racist around here. It is those darned "outside agitators" all over again.
It reminded me of the local attorney who was quoted in the New York Times article about the incident as saying that if you could show him where 100 people got together in a room and planned it (the noose around the neck of James Meredith's statue), then he would believe there was a 'systemic problem.' But, instead, we can just chalk it up as the two bad apples theory and all rest assured that there is no real problem here. Oh, and by the way, he would not be all upset if he walked into the Circle and saw where someone had hung a noose around the statue of the Confederate soldier there. That is another one of those unbelievable take aways from a nasty and hurtful event, and the thing is, folks seem to refuse to see it for what it is--the refusal to acknowledge that someone is hurt and wounded by actions like these that serve as visible reminders of not just the past, but the present. Because I am not wounded or hurt, you should not be either. Just move on and get over it. (You know, like white folks did when so many Confederate soldiers were lynched).
The second thing that stunned me in the "conversation" was when a black woman was describing the everyday microaggressions--insults at a personal level--that people who are black experience. She referenced the things that are said about President Obama and his ethnicity in so many comments mad criticizing his actions as president. I knew instantly what she meant, being reminded of the man in the post office in Graham who had referred to him as "that dark-skinned fella in Washington." My friend responded when I shared it with her, "I am surprised he was that polite about it."
The same white woman who had been doing most of the talking (but not the one who made the comments about the Meredith statue) immediately said, "But to be fair, people were very disrespectful of President Bush, too. It is just the whole air of disrespect for authority." Yes, people were disrespectful of President Bush...but not about his ethnicity or his religious affiliation. No one ever accused him of being Muslim because his biological father was from Africa, or accused him of purposefully trying to ruin America in vengeance for how the US treated Kenya.
In my class, the students and I have been reading Chinua Achebe's Home and Exile. I accidentally came across it back in December. It is three speeches he gave about his experience as a writer from Nigeria, coming to understand himself and his country and the effects of colonialism on Africa as a whole, and on how others interpret Africa through the lens of colonialism's explanations without critically thinking about it. I was impressed with how it seemed to resonate with the expectation that social workers should consider themselves as learners and the client system as the teachers, and decided to use it in class and see if we could generate a discussion about what Achebe's understanding might bring to social work. The students have amazed me with their interest in Achebe's work, and their grasping of the relevance to social work, to themselves, and to working with any client, not just the ones who are culturally different. They have grasped the importance of the need to understand the person's story, and how they tell it, understand it, and claim it--not the story as the "other" defines it.
I think the problem is the difference between cultural competence and cultural humility--and I did not come up with that so I am not taking credit for it. There have been criticisms of the concept of cultural competence as "othering" and implying, or actually saying, that those cultures that we must know about are somehow less than, not normal, or deviant. It is that same ethnocentric lens that led to imperialism and colonizing by Europe and the US and telling "history" from the standpoint of white males and dominance. The problem is that no amount of knowing about something is the same thing as understanding the painfulness of a lived experience. It is not competence to know about, and to say "I will take this into consideration while I assess your lived experience."
Humility on the other hand, implies a not knowing. It is, as Achebe put it, the allowing of people to tell their own story, and not to have to accept others' story of who they think you are. Imagine if you can the first diary of a white European male who "discovered" Africa in the 1500s and wrote of them, "They are a people without a language, speaking only gibberish and unintelligible sounds." While that might seem ludicrous now, the underlying message still gets carried out--judging by an inapplicable standard. In the 1940s and 1950s when "Africa was brought to American living rooms" via Life magazine photographs or movies, it was not Africa's story, but rather the story of how others not African interpreted Africa and Africans.
Every time people from other countries (mostly the US however) go to Africa to do "mission" work, they are carrying out that same stereotype and imposing the story on people who live there. I can't say I have been to Africa, but I have been to one country in Africa many times, and frankly, folks there are more "Christian" than they are here for my experience, and they are doing just fine in starting and running their own churches and saving their own communities. They don't need "us" to go over there and do it for them and to "save" them from their own cultural deficits--as we interpret them. They have their own pastors, preachers, priests, laity who are living the experience daily who can do that with them from their lived experiences.
Humility--not thinking that my story is the right one, but hearing, and accepting that your experience of who you are and what you have lived is one worth telling. Not thinking that I have the answer to everything and can and should and must tell you how to feel and what to do. Every time we discount the lived experience, and the feelings that result from it, with the admonition to move on because that was in the past, we are saying your experience does not matter. That is what keeps the pain in the present, and the barriers in place that mean we are not only not competent, but not compassionate either.