Let’s Talk About Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is not an artifact of social justice. Its first true manifestation – the definition of cultural competence as “an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures, particularly in the context of human resources, non-profit organizations, and government agencies” was developed as a way to create strong mediation mechanisms in the workplace and in hiring practices. In effect, the idea was not initiated by a genuine concern for the position of the world’s disempowered, but rather the machinations of public relations, regulatory compliance, and a desire to make work as streamlined and conflict-free as possible – it’s just good business, really.

So why have universities, once the epicenters of critical thought, adopted a model for interpersonal relations that smacks of checked boxes and conflict avoidance? “Cultural competency” is a dominant part of many campus narratives, particularly when discussing social topics that may make a particular individual or demographic uncomfortable. At Penn, the term (and its various iterations, given the conceptual inconsistencies stemming from different ideas about what “competence” really means) has been a tentpole for the 5B umbrella groups and the Undergraduate Assembly (UA), especially when contending with fraternities, Black Lives Matter, and safe spaces writ large. Cultural competency training seeks to provide a baseline worldview for how all interactions occur among various groups, with particular sensitivity to historical wrongs, ongoing barriers, and a predetermined judgment of modern race, ethnic, and socioeconomic relations. It is a more advanced version of the basic question, “why can’t we all get along?”

That generally sounds good. There’s a big problem, though: cultural competency is in the eye of the beholder, and usually the beholder has his or her own explicit social agenda.

Take the 5B: for all the talk about minority disempowerment, they are politically empowered beyond almost any other group on Penn’s campus. Their collective resources, combined with choice appointments on advisory boards, their strong presence in the Undergraduate Assembly’s Steering Committee, and their direct pipeline to many administrators, are reminiscent of the types of tactics and privileges afforded to interest and lobbying groups (the author has heard this view expressed multiple times, especially in the context of student government activities). The mere fact that the 5B at one point worked with the UA to devise a Greek community judicial board capable of censuring all fraternities shows just how quickly a particular segment of Penn society can implement its ideals of cultural relations through sticks-and-carrots maneuvers.

Penn’s proponents of “cultural competence” have turned a blind eye to blatantly insulting campus protests led by leftist groups such as Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation (SOUL).

Furthermore, the “culturally competent” among us are almost entirely self-annointed. There are no widely used cultural interaction tests with which Penn students can “check themselves.” Instead, cultural competency is often brought up in the intonations of a disapproving moralist responding to another’s supposed transgressions; on a larger level, competency training tends to be an ex-post reaction to widespread outrage at a particular act or mistake. As a result, there are rarely, if ever, productive exchanges about cultural conflict in Penn’s standard public debates. Without a meaningful way to address such issues ex-ante, the proponents of cultural competence are not truly able to incorporate and consider the genuinely held beliefs of campus dissenters.

There’s another, even bigger, conundrum as well: what exactly about our existing campus definitions of “cultural competence” is actually, well, culturally competent?

In day-to-day interactions, a culturally attuned person is not necessarily someone who tiptoes around the sensitivities and accumulated backgrounds of another individual. A culturally competent foreigner living in Lima, Peru, for example, understands that he will be targeted for theft specifically because he is likely to be physically perceived as an ignorant tourist. He will act to protect himself regardless of whether potential pickpockets are forced into their chosen illicit profession due to structural oppression outside their control. Similarly, it is not culturally incompetent to assert that modern Islam has a tendency toward Sharia radicalization, or that African-American leaders comparing the police to the KKK are themselves participating in a form of prejudiced half-thought, when the former is backed by statistical evidence and the latter is a generalization of an entire group of people based on a certain profession.

If you strip away the moral pretension of “competence,” you find that its key pillars – awareness of one’s own cultural worldview, attitude toward cultural differences, knowledge of different cultural practices and worldviews, and cross-cultural skills – are generalizable terms that lack a strong objective. One might as well just say, “be nice.” The critical thinker knows that there are certain times when it is appropriate not to be nice, but rather to ask the hard questions, make strongly held beliefs known to the public, and adhere to a personal conscience about proper social behavior. By discouraging the ability to challenge other views and replacing personal experience with a top-down command for nicety, cultural competency actually makes us less aware of the rest of the world – differences often only emerge when disagreements occur, after all.

The reality is that cultural competence only makes an adherent proficient in the culture of Western liberalism – the type of ideology that embraces “judge not” as its infallible creed. Sadly, there is nothing competent or enlightened about suspending judgment for a person or even a group of people. Such interactions are meant to be an experience, and controversy arises naturally due to the diversity of humanity. A failure to communicate one’s thoughts and views on another simply destroys an ability to relate deep cultural differences to any personal encounters – and gives more power to the privileged few who are dictating the terms of engagement.



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