On Cultural Humility

IMG_1251One of my favourite things about living in a multicultural society is the opportunity to work with people from many cultures. Diverse and multicultural societies are fulfilling, from the sharing of food, music and traditions, to an appreciation of the rich and varied ways we see, interpret and understand the world.


Exposure to multiple methods of seeing, interpreting and understanding is, in itself a process of knowledge making. When this occurs on a societal level, we create a more resilient and robust culture – a culture that evolves, one that is open to learning, and is flexible in response to the unknown: the new, the surprising, the intriguing, the other.


This is not the ‘other’ identified by shock jocks, who, in a narrow and inflexible sub-culture of their own, simply present an ‘us-and-them’ viewpoint: we, the civilised; and them, the alien, who must learn to be like us. This pushes us towards a homogenised culture that excludes and marginalises. It is a violent culture. While stopping violence is a goal on which all can agree, both society and the state allocate resources to not only exclude and marginalise but to forcibly remove those who can be described as not being ‘like us’. And here is the challenge: what does ‘like us’ mean: is it those with the same religion, skin tone, family structure?

This is not to deny that different world-views and traditions can come into conflict, with or without shock jocks and other old-school cultural warriors fanning the flames. One progressive response we see in workplaces, including universities, is ‘cultural sensitivity’ training and its evaluative criteria, ‘cultural competencies’. While admirable endeavours in many ways, these have one limitation that is worth examining more closely, which is that we often (not always) end up with a ‘check list’ approach.


If each item on the list is ticked off, can you be considered culturally competent? Can we ever truly understand a culture other than our own? If the deep historical and cultural contexts can never be fully conveyed, how can we continue to work against marginalisation and exclusion, and to share our different world views?


Addressing this dilemma is the work of Professor Colleen Hayward, Head of Kurongkurl Katitjin, Centre for Indigenous Australian Education and Research at Edith Cowan University.  Last week I was lucky enough to hear Professor Hayward at the annual University Learning and Teaching Forum in Western Australia, where she spoke on ‘cultural responsiveness’.


It was an inspiring presentation, and inspired me to reflect on the potential to build on another cultural learning perspective: cultural humility. Over the last year, I have been working with two young Indigenous scholars based at the Ngara Willim Centre, RMIT. Matthew Starr and Carly Donovan, as well as Milton Nomikoudis from the Learning and Teaching Unit, have been exploring this concept of cultural humility, or the understanding that working with other cultures is a never-ending learning process – and one in which it is an honour and a privilege to participate.



More than fifteen years earlier, Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia discussed ‘cultural humility’ in a 1998 article for the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved (vol. 9, No.2). In contrast to the cultural competencies approach, which essentially involves a class-room environment where the teacher delivers sets of information about specific cultural practices, Tervalon and Murray-Garcia define cultural humility as a ‘lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique’. While their focus was on doctor/patient relationships, the same approach can be adapted with respect to any cultural interactions.


In teacher/student relations, we know this from the work of Paulo Friere, who advocated a move away from the type of classroom that assumed students are ‘empty vessels’, passively waiting to be filled with the teacher’s knowledge. His revolutionising literacy theory demonstrated that teachers have as much to learn from students as students do from teachers. Each person in the teaching and learning environment brings a wealth of human experience, informed and shaped by language, traditions and practices; or ways of seeing, interpreting and understanding the world. Cultural humility teaches us that there is always more to know, and more to learn.


Never is this truer than when working with First Peoples.


This post is, I hope, the opening words in a wider conversation on cultural humility, part of our ongoing work on the shared Australian experience, to live harmoniously, to enrich and be enriched, to reciprocate, to teach and to learn. I am writing these thoughts on behalf of a broader group committed to developing and sharing a deeper cultural responsiveness and humility. Please share your thoughts. We look forward to the conversation.

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2 Responses to On Cultural Humility

  1. Anna Dimitriou says:

    Brilliantly articulated!
    Finally someone who is not afraid to say it as it should be said.
    Unfortunately, minority groups suffer from the cringe, and are challenged by it throughout their schooling years and in their working life in Australia. It is very difficult to break through this lingering, and often debilitating disease of cultural imperialism in our society. It takes real courage to speak out for the rights which each person has the right to expect. When students from minority cultural groups put huge effort, and many years of hard work into bettering themselves, socially, professionally and academically it is not too much to expect that they will be rewarded. Unfortunately, however, this is often not the case and then we see many demoralised young, and older people who have so much to offer and yet are not given a chance because it is not a level playing field.
    Such a conversation which you are raising gives us hope that perhaps there is hope for minorities in the future!

  2. Pingback: Re-defining literacy: Internationalisation as a form of literacy… | Prof. James Arvanitakis

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