I recently had an insightful conversation with a coworker and mentor who has deep roots in communities of color in Seattle. We were discussing cultural competency and how a lot of trainings around that focus on formalized social service techniques and objectified cultural knowledge, rather than informal relationship building, caring, and networking.
This implicitly downgrades the importance of the already existing informal networks among communities of color. It downgrades the agency people have to produce and reproduce culture and resilience in the first place, e.g. the ways in which my coworkers of color know our students’ grandparents, aunties, friends, etc., which builds trust between us and our students.
Instead of teaching people how to honor these relational networks and how to earn a place within them through showing respect, many cultural competency trainings focus on teaching white people objectified sociological knowledge about communities of color; they impart this to white people through a kind of banking-model pedagogy that encourages white people to treat everyone else like characters out of a sociology textbook, as if people of color only exist as the opposite of white privilege. A certain social and emotional distance is maintained.
This results in white people who are hypervigilant about their privilege and are versed in calculating techniques of social interaction with people of color, but don’t know how to actually build mutually caring relationships that could challenge that privilege.
As Andrea Smith talked about, this also ends up reinforcing the white colonial subjectivity, the anthropological mind. People with this mindset are self-critical and self-reflexive, but from a distance. They continue to use people of color as mediums for their own self-reflection, as if people of color exist only to help white professionals check their privilege and overcome their biases.
As a result, cultural competency training never gets to a decolonial process of creating knowledge and selfhood together, through collective power and love.
It also implicitly assumes that people of color cannot overcome their own biases, and that the informal relationships among them are possible sources of corruption or inappropriately emotional connection. It values abstracted, reified, homogenous, and unchanging “cultures” rather than the millions of different ways in which people constantly change their cultures through relating to each other in creative ways.
In this sense, many of the methods through which cultural competency is taught are themselves Eurocentric and culturally incompetent.