When I was at university (about 2005), there was a big push for cultural competency in the various fields. According to Wikipedia, it is defined thus:
Cultural competence refers to an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures, particularly in the context of human resources, non-profit organizations, and government agencies whose employees work with persons from different cultural/ethnic backgrounds. Cultural competence comprises four components: (a) Awareness of one’s own cultural worldview, (b) Attitude towards cultural differences, (c) Knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews, and (d) cross-cultural skills. Developing cultural competence results in an ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures.
When I was at university I had no idea I would be working with a Native American population, but I did know I wanted to be a therapist, and would be working with people from other cultures. So I did everything I could to be more culturally competent: I read books, watched movies, attended trainings, attended a variety of cultural events, and had long conversations with people from other cultural backgrounds. I did a lot of self-examination, and tried to imagine myself as part of another culture.
These are all very worthwhile activities, and I wish more people did them. I’ve heard people say things like, They are in America, they should act like Americans! (I suspect you could substitute any nation and nationality there.) Yes, they need to obey a nation’s laws, and it would be a very good idea to learn the dominant language, but culture is not just where you grow up or live. It is a whole way of looking at the world, and it is pretty much hardwired into our brains by the time we are six or seven years old. We learn it from our families, and it often carries generations of history with it. Visit the United States South, or the area around Berlin (Germany), or rural Mexico if you don’t think that is true.
A version of that idea is applying the values and expectations of the dominant culture to a less dominant culture. You hear things like, “If they just went to school . . . ,” “If they had more ambition . . . “. This is a different culture we are talking about — their values are not going to necessarily be the same as the dominant culture. A Native American friend told me about how her son, raised on a reservation, could swim across a wide river, catch and cook fish, hunt and skin animals, and build his own fires by the time he was five years old. But when he went to kindergarten off the reservation, he was labeled as slow because he didn’t know his alphabet or how to write his name.
Another version I’ve heard is that Native American people should take all these benefits the U.S. government has given them, and do more to get ahead in the world. Right. Is the government willing to give back all the land it stole from them? Can they turn back the clock and not commit the genocide against them? Can they turn back the clock and not take away the Native American children (and beat and abuse them) to try to destroy their cultures? All the benefits in the world will not make up for that, and it has become part of the historical trauma most Native Americans carry to some degree.
The thing is, no matter how much you read, or watch, or learn, no matter how many friends of other cultures you have, no matter what culture you lived next door to as you went to school, you will probably never completely understand that culture. You can come close, and you may be influenced by that culture, but you will never completely understand what someone from that culture is thinking or feeling. I learned that at a training led by Dawn Watkins, a domestic violence advocate in Humboldt County, California. (Thank you, Dawn!) And she is right. Once you accept that, you are so much more open to learning, and to treating people with respect. You don’t make assumptions.
But it is still important to try to understand.