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Does your cultural competence curriculum incorporate an understanding of white American culture?

Cultural competence is a key skillset for service providers in fields such as health services, social services, counseling, and education who know our society is becoming increasingly multicultural and multiracial. Effective service delivery requires an understanding of the culture of the clients and students receiving the services. If all people, both service providers and recipients of the service, share a common cultural framework, then everyone would share common expectations, values, and communication patterns. But this is not the case in our multicultural society.

Cultural competence, as a practice, has developed over the last 30 years. Today cultural competence training is commonplace, but some things have not changed. Notably, the composition of the service providers remains overwhelmingly white. Cultural knowledge of a great number of cultural groups is available and incorporated into cultural competence curricula. But one culture has been missing, and that is white American culture.

White American culture is simply the culture of white Americans. Given that the vast number of service providers are white Americans, and they typically provide services within predominantly white institutions, the need for inclusion of white American culture in a curriculum is not immediately apparent to many. But there are several reasons why it is both critical and beneficial.

White Americans do not consciously understand white American culture - White American culture is the cultural framework of white Americans, but most cannot specifically name its characteristics. This reflects how culture operates, which is often at a deeper level of consciousness. Culture gives us norms, values, expectations, patterns of communication and many other things. But in day-to-day life these become background and we focus instead on the people, events and concerns of everyday experience. Culture only becomes apparent when it differs from the familiar or no longer works for us.

People of color are often very aware of white American culture - People of color who are operating from a different cultural framework are more consciously aware of how white American culture operates because it differs from their own. When they seek services from predominantly white organizations or become service providers within these same organizations, they need to understand these cultural differences and how white American culture operates. This information may be transmitted as folk knowledge within their own cultural framework.

Self-knowledge is important - This applies to knowledge of cultures as well. White Americans need to understand their own culture in explicitly articulated terms, in the same way they learn about other cultures.

White American culture is the backdrop for everything - White American culture is the dominant culture in the United States. It has shaped our politics, economy, and social practices across all institutions, and for over more than two centuries of our history. Everyone, to some extent, functions within a white cultural framework. Understanding how this impacts people is important. Not incorporating an understanding of white American culture enforces the status quo by maintaining whiteness as the silent, unnamed standard by which all other cultures are measured.

White American culture influences organizational culture - Predominantly white institutions operate according to white cultural norms and practices. This organizational culture further delimits what professionals and others in the organization can do. For instance, itís conceivable that an African American therapist might work with an Asian American client, and have an understanding of both the therapistís own culture and the clientís culture, but still be accountable to organizational practices that originate from a white cultural framework. Thus an understanding of values such as individualism, collective family and ancestral relationships, and accountability (whether oral or written) may become complicated if there is no understanding or appreciation for the 3-fold nature of the cultural frameworks (therapist, client, organization) in operation.

Some people have called for awareness of white American culture - Some theorists of cultural competence have long called for incorporating an understanding of white American culture into the cultural competence curriculum. See, for instance, Sue (2001).

Understanding white American culture is necessary to changing it - Predominantly white service delivery organizations may aspire not only to serve multiracial groups of clients and students, but also aspire to become multiracial themselves. This will require an understanding of how white American culture operates in their organization, and what can be done to change it.

The Center for the Study of White American Culture, Inc. designs and facilitates classes, workshops, and customized in-service consultations that incorporate an understanding of white American culture into a cultural competence curriculum. We work with content providers who provide CEU-eligible courses to professional practitioners. We also work with agencies and institutions providing direct services to clients and students. Please contact us to find out more about what we can do for your organization.

Sue, D. W. (2001). Multidimensional facets of cultural competence. The Counseling Psychologist, 29(6), 790Ė821.



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