Cultural Competency Vs. Cultural Humility

Cultural Competency Vs. Cultural Humility August 25, 2014

The following post is by Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care here at The Marin Foundation.  You can read more from Jason at his blog, or follow him on Twitter at @JasonBilbrey.   1-DSCF9303

You’re going to say something wrong.

That’s the fear I validated here on the blog last week for those just beginning to engage in this conversation surrounding sexual orientation, gender identity and faith. It’s a steep learning curve, and the chance that you’ll say the wrong thing at some point is very high.

The desire not to offend is good. In my experience, most people play it safe in one of two ways.

The first approach is to say nothing. It’s hard to offend if you don’t open your mouth. There are any number of proverbs about “the fool” defending this position. It’s wise. However, it’s not really sustainable in the long run. The conversation around gender and sexuality has become one of the the defining issues facing the church today. As I wrote last week, moderate voices are needed.

The second approach is to equip oneself with the right vocabulary and the right set of expectations. It’s hard to offend if you don’t say anything offensive. Or at least in theory. In practice, these conversations can be very difficult to navigate, as we’ll see. But this approach is known as cultural competency.

There’s a third approach, of course. It’s cultural humility. In contrast to remaining silent or pursuing competency, humility accepts the probability of saying the wrong thing. It still plays it safe, in a way, but it promotes safety within the conversation rather than the safety of individual egos. The culturally humble person risks getting it wrong and embarrassing herself, because engaging with the other person is more important than saving face.

Here are a few more ways in which this new approach differs from the more traditional approach:

Cultural Competency says, “I’m the expert.” Cultural Humility says, “You’re the expert.” The goal of competency is to equip you with the right answers, as if the culture you are experiencing is a language you have learned to interpret. The cultural humility approach, on the other hand, is meant to equip you with the right questions.

Cultural humility, then, represents a shift in focus from confidence in one’s own knowledge to deference to another’s knowledge.


Cultural Competency is an end product. Cultural Humility is a lifelong process. Many individuals and institutions understand competency as being a kind of certification that you earn, qualifying you to engage in an approved way. Like a license to practice conversation. There’s no certification or class on humility. It’s an attitude you adopt. It’s a desire to learn, not a desire to be learned. It’s the education, not the degree.

There are powerful social instincts we have to approach groups with a desire to become an insider. It’s uncomfortable to remain an outsider, but this is where cultural humility pitches its tent, so to speak.


Cultural Competency implies an objective set of best practices. Cultural Humility implies a subjective set of best practices. I should be quick to point out that, yes, there is preferred language. This is a correct way (and an incorrect way) to conduct oneself as a straight person in a gay venue. There are, in other words, best practices. But that’s not to say that there are terms and practices that are right for every person or every space.

You need to exchange the idea of a universal set of cultural experiences for an individualized set. The term “queer,” for example, isn’t preferred by everyone. But it is by some. And you won’t know who until you take the time to listen. The same with “gay” or “same-sex attracted” or “trans.” What is right for one person is wrong for another.


The interaction you have is not with LGBTQ culture, but with the LGBTQ individual in front of you. After all, one person, with his/her/their limited experience of being LGBTQ, cannot truly represent the entire community. And that’s what cultural humility recognizes.

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