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Everything You Need to Know About …

Posted on 30 April 2011 by Barbara Beckwith (3)

When I became determined to free myself of group stereotypes based on ignorance, I first tried a shortcut, reading book with titles like Everything You Need to Know About Latino History, Everything You Need to Know About Asian American History, 100 Things Everyone Should Know about African Americans, or The Arab-American Handbook.

As for Native Americans, I’d read Tony Hillerman mysteries set on Southwestern reservations and thereby thought myself in the know about Navaho and Hopi cultures.

So when I made a date to speak to the head of Harvard’s Native studies center, I readied myself to shake hands with respectful limpness, as Hillerman’s Native characters did , and to speak in a soft, unmodulated voice to the person I expected to be soft-spoken, and pictured as wearing long braids and turquoise jewelry.

Instead, I was met by a hearty ‘Hi, how are ya?” from a young man with African American features, and a hip and casual style. So much for my attempts to learn a culture via short-cuts.

Years later, having graduated from book to real-life learning, I filled out a racial knowledge inventory from Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation, by Derald Wing Sue. By now, I was more genuinely familiar with the cultures and norms of various heritage groups. I knew the meaning of Nisei, La Raza, the “one-drop rule,” and the infamous Tuskegee Experiment: I aced the test. Finally, I thought, I’m culturally competent – the buzzword for knowing all there is to know about cultures other than one’s one.

But in retrospect, by thinking so, I revealed myself to be at a dangerous blind spot in my journey toward multicultural respect. Yes, the cultural competency formula had become de rigueur in the medical field, as doctors and nurses studied various cultures’ ideas about health and illness, pain and pills, but it was now reversing itself. Cultural competency was now considered a trap. If you memorize how  Italians, Latinos,  Middle Easterners, Native Americans, African Americans or Cambodians tend to deal with pain, you may miss how the particular person you are treating deals with pain. Looking for imagined norms, it turned out, was likely to miss individual realities.

So a new idea had emerged, called cultural humility. What a doctor, teacher, social worker, or plain person like myself needs to know is our own assumptions, norms and prejudices. How do I interpret quietness, crying, criticism or eye contact? Sure, it helps to know that some Middle Eastern people may consider cross-gender touching improper. But it is more important for me to know how my words, my voice, my gestures, my expectations may affect my thoughts and behavior toward whoever I’m dealing with.

In other words, to be culturally savvy, I need to study everything there is to know about —myself.

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