What is cultural humility?

Welcome to Cultivate 4 Global Health, a blog and resources site dedicated to cultivating cultural humility, mutual understanding, and personal growth for the next generation of global health professionals.

We wanted to use our first post to introduce ourselves and discuss what exactly we will be reflecting upon in this space. We are two former MS Global Health students interested in facilitating cultural humility discussions among global health students.

So what exactly is cultural humility?

It is a lifelong process of self-reflection and learning focused on how we interact with people from different cultures and backgrounds, address our own implicit biases, and create an environment of love and respect between each other regardless of our differences. It is a process that never really ends and fosters personal growth.

Cultural humility is not about learning facts about a particular culture and gaining “competency” of that culture. While learning about a culture is absolutely critical, cultural humility is about learning ways to interact with others and listen to individual and population needs without applying cultural stereotypes. In addition, it requires reflecting on and recognizing power imbalances and developing respectful mutually beneficial partnerships (Tervalon & Murray-García, 1998). In the words of Tervalon and Murray-García, pioneers in the field, cultural humility is critical for health professionals so we are all:

“…flexible and humble enough to let go of the false sense of security that stereotyping brings. [We] are flexible and humble enough to assess anew the cultural dimensions of the experiences of each patient. And finally [we] are flexible and humble enough to say that [we] do not know when [we] truly do not know…”

As global health professionals, we have all been exposed and will continue to be exposed to people, cultures, countries, and continents that are different from our own. What one person might understand as the “normal” way of doing things might be completely different for someone else. And that in itself is beautiful.

But it does not come without its challenges. Especially in global health. Our job is to improve the health of populations globally in a culturally appropriate and sustainable way. It is our duty to ensure that we understand the factors that influence a population’s health and work together to find unique solutions. And that is where cultural humility comes in. This reflective process and way of thinking pushes us to reflect on our own actions and how they impact others, as well as build respectful relationships with the members of the communities that we serve.

In order to do that, we must know who we are as a person, at our core. This is the key to being able to connect with others and to challenge our own biases and assumptions. We need to constantly be asking ourselves “Why do we think the way we do? Why do we act the way we do? How do our perceptions influence our actions? How does our identity influence the way we interact with others? How does our privilege or lack of privilege shape our view of the world?”

This is what cultural humility is all about.  And this is what we will be reflecting upon in this space. We will discuss topics including but not limited to: telling your own story, challenging our implicit biases, recognizing our privilege, changing power dynamics, discussing the challenges of short term global health work, and how all of these apply to our global health work.

As always, please feel free to reach out to us if you want to hear our thoughts on a particular topic. In addition, please check out our resources page to kick start your cultural humility process. We are so grateful to have you join us on this journey.

Tervalon M, Murray-García J. Cultural Humility versus Cultural Competence: A Critical Distinction Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural Education. J Health Care Poor Underserved 1998; 9: 117–25.

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