Archive | June, 2012

The problem with cultural humility

29 Jun

A colleague recently suggested that we should retire the language of “cultural proficiency” and “cultural competency” for “cultural humility.” Her argument was that fundamentally, we need to come from a place of respect for norms, worldviews and ways of being that are different and sometimes unfathomable to us.

While I agree, I also disagree. Not with the concept of mutual respect. But with the notion that everyone needs to learn cultural humility.

I would argue that many of us have experience with cultural humility as our dominant mode of interaction at work, at school and in other realms of our day to day lives. It’s hard for me to digest that, for example, LGBTTQQ folks needs to learn cultural humility, as far as engaging a heterosexual and heterosexist society. Or that Muslims need to learn cultural humility as people of faith in the Judeo-Christian normed US.

Which leads to a truth about people: our identities are multiple, complex, not equally evident on the surface when you look at us, and not equal in their impact on our status, access to resources and opportunities and inclusion in the communities in which we live. So a gay white man with a physical disability may have some cultural humility to learn, and could perhaps use some cultural uppity-ness in other aspects of his engagement with others.

But when my colleague suggested cultural humility as the right lens and means for inclusion and equity, I saw a lot of agreement. And I noticed that a lot of those nodding heads were white.

Which leads me to this reflection: I think the concept of cultural humility is rooted in a presumption of privilege and really resonates in cultures like the SF Bay Area’s, where there’s a lot of guilt over being part of dominant cultures and being privileged in any way. While sincere, this self-consciousness can also be paralyzing: I personally believe that every one of us should acknowledge, embrace, and wield the power and privilege we have for greater good. As long as we deny we have it, we effectively refuse to use it for equity and justice, and by default empower the very systems of unfair advantage that we claim to stand against. So I say, work it.

I also say: let’s be careful about advocating means to equity and justice that favor and thereby continue to empower dominant, normative cultures. That’s my fear about abandoning cultural competency/proficiency for cultural humility. Once we all feel more humble, including those of us who have been taught from the beginning that it is our place to be humble in society (because we are immigrants, because we are poor, because we are obese)… then what? And whom does that serve?

Does cultural humility make me a better, less oppressive person? Not necessarily.

What cultural competency/proficiency requires of us is that we enact our intentions for inclusion and equity in our everyday relationships and actions. Cultural competency (or proficiency, whichever you prefer) is about skills, tools, lenses and practice. It’s about what we do as individuals, and it’s about what our institutions and communities expect. Cultural competency is a means of actualizing inclusion and equity collectively, by making the practice of inclusion and equity part of the core expectations for membership in any community. Cultural competency does entail cultural humility–but competency doesn’t need to wait for, or end with a feeling.

Diversity by design

28 Jun

Here’s a TED talk for all of us:

Journalist John Hockenberry talks about how “We are all designers” with a simple thesis: our intentions are realized in our design. Hockenberry offers a simple example: flashy wheels for his wheelchair, which transformed him from someone you’re not supposed to stare at, to someone little kids want to hitch a ride with. It’s not just about the cool wheels, of course; the implication is that the wheelchair itself was designed as much for the look-away effect it has, as the wheels were designed to be looked at.

Hockenberry’s thesis reminds me of systems thinker Barry Richmond’s statement, “All systems are perfectly designed to get the results they get.”

I think about this a lot when I work with organizations. A school that is struggling to increase diversity in admissions or hiring must first recognize how they are perfectly designed to get the admissions or hiring yields they’re getting. As opposed to wondering why more minorities aren’t applying or accepting positions in the community, the question is really: how are we–from our hiring and admissions processes, to our daily practice of inclusion and equity–cultivating homogeneity despite our stated commitment to diversity? Because if an organization’s diversity work is foundering, it’s likely because it’s set up to fail.


22 Jun

PS stands for “people staring” according to the Push Girls, four women who have been wheelchair bound for most of their adult lives. Now the focus of a new reality TV series on the Sundance Channel, they hope to make a lot more people stare.

While I’m not a big fan of reality TV, I’m intrigued by the premise of this show. My very first post on this blog was about the SF Bay Area company Bespoke Innovations’ work to change the experience of people with prosthetics. Bespoke’s fairings transform “don’t look, don’t ask” prosthetics into personal statements that invite us to notice and admire, both the technology and the whole person in front of us.

Now, not surprisingly, the four women of “Push Girls” are “strikingly beautiful, stylish and dynamic”  ( Not your stereotype of the wheelchair-bound. But that’s kind of the point, at least according to Auti Angel, who emphasizes the diversity of people with physical disabilities. “Yes, we are disabled, but we can’t represent the disabled community as a whole because we’re living our lives. I can only represent myself.”

For better or for worse, she may not have much choice about representing. While approximately 1.6 million US Americans living outside of institutions use wheelchairs, very few are high-profile in public life and the media (beyond the fictional Charles Xavier of the X-Men and Artie from Glee).

And with individual invisibility, comes group invisibility. Here are some stark statistics from UCSF’s Disability Statistics Center ( on the socioeconomic status of wheelchair-users in the US:

  • Adults without a high school education are more than 5 times as likely as college graduates to use a wheelchair (2.2 vs. 0.4 percent).
  • Only 11.2 percent of adult wheelchair users have graduated from college, compared to 21.6 percent of the general adult population.
  • Just over one-sixth (17.4 percent) of working-age wheelchair users have jobs, or 107,000 people aged 18-64. An additional 2.9 percent (18,000 people) are unemployed, meaning that they are either looking for work or on layoff. The remaining 79.6 percent (489,000) are not in the labor force.

As we talk about the unacceptable national unemployment rate, I wonder how it is acceptable for over 80% of any group to be out of work. And I wonder if four hot women in wheelchairs can help raise awareness and catalyze change for greater inclusion and equity.

So if you check out “Push Girls,” which is currently airing, let me know what you think.

Cue laughter

21 Jun

The Gawker recently ran a column, “Is It Possible To Make A Successful Black Joke About Obama?”  (, in which Drew Magary offers his opinion: yes.

Magary argues:

You can get away with making fun of anyone so long as A) You’re funny, and B) You’re willing to also make fun of yourself… When most people attempt such a tricky endeavor, they fail. This is because many people who make black jokes about the President really ARE racist… If you’re some smug redneck asshole who thinks it’s HIGH-larious to read a joke [like this:] you’re not gonna be able to pull off such delicate comedic feats because everyone knows you have malicious intent.

This is where he lost me. See, I imagine racist jokes are funny… to people who are racist.

While Magary signs off, “YOU SHALL OVERCOME [emphasis his]” regarding the right to crack black president jokes, it seems to me that he’s really arguing about and for his desire, as a person who wants us to know that he’s not racist, to make black jokes about Obama and rest assured that we’ll laugh with him. He expresses his irritation at not being able to flex his racial funny bone, noting, “I’m not going to try to make a decent [black joke about Obama] right now, because I don’t want to get fired.” As someone who declares that he’s not “one of those people who subscribes to the idea that certain groups of people can’t make jokes about other groups of people,” Magary seems to chafe under the pressure to subscribe.

And I find myself simply disagreeing that there is a formula for making an identity joke that is “successful.” That is to say, for which the joker is irreproachable and laughter is guaranteed. Because no one gets to play the “I’m not racist” immunity card and then dictate what’s not racist–and therefore, funny–to other people. Freedom of speech includes accepting the consequences–the good, bad and unexpected–for the things we choose to say.

* In his column, Magary links to Lindy West’s “A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism’” (, which I may have linked to in a previous post. On identity jokes, West writes,

Here’s the thing about jokes. They only work when they’re aiming up. I wrote this in another piece recently, but I’m just going to plagiarize myself: People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That’s why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor (“Isn’t it funny how Steve can barely feed his family? This guy knows what I’m talking about!” [points to other janitor]).

While her argument about “aiming up” is compelling, I think she makes the same mistake that Magary does, in focusing too much on who is telling the joke. It seems to me that what’s not funny is powerlessness, whether the CEO or Steve the janitor is trying to get a laugh.

“A Father, a Son and a Fighting Chance”

20 Jun

Today, I just wanted to offer a link to a NY Times piece, “A Father, a Son and a Fighting Chance” by Dominick Zarrillo, father of one of the men who challenged and helped overturn Prop 8: It’s a well-written, moving piece about standing up, for oneself and with each other.

Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Tracy Morgan disinhibited

19 Jun

Do a quick internet search for “rant” plus Mel Gibson, Michael Richards or Tracy Morgan, and you’ll find coverage of their public anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic (respectively) tirades.

Explanations for their hateful speech tend to pitch tents in one of two camps: the closeted-bigot-exposed camp, and the good-guy-drunk-or-provoked (he didn’t meant it! No way he’s an anti-Semite/racist/homophobe) camp.

This weekend, an article in the SF Chronicle posed another theory: that their words can be explained by power. In “Power is not only an aphrodisiac, it does weird things to some of us,” journalist Vicki Haddock writes:

“Disinhibition is the very root of power,” said Stanford Professor Deborah  Gruenfeld, a social psychologist who focuses on the study of power. “For most  people, what we think of as ‘power plays’ aren’t calculated and Machiavellian–they happen at the subconscious level. Many of those internal regulators  that hold most of us back from bold or bad behavior diminish or disappear. When  people feel powerful, they stop trying to ‘control themselves.'”

So when movie star Mel Gibson told the police officer who pulled him over  that he “owned” Malibu and that Jews were the source of all the wars in the  history of the world, it’s hard to know whether to attribute his irrational  hubris to the effects of power or drunkenness, or both (

Gruenfeld’s research asks in its own way which came first: the bigotry or the power trip? Perhaps bigotry was just a convenient vehicle for Morgan, Richards and Gibson, who were drunk on their own sense of celebrity power. Just like bigotry was just a vehicle for Dharun Ravi, when he realized his heterosexual power to humiliate his roommate Tyler Clementi.

I suppose that in terms of immediate impact, it doesn’t really matter whether hate speech and hate crimes are motivated by a power trip or by bigotry. But when it comes to education, prevention and intervention, I think this offers a powerful way to reframe the issue and really help people. Whereas the first accusation of racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism typically drives people into a defensive “not me” stance, talking to them about power–what drives us to assert it and what tools we’ll use when we’re desperate or drunk on it–could keep critical doors of communication from slamming shut, and help more people think before they flex whatever -ism is handy.

The school bias for skinny kids

18 Jun

A national study of childhood obesity investigates how weight impacts academic performance. According to the study:

[Researchers] compared the academic performance of students who were obese in kindergarten or first grade and remained so through fifth grade with children who were never obese. The data also included teacher reports of children’s interpersonal skills and feelings such as sadness or loneliness.

When children were tested one-on-one in math, those who were obese began scoring lower than their peers in first grade, the study found. The timing suggests that the relationship between obesity and poor academic performance takes root as children progress in school, [lead researcher Sara] Gable said.

“Kids who start school with weight problems come to kind of understand that, you know what? Maybe other people don’t like me because of this,” she said. “I don’t believe these children are ‘less smart,’ but I do believe if they’re put into a situation where they’re being expected to perform … they don’t perform as well.”

The study’s findings persisted across demographic differences, including race, household income, maternal educational attainment and employment status, and parental expectations for their child’s educational achievement  (

Given that obesity has correlations with race and class, the issue here adds a critical dimension to the conversation about achievement gaps along race and class lines.

The study also challenges a normative convention, which is that we don’t talk about weight in general and obesity in particular. Even the researchers behind this study at times hedge their language, referring to kids “with weight problems” when they mean obese or fat kids (as opposed to kids who struggle to put on weight).

In the US, we try to pretend we don’t see fat people, tacitly claiming weightblindness, much in the same way that people claim colorblindness. But we do see. We just choose to be weight-mute.

The consequence? Giving free rein to social and self-directed weight bias, and even validating it (in trying not to look, we can give the impression that we don’t value or even acknowledge obese people). And the bias is double-edged: it protects thin kids while disadvantaging the fat. And while being protected by a positive bias may not seem like something we need to stop, I’d argue otherwise. It’s not healthy, helpful or resilience-building for someone to associate their intelligence or ability with their thinness, and so I don’t want to perpetuate any association between weight and academic performance. Period.

Perception matters

15 Jun

I just delivered a diversity and inclusion keynote at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, during which I presented some of the abundant research on the real, quantifiable effects of bias in the workplace. There are stunning and consistent studies that defy our sense of individual agency (isn’t it just a matter of hauling hard on those proverbial bootstraps of our national mythos?) But hopefully, rather than resigning us, they encourage us to recognize that “success” is an outcome of both individual action and an equitable environment.

Here’s one example of the research I shared:

Controlling for sex, age and weight, a 6’2” person will earn $166,000 (over a 30 year career) more than their 5’5” colleague. S/he’ll also enjoy greater social esteem, better performance on the job and overall career success (Judge and Cable, 2004).

This put at least one tall person on the defensive. She shared that she certainly didn’t feel so advantaged. And that’s the thing: the bias of our every day is subtle enough that we can rationalize and permit it to continue. Consider what $166,000 breaks down to: an advantage of less than $1.50 per day. But still an advantage, and certainly one that adds up.

Here’s how Judge and Cable explain the height effect (which holds for women, although both men and women can be “too tall”–case in point: juries tend to prefer tall, but not towering attorneys. While being reasonably tall suggests competence and authority, being “too” tall can belittle or intimidate others):

According to the researchers, tallness activates positive bias within the individual and among her/his peers. This leads to the impression that her/his work is also good–and what fascinates me is that the work actually is enhanced by positive esteem. The impression and actuality of good work leads to career success for this individual. And how can we argue, because after all, s/he did do a good job?

Wow, right?

Now, as a short person, I will tell you that I’ve enjoyed positive esteem and performance reviews. But not, apparently because of my height. Judge and Cable’s work doesn’t conclude that only and all tall people will be professionally successful: just that height facilitates success, much as the “right” name does (yes, another study demonstrates that we tend to regard “Steve” as a leader, as opposed to “Stuart”).

And awareness of our tendencies to be biased gives us the power to choose what we do want to be biased about because it’s a bona fide occupational qualification, and what we don’t.

More on this as it impacts kids on Monday…

Superficial little babies

14 Jun

People show a preference for pretty faces. When does this bias begin? After years of exposure to Hollywood and Vogue magazine?

Psychologist Judith Langlois has found that infants as young as 2 months old demonstrate a preference for beauty.(

Langlois hypothesizes “that attractive faces may gain some of their positive associations because they require less effort to perceive and categorize than unattractive ones… [B]eautiful faces are not just easy on the eyes, but also easy on the brain.”

In other words, when we have to stop and take extra time to process what we see (in this case, an unattractive face), the extra effort attaches a negative bias. Wow, right?

And all this happens before we even notice that we’re noticing–and evaluating–someone’s appearance. Of course, while none of us is immune to an apparently fundamental and very human tendency to prefer people who are attractive (as defined by regular, symmetrical features), all of us can choose whether or not to discriminate for or against people based on their looks. Langlois, for one, “takes pains to ensure she treats all of her students fairly regardless of their attractiveness, by setting exam make-up policies at the beginning of the term and refusing to make exceptions for individual students.” That is, she sets policy and expectation considering what is fair, given that it’s only human to be unfair.

“Reclassifying all children equally”

13 Jun

Monday’s post elicited a response that led me to Project Race, a group that “advocates for multiracial children, multiracial adults, and their families primarily through multiracial education and community awareness. We do not advocate for racial classifications, but are committed to the appropriate inclusion of multiracial people on any forms that require racial identification.”

To that last point, they offer some examples on their website of how organizations can solicit demographic information more inclusively. Here’s one example, a “Standard Two-Part Short Form For Multiracial Sensitivity”  (

Ethnicity: Is your ethnicity Hispanic or Latino? (A person of Cuban, Mexican,  Puerto Rican, South or Central American. or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.)

☐  Yes

☐   No

Race: The question above is about ethnicity, not race. Please also choose from the list below. If you are multiracial, you may select two or more races.

☐  White

☐  Black or African American

☐  American Indian or Alaska Native

☐  Asian

☐  Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander

What I love is how simply this form disentangles race and ethnicity (which is critical to understand trends within broad racial groups). My only contention is that the work Project Race is doing isn’t, in my opinion, about multiracial sensitivity. It’s about accuracy. And we all benefit from that.

** Thanks to Susan for the shout out, and the opportunity to learn about Project Race.