Cultural Competency


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When working within the field of social work and human services, one is more likely to confront people from diverse cultural backgrounds, highlighting the importance of cultural competency. When discussing the topic of cultural competence, the idea presented encompasses the concept of diverse attitudes, behaviors, as well as skills enabling one to operate efficiently within a cross-cultural setting. Given the diversity and the challenges it presents in society, cultural competence goes beyond the awareness of the differences, but presentation of attitudes that make it possible to operate amid the differences. There is no doubt that operating in the world today necessitates that one has to operate in a culturally diverse environment (Diller, 2017). There are various terms associated with cultural competency that are defined in this paper, including cultural awareness; knowledge acquisition; skill development; and Race and ethnicity. The definitions are followed by a description of the similarities and differences between each of these terms, and conclusion with a discussion on implicit and explicit bias (define each term) and why this is important for social work practice.

Definition of Terms

Cultural Awareness

Cultures are different, and it is inevitable that one must interact with the different cultures. Therefore, for the achievement of cultural competence, one must develop cultural awareness. The term refers to the achievement of a high level of sensitivity and understanding of one’s own culture and the cultures of other ethnic groups. Awareness has always played out in determining the social place of one’s own and of the others, as the basis for the treatment towards those considered different (Hall, 2008). Cultural awareness operates within the self, resulting in the change in attitude and values. An individual who has achieved a high level of cultural awareness will be able to recognize personal values and biases. There will also be an understanding of the values and biases of other people that one is interacting with.

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Whenever one meets an individual from another culture or ethnic group frequently, the reaction is important in indicating the level of cultural awareness. Cultural awareness plays out in adjusting one’s behaviors and attitude to be able to interact appropriately with others, especially those from other cultures or ethnic groups (Hall, 2008). To be better in accepting and serving other people, this level of understanding other ethnic groups is critical. It is important to be open to the idea of changing the attitude when confronted with cultural differences. Mostly, cultural awareness is the basis for the people to experience their social world (Rosenblum & Travis, 2008). Based on the cultural awareness, people tend to view and experience the social world and relate with those therein differently.

Knowledge Acquisition

It is critical that cultural awareness is supplemented with cultural knowledge. The acquisition of cultural knowledge is critical for those working and interacting with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds (Lum, 2017). The acquisition of knowledge suggests being knowledgeable about some cultural attributes, historical backgrounds, beliefs, values, and behaviors of other cultural or ethnic groupings. In a country like the United States which has historically been impacted by immigration, individuals are confronted with profound cultural differences. Cultural knowledge is achieved through a learning process, primarily through interacting with other cultures. Learning is not complete where one does not pass on the information to others to expand knowledge acquisition.

The knowledge acquisition process is influenced by the socialization styles and processes held on by different cultures. An individual who has acquired the knowledge is well suited in understanding how other cultures socialize and interact, with their own and those from other cultures. For the last five decades, cross-cultural research has emphasized on the difference between the western and eastern cultures (Hall, 2008). From the point of view of cultural knowledge acquisition, it has been noted that cultural differences and the learning associated with the same is a response to the environment within which the initial development of the culture occurred. Hence, knowledge entails an understanding of these historical backgrounds, in addition to the differences. The history of America has been characterized with the differentiation of people based on their race and ethnic backgrounds. Knowledge has become the basis of the efforts to live with one another regardless of the differences.

Skill Development

Cultural competence suggests the developing of some skills that allow to safely engage with cultural diversity. Various skills can be developed for one to work effectively with individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Cross-cultural skills are one set of skills that a person should develop when working in an environment where the person is likely to be confronted with cultural differences. It is critical for one to be able to negotiate working with individuals from different cultural backgrounds (Diller, 2017). The ability to work with people from different cultural backgrounds is an important skill that should be developed.

Skills development within cultural competence suggests a set of abilities that should be developed for intercultural effectiveness. Some of the specific skills that should be advanced include tolerance for differences, relational skills, empathy, adaptability, and perceptual acuity. With the skills, one will enjoy interacting and communicating with those from other cultures, tolerate change in environments characterized by cultural differences, ability to change one’s behavior based on cultural demands, being able to empathize with a person from another culture, and the ability to understand the feelings of others as well as the subtle meanings of the interactions (Diller, 2017). The skills should be developed through learning and by socializing with others.

Race and Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are two concepts that have a shared ancestry, but the two ideologies are different in many ways. The concept of race is used in reference to a group of individuals who have similarities and differences in terms of biological aspects considered socially significant. Traditionally, people have treated one another differently because of the racial differences. For instance, differences in the color of the skin (white versus black), have been considered significant and the basis for different treatment (Hall, 2008). Race, unlike ethnicity, is a unitary construct, meaning that one can have only one race (one is either black or white). Racial differences are the basis for the negative treatments that have been perpetrated towards those belonging to a different race (white towards blacks) (Rosenblum & Travis, 2008). Historically, the whites have acted aggressively towards the blacks in the US.

Ethnicity is a concept used in reference to shared cultural perspectives, practices, and distinctions. These are the aspects that tell apart one ethnic group from another. Hence, ethnicity is a cultural heritage that is shared by individuals from the same ethnic grouping. Some of the distinguishing elements of ethnicity include a common ancestry, language, religion, a feeling of shared history, and dressing forms. Unlike the racial differences, ethnic differences are not hereditary, but they are acquired concepts (Hall, 2008). This is the reason behind the reality of an individual claiming multiple ethnic affiliations. One can be either black or white but identify him/herself as either Polish or Irish.

Comparison/Contrast the Different Terms

Cultural awareness should always be supplemented with knowledge acquisition in matters relating to cultural competence. It is critical to have an awareness of the differences (cultural awareness), but this should go to another level of understanding, being knowledgeable about the behaviors and attitudes of the self and others, to be able to effectively work through the differences. Hence, from this point of view, cultural awareness is founded on the cultural knowledge that one is able to acquire through learning and socialization. It is the basis for being sensitive to and understanding the differences that are inherent in other cultures (Hall, 2008). Cultural awareness and knowledge acquisition is the basis for the internal changes in attitude as well as values. These are the qualities that are developed by individuals as they relate and interact with others.

While the concepts of cultural awareness and knowledge acquisition are similar in the aspect of internal change, they are also different in some ways. Cultural awareness occurs at a basic level of understanding and being sensitive to differences in culture. On the other hand, knowledge acquisition goes deeper in terms of developing the understanding of the cultural elements, including historical background, beliefs, values, and behaviors of other cultures (Lum, 2017). The idea, in this case, is that there is a deeper conscious step involved in the acquisition of knowledge on cultural differences. It is a learning process that one embarks on in order to gain the understanding of other people’s cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

On the same note, acquisition of knowledge and skills development differs from cultural awareness because of the conscious step in understanding the differences. Hence, knowledge acquisition and skills development are similar from the perspective of taking conscious steps towards gaining knowledge and developing the skills necessary to ensure that one is able to interact and communicate with those from different cultural backgrounds (Lum, 2017). The learning process takes place in a social setting where the person makes the conscious decision to learn and understand the attributes of the other cultures and the differences that are inherent in the same. However, the two concepts refer to different aspects of cultural competence.

Knowledge acquisition is used in references to the learning of the principle and information relating to other cultural and ethnic groups. The learning takes place from published and other sources of information. On the other hand, skills development relates to the development of the ability to use the information acquired and its application in the context of culture (Diller, 2017) Hence, while knowledge relates to the theoretical aspect of the process, skills relate to the process of getting the desired results. In terms of knowledge, one can learn how the people from other live or what they believe. On the other hand, skills relate to the ability to understand how things are done and possibly take part in doing, if need be. This means that skills development entails the ability to transform the knowledge into practice.

Cultural awareness, knowledge acquisition and skills development as relating to cultural competence have a relationship to race and ethnicity. Particular groups of people are defined either by the way they look or other differences that define them and make them a member of the particular group (Rosenblum & Travis, 2008). Cultural awareness relates to the understanding of the aspects that make people different, including their race and ethnicity. Hence, when one has gained the awareness, the person is able to understand the racial and ethnic differences, and ensures that he/she is not a hindrance in the way he/she relates to the target groups (considered different). For instance, a white person with cultural awareness is able to understand a black person because of the cultural awareness. Also, it is possible for a non-Hispanic white to understand a black American and relate effectively.

Knowledge acquisition also relates to race and ethnicity from the perspective of the conscious effort to develop a deeper understanding of the attributes of different racial and ethnic groups. Cultural awareness is not enough unless it is supplemented with cultural knowledge from different cultural groups. It is necessary to have knowledge and understand on how the different cultures differ in terms of historical backgrounds, beliefs, values, and behaviors (Hall, 2008). Different racial and ethnic groups have different attributes that should be understood and appreciated.

Additionally, it is critical to understand that knowledge is not enough unless it is put into action, indicating the need for skills development in understanding differences in racial and ethnic groupings. Evidently, there is a relationship between awareness of the differences, going deeper into acquiring knowledge and putting the knowledge into practice through development of skills. With the skills, one does not only understand the concept, but is able to put whatever is acquired to practice. People are different based on their physical attributes such as skin color (race) and the sense of peoplehood (ethnicity) (Hall, 2008). Cultural awareness and knowledge allow one to know that the differences exist. However, going further to develop the skills allows one to relate effectively and communicate with the people showing the differences.


People have different attitudes and opinions towards others, especially those individuals they do not belong to their racial or ethnic group. The attitudes come in form of bias towards the different group. The attitudes come in two levels; they can be explicit or implicit. The explicit attitudes (bias) are those that occur at the conscious level, which means that they are deliberate and easily self-reported. On the contrary, the implicit attitudes (bias) are those that occur at the unconscious level, which means that they are not deliberate. These biases are typically unknown to the person who exhibits them. Whether implicit or explicit, the biases have an important role to play in social work practice due to stigmatization. Social work is a practice environment that requires constant interaction with other people from diverse cultures. Most of the individuals who come into contact with the practice are vulnerable and come from the marginalized racial and ethnic groups. As such, the biases play an important role in how those working in the environment interact with their clients. Whatever form of bias, it can impact on the service provision to the client. It also impacts on the way the service provider views the client, hence, affecting the kind of service one provides.

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