Living and Growing: Cultural Humility
by Phil Campbell
for Living and Growing
August 16, 2015
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in those days it was one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Tulsa has made progress over the years, but like many cities it remains significantly segregated. While living there as a young adult, I helped lead a Free University class that was designed to introduce white Tulsans to the African American neighborhoods in the city. I was working as the education/information coordinator for the Target Area Action Group (TAAG) which was the citizen’s participation agency in the Model Cities neighborhood. I was the only white male ever to work there. I am eternally grateful for the experience although it was often not easy. I hope that I made a small contribution to the community, but the most profound lesson for me was discovering how much I didn’t know. I thought of myself as a culturally aware progressive, but while working for TAAG I learned how little I understood about what it meant to be black in America. It also increased my resolve to learn more.
I moved to Juneau five years ago. Juneau in the 21st Century of the Common Era is not as geographically segregated by race as was the Tulsa of my early years. I nevertheless find Juneau quite segregated when it comes to knowing each other. Since arriving, I have learned much more about Tlingit culture than I knew previously, and I have had the privilege of participating in many Native sponsored events. But parallel to my experience at TAAG, I am also learning how little I know about what it means to be Native in Alaska even as my desire to learn increases.
I have frequent reminders of our social segregation and sadly, many of them are painful. We lead not only separate lives, but unequal ones born of racism. The #blacklivesmatter movement has given current voice to those who suffer the pangs of racism and who fear for their safety. Despite legal changes and some social progress, unequal racial treatment remains part of the landscape in Alaska as well as down South.
Some disagree. Polls consistently show that whites believe there has been more racial progress than do people of color. This disparity in perception is reinforced by social segregation. Many white people have little awareness of what life is like for people of color in our society, and they assume things are better because laws have changed. Some things are better, but individual acts of discrimination still persist. Even more problematic are the systemic vestiges of racism that perpetuate advantage for whites and that disadvantage people of color. As Spelman College President Emerita Beverly Tatum has said, “Every social indicator from salary to life expectancy, reveals the advantages of being white.” Such social indicators of advantage and disadvantage are apparent in health care access, school performance and incarceration rates. But social segregation suppresses dominant culture awareness of this.
What can be done? Are inequities and misunderstandings destined to persist? They don’t have to and I recently I learned of a concept that can help make a difference. The idea is Cultural Humility. Trainers Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia describe it as threefold movement of self-reflection, fixing power imbalances, and working collaboratively to change the system.
Cultural humility recognizes that no one can know completely what another’s experience is. Each person and cultural and racial group is the expert on its experience. Cultural humility is rooted in listening and the desire to truly hear the other. It also normalizes “not knowing.” One need not be defensive about what s/he doesn’t know, but can be receptive to new understanding.
Cultural humility is a two way street, of course. All of us need to know more about each other. But what both my experience and social research reveal is that it is white people in the dominant culture position that more often lack awareness of what life is like for others. In similar vein, race isn’t the only thing that divides us. Matters of class, gender, sexual orientation, family history, and ideology also create barriers. Cultural humility is one approach that can lower the walls that separate. Together, we can learn more about each other and grow closer as a community committed to respect and justice for all.
Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church