No more “cultural competence” trainings and other thoughts about power


It’s time to turn our backs on Cultural Competence Trainings.

Erin, our Chief Fakequity Writer, is away, so she left me with the fakequity keyboard. I’ve had a lot of random and not so random fakequity topics running through my head and scattered on post-it notes. Today, I decided to write a post calling myself out on fakequity in training. If we’re honest, we all have a little (or a lot) of fakequity we’re personally upholding. The good news is that I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

[Before I dive into this self-exposing blog post, I feel the deep desire to justify, qualify, or put my work in context. I need to affirm I’m a good social justice advocate. And this is one of the greatest barriers to doing real, raw, and truthful racial and social justice work. So like the old Saturday Night Live Stuart Smalley skit, I am just going to tell myself, “I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” And, I believe I’m not the only one who needs to expose the fakequity in my personal actions. This work is hard. And every time I feel the need to share my justifications, I’m going to do it in italics and brackets, so we can see how often this feeling shows up.]

I have been facilitating and conducting “cultural competence” workshops for the past ten years. Most of this work has been in mainstream, historical white and currently ‘mostly white’ spaces. Clients have been anxious to talk about differences, especially cultural differences. I have often been asked to talk about cultural competence in connection with community engagement, interpersonal communication, and access/inclusion. I have obliged. [Of course, from the very beginning I also talked about privilege and power, but mostly at the individual level and in more recent years more deeply at the systemic level.] But it has only been in the past year or so that I have told people I am no longer interested in conducting “cultural competence” workshops. Even my website still reflects this language. [But will be changed as soon as my copywriter, also known as the Chief Fakequity blogger gets back to Seattle.]

I believe “cultural competence” is popular because it allows mainstream systems, mostly full of white folks in power, to feel ok talking about cultural and identity differences, without talking about the uncomfortable topic of race and power. [I really wanted to believe that cultural competence could be an entry point into more explicit conversations about race and power.] But what really happens is cultural competence becomes a way to show or prove we’ve ‘checked the box,’ without changing or giving up power, and leads to people saying “I did it, I’m ok – I’m a good racial equity person.” I am not longer willing to be complicit in supporting the “good person/good organization” flag waving.

Let’s get real about power, especially racialized power.

I recognize we can’t talk about differences without talking explicitly about power. Race is the ultimate example of how systems and power have used (the perception of) differences to inequitable distribute power. We live and operate in a system where white people’s feelings, thinking, and doing are more valued. White people’s feelings are important, and I want people of color’s feelings, thinking, and doing to be equally valued. This means shifting power, which will feel like disequilibrium for many. But if you’re a true white ally or accomplice, you’ll understand that the way things have been centered around you, isn’t even good for you, and definitely hasn’t been good for people of color.

How most cultural competency trainings cater to white culture and upholds structural racism

Feelings: The unspoken and underlying appeal of these types of trainings are they are comfortable for white people, especially white people in power. Unintentionally, or not, most mainstream organizations practice tone policing – toning down anger, frustration, or direct truth-telling by people of color. Why should people of color need to make white people feel comfortable when we talk about racism? This hurts all of us by racializing power and holding back important stories about hurt, anger, injustice, and on the flip side hope, joy, and the coming together of communities.

Thinking: Mainstream organizations value people who speak English, can quote research and best practices, and have fancy degrees. If your organization values academia more than lived experiences by people of color experiencing racism and classism your organization is part of the problem. If you can only listen to people who sound like you and speak to you, you are part of the problem. Overvaluing the methods and ways white people think and frame ideas is racialized power. Ideas, brilliance, and experiences come in all different packages, some with fancy degrees attached and some without, some with an accent and some in a language other than English, some via PowerPoint and some via theater or spoken word.

Doing: I’ve started to refer to doing cultural competence training in groups of mostly white people as working in an echo chamber. Even if I present an idea or tool that has been created by and for people of color, it is still interpreted and filtered through mostly white experiences. Or sometimes, ideas I present are totally disregarded or written off as too idealistic, not realistic, or too radical. The ability to dismiss the ideas of people of color is racialized power.

 So are you ready to engage in racial equity work?

 Today I am more honest with clients about what I believe will advance racial equity for organizations. And, interestingly the power and freedom to be more honest about my work has also made me better at my work. Here are the four questions I now ask every prospective client.

  1. Is your organization ready to talk about race explicitly? This doesn’t mean I won’t talk about race at the intersections of other identities, but I will not work with you if you shy away from talking about race directly and deeply.
  1. Are white employees ready to be uncomfortable? The point to racial equity work is to disrupt the monopoly white people have on comfort. It’s ok, normal, and promotes growth to be uncomfortable some times. And, how people deal with discomfort is part of the learning.
  1. Are you willing to ensure, and offer compensation, so there are more than a token few people of color in the room? This is my commitment to no-more white echo chambers. This means organizations need to stipend community members, volunteers, students, or community partners to participate. It also means holding workshops at different locations or at different times to accommodate poc partners.
  1. Is your organization ready to slow down, change course, and try something new? Part of upholding institutional racism is we follow the same paths, approaches, and practices that we’ve inherited. Fast and “efficient” is not always productive. Yes, this also means your organization will need to dedicate more resources to achieving racial equity but the longer term outcomes are worth it.

The next time you think about hiring a consultant to come in and help you, ask yourself if your organization is willing to dig deeper. Ask some harder questions and try something new versus the standard trainings.

Post By Heidi

4 thoughts on “No more “cultural competence” trainings and other thoughts about power

  1. Mary G says:

    Make Fakequity Great(er), My thoughts about your post are that you make a great point that it does not make sense to sit and talk as a group of white people (white echo chambers) about how we can break down racist practices and the racist systems. I think that becoming part of multi-cultural or black neighborhood group to learn how it is. To take the time to actually live in a community that is black and has multiple needs and problems. To learn about their approach and what there goals and plans are for change would be a more valuable and a real learning experience.


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