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The Importance of Cultural Humility in Times of Social Inequality

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Table of contents

  1. Cultural Competency and Cultural Humility
  2. Critical Self-Reflection
  3. Power Imbalances

Cultural Humility as seen in the film, “Cultural Humility: People, Principles and Practices” directed/produced by Vivian Chávez is portrayed as a multi-dimensional concept that focuses on three themes that are central to this paper – the difference between cultural competence and cultural humility, critical self-reflection, and the recognition and challenges of power imbalances. The film uses stories, archival footage, and interviews to explain the importance of cultural humility and why knowledge and skill alone does not account for sufficient awareness regarding social inequality.

Cultural Competency and Cultural Humility

In agreement with what pediatrician Pamela Simms-Mackay reveals in the film about cultural humility and cultural competence, I would like to think of cultural humility as a tool for understanding and developing cultural competency. As mentioned in class, multiculturalism has its complexity, therefore, it is important to see cultural competency as a process and not an end product. Cultural competence is the ability to interact effectively with people of cultures different from your own. Not one person can attain cultural competence overnight. It involves “commitment and active engagement” in a lifelong process ( Just because you do not know certain aspects of another culture it does not mean that you are lacking in intelligence but rather you were simply not fully aware of that culture and its differences from your own either because no one told you about it or you never asked questions about it. Cultural humility, on the other hand, is recognizing and accepting that you are not culturally competent because it is a lifelong process. It means that you are open to learning the things you do not know about another’s culture, respecting their beliefs, traditions, and notions, and accepting them for who they are despite the differences. It’s like pediatrician Patricia Castaneda-Davis mentioned, once you can recognize your cultural incompetence, you display cultural humility by being comfortable in asking questions regarding the things about another’s culture that you did not know before.

The reason why I think cultural humility is preferred over cultural competence especially in multicultural medical education is that competence as a process requires cultural humility to develop and maintain mutually respectful relationships with both individual patients and the communities they are from. For instance, physicians will be able to treat their patients effectively if they first admit and recognize their shortcomings regardless of their medical background or “self-proclaimed cultural expertise”. Patients will then feel like they are being heard while being under the care of the physician. Cultural humility helps us understand that not everyone is like you and not everyone goes through the same motions of life and “it is okay not knowing” but rather wanting to learn more about it every day. It is an ongoing lifelong learning experience.

Critical Self-Reflection

One prominent message that this film emphasizes is that all should engage in critical self-reflection. This statement settles well with me because I think examining one’s self before concluding or making judgments about another’s culture or situation prevents us from being a hypocrite. Doctor Melissa Tervalon, in the film, says that every one of us is a “complicated multi-dimensional human being” because of our stories, histories, experiences, and backgrounds. It is these differences that make a community strong. You will only realize your strength when you acknowledge your shortcomings. Critical self-reflection means continuously challenging oneself. It makes us examine our intentions while approaching a client or a situation and keeps are actions and reactions at bay so that we do not offend the client unintentionally. I believe critical self-reflection creates an openness to learn from those we serve.

Power Imbalances

As an individual, I believe power imbalances can be recognized through your socioeconomic status (SES) which is usually measured by income, education, occupation, and concerning our current national situation, citizen/immigrant. For example, if you are poor or an illegal immigrant, then you are less likely to get all the health care information you need, or a proper timely response compared to your “well-to-do” counterparts because of the strong biases and discrimination surrounding physician-patient communications. I remember a relative talking about how her local physician dismissed some questions and concerns she had about her health by emphasizing on how he was the one with a degree and not her and so she should not act “all-knowing” by asking too many questions. One way, as an individual, as a student I can challenge such misuse of power is by using my privileges to advocate for those in need. For instance, I have access to education and other resources. I can use these to help my relative find a reasonable and approachable physician as well as provide awareness regarding her rights as a human and a patient. I would want her to know that it is not okay for people in authority to mistreat those who are of low socioeconomic status and that despite her SES, she should never stop asking questions rather use the knowledge she has, the privilege she has to help others like her to make an informed decision.

Like my relative, there are many others who still face the sad reality of social inequality due to power imbalance. If everyone engaged in critical self-reflection and saw cultural humility not as a sign of weakness but as a tool to understand and develop cultural competence, it would make all the difference. Accepting that one’s biases, stereotypes, and mindsets influenced by previous generations act as safety net to explain behaviors we do not understand because our knowledge and skills are limited, that it does not make us any superior, and that we do not have to feel embarrassed or disappointed for not being culturally competent, is one step towards cultural humility, and one step is always better than none at all.

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