This Overlooked Trait is the Key to True Allyship
In the fight for social justice, how you read is more important than what you read
If the New York Times bestsellers nonfiction list is any indication, White people are in speed-reading mode, trying to make up for 400 years of systemic oppression as quickly as possible. It’s the Great White Study-Up of 2020.
As a Black woman who studies counseling psychology, I appreciate that people are self-educating on topics of race and oppression, rather than relying on Black friends, family members, neighbors, and even strangers to engage in the emotional labor of explaining these subjects. But what people reading those books need to understand is that being anti-racist isn’t about checking off boxes.
Becoming more culturally competent (gaining knowledge about cultures different than your own) is only one part of anti-racism and won’t necessarily lead to understanding and personal change. It must be paired with cultural humility, which involves an acknowledgment that the “other” group holds the expertise. It’s a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation — an understanding that the journey is never complete.
The health roots of cultural humility
Cultural humility is a term coined by doctors Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-García in 1998 after they noticed concerning deficits in how health professionals worked with patients from different cultural backgrounds. For decades, the attempt to empathize with marginalized patients had been a matter of becoming more culturally competent: Doctors and therapists merely “acquired” intellectual knowledge about topics related to culture (definitions of terms, acknowledgment of different cultural values and belief systems, etc.).
But a focus on cultural competence values expertise over curiosity. It assumes that cultural knowledge is finite and can be mastered. And in that assumption, it perpetuates and centers dominant and oppressive world beliefs and perceptions.
That can have a profound effect on the lives of Black people, For example, in Madonna Constantine’s research, many Black people reported experiencing harmful racial microaggressions in therapy, despite requirements that all…