This Overlooked Trait is the Key to True Allyship

Lincoln Hill, PhD on 2020-07-21

In the fight for social justice, how you read is more important than what you read

Photo: WestEnd61/Getty Images

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 counselors demonstrate some level of proficiency or competence in multicultural education during their clinical training. A therapist may assume that a Black woman client is irrationally angry when discussing her experiences with racism, and may dismiss their client’s feelings as a problem with the client’s negative outlook and not a symptom of systemic oppression. A 2016 study on cultural humility and racial microaggressions in counseling found that when clients perceived their therapist as culturally humble, they reported experiencing a smaller number of microaggressions in counseling.

You can apply cultural humility to every aspect of the fight for racial justice

Cultural humility isn’t just a concept for health care settings or practitioner-patient interactions. It’s a concept to infuse into your interactions in daily life and to apply to each step you take to become more anti-racist. Where cultural competence suggests that people may meet some arbitrary limit of proficiency related to working with and understanding others, cultural humility requires a lifelong commitment toward learning and rectifying power imbalances, while prioritizing what therapists call “mutuality” (or reciprocity) in relationship-building.

Cultural humility challenges the very notion of “expertise” in conversations about culture. It encourages people to adopt a more expansive worldview and to place other people, not themselves, at the center of the fight for racial justice.

Cultural competence is why a White manager skims White Fragility for relevant terms and definitions before their next staff meeting to highlight their “wokeness.” Cultural humility is why the same manager reads more radical texts on anti-racism from Black authors — privately, invisibly — while simultaneously challenging themselves to address how their social and situational privilege impacts their employees, hiring decisions, and workplace dynamics.

The quest for cultural competence is what compels a White person to send small amounts of money to random Black acquaintances they follow on social media (“Thanks?!”) as a form of reparations for the emotional labor of educating them as a follower. Cultural humility obligates you to interrogate whether those “gifts” are merely a penance for White guilt.

How to know if an anti-racism action is fueled by cultural competence and not cultural humility

Here’s a simple diagnostic:

  1. Does this action merely serve my need to feel helpful, or is it solely in service of others?
  2. If I believe this action is in service of others, is this specific action the most impactful way to serve them?
  3. Am I making any assumptions about this cause and/or group of people?
  4. Am I making any assumptions about what type of role or place I should take up in this cause?
  5. Have I committed myself to a lifetime of learning and reflecting on these questions, without further burdening those most directly impacted by this cause?

White Americans who continue to buy out all the copies of White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist — who run through a reading list in order to “catch up” to the lived realities of the rest of us — should all recognize, humbly, that reading is quite literally the least they can do.