‘Cultural humility’ fosters a lifelong self-examination of racism

January 6, 2021
humanity humility

The work of identifying racist attitudes and behaviors is not only uncomfortable, but also never-ending, said Kerri Fisher, a lecturer and diversity educator at Baylor University.

Recognizing white privilege and oppressive social systems isn’t enough to sustain “cultural humility,” said Fisher, co-chair of the Race Equity Work Team in Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.

“There are always new ways to be unjust, so we have to always be learning,” she said.

“Cultural humility” describes an ability to critically self-reflect on the existence of cultural differences and impacts on marginalized groups with the goal being to build relationships with those groups, she explained.

Fisher outlined the process for achieving cultural humility, anti-racist and anti-oppressive attitudes during a recent interview with Baptist News Global.

Have you seen more people seeking ways to understand racism, including their own, since the racially charged summer of 2020?

Oh, absolutely. I was very pleased at a national level that many books on anti-racism were inaccessible during the summer because so many people were interested in pursuing that first step of engaging with materials by people of color. And I personally have been asked to speak regularly to a lot of different groups that want to prioritize decentering whiteness or decentering dominance.

How does cultural humility training lead to antiracism?

That’s up for debate. Some people would say policies and practices happen first, then we change people’s minds. And some people would say the steps of cultural humility that I teach — engaging, examining, evaluating, educating and evolving — are the microlevel efforts that make people interested in changing the macro-level systemic issues. It can happen in both directions, but I think many people are overwhelmed at the notion of being activists or policy changers, but they may be interested in reading something by someone who is different from them or watching something by someone different from themselves.

Is a formal class needed to engage in this process, or can individuals pursue this on their own?

I think the answer is no, it can’t be done completely on our own. Even when individual work is needed, it needs to happen within the boundaries of community and relationship where we discuss things with other people and run things by people. It is my analysis that we never will become anti-oppressive and anti-racist and anti-bias without changing things at a systemic level.

Even when individual work is needed, it needs to happen within the boundaries of community and relationship.

What kind of content is available out there to embark on this kind of learning?

We are living in such a rich time when it comes to available content by people who are different from ourselves. There are so many books and podcasts and movies about being culturally humble or anti-oppressive. In my lifetime, there never has been a time where it’s easier to watch something, say, by an Asian American who identifies differently than me in terms of gender and culture and religion. Anything that can be read, or watched, or listened to by someone different from ourselves can be instructive.

What can a person’s reactions to the process reveal about their level of cultural humility?

Any time our bodies react stronger and maybe unexpectedly, that’s something to pay attention to. If I find myself talking back to a podcast and offering a defense, then that’s worth noting. If I find myself weeping, what do those tears mean? Are they from embarrassment? Are they from anger? There’s a corny saying sometimes in mental health: “If its hysterical, it’s historical.” If I find myself reacting to something in a big way, it’s probably something in my past, either personally or societally, that is bothering me.

Speaking of podcasts, you have one called “On Ramp.” What is it about?

“On Ramp” is a podcast I do with my best friend from college, Shane Blackshear. He came to me with the idea. He said there are a lot of Christians out there who would like not to be racist. The idea is to present a Racism 101 podcast that offers people little digestible episodes to get them into the conversation.

How does repentance play into this process?

For those of us who identify as Christian, humility is a virtue that we aspire to and fail at time and time again. Like any sin, if I find that I have been prideful, that I have been arrogant, that I have been cold to the experience of someone else, then I think that calls for repentance. Repentance is a turning inward or a turning toward.

But particularly for those of us socialized in America, we have been socialized that arrogance and pride are a good thing. So, it’s reasonable and right for me as a Christian to say where I have thought of myself as better than, or thought of myself as only, then that requires repentance.

What healthy actions can or should follow these personal revelations?

Once we have evaluated our hearts and our behaviors and we have repented, action definitely comes next. It’s one thing to ask forgiveness and it’s one thing to think about things in a new way, but it is just as important to make a plan for embodied change. There is a saying in sports about being “comfortably uncomfortable.” We must push ourselves to be comfortably uncomfortable in this work. It means continuing not only the reflection piece, but the accountability piece in our spontaneous interactions and opportunities to do justice.

We must push ourselves to be comfortably uncomfortable in this work.

How do you and students know if the process is working?

It’s progress, not perfection. One of the most important pieces of this work is being humble enough to fail over and over again. I look for those who are trying on new language and asking questions they weren’t brave enough, or interested enough, to ask before. They may ask in ways that are awkward or use racist language, but they are moving toward a holier ideal. How does one know if they are growing in cultural humility? They can examine whether they are a bit more willing to hear and to act with justice at the center of their listening and their doing.

Is this really a never-ending quest? No end in sight?

That is absolutely correct. One of the biggest problems we encounter as we try to become anti-racist, as a culture and a Christian community, is that our brains prefer black-and-white concepts. That means we protect false notions of ourselves. I may think I am not racist because I don’t want to be racist or because I refuse to acknowledge racist thoughts I had in the past. But we have to find peace in the fact that this is a life-long process with little-by-little change. Anytime I feel I have figured it out, that’s not a safe place to be for someone who is trying to be culturally humble and anti-racist.

This article first appeared in Baptist News Global.