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Shifting from Cultural Competency to Cultural Humility

By: Carlee

In any human services field, cultural competency is a crucial piece to the work we do. According to, cultural competency is defined as “the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures, helps to ensure the needs of all community members are addressed.” Everyone’s own unique culture influences their values, beliefs, what they do, and what they want for themselves. When a practitioner provides services to an individual, they need to have a good understanding of their client's culture(s) so they can provide the most appropriate and empowering intervention for that client. From a social work perspective, cultural awareness is actually one of our ethical standards per the Code of Ethics.

Yes, cultural competence is important and crucial to any human services field, but practitioners and researchers have started to understand where the idea of cultural competence might not be as effective as they thought. This is why the concept of cultural humility has been taking over cultural competence in the field of social work. There are many reasons why the social work profession has been shifting from cultural competence to cultural humility. Cultural humility accounts for more intersectionality of all identities of a client, it shifts the power from the practitioner to the client, it emphasizes one’s individual identity within the collective identity of one’s culture, and it identifies that cultural competence is not achievable, just practiced.

The first issue with cultural competence is that the focus is primarily on culture from a person’s race and ethnicity and it fails to take into account the other identities that make up a person. A person’s culture is influenced by all of their roles, identities, and intersectionalities. This could include, but is not limited to, one’s gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, age, career, hobbies, political views, etc. Cultural humility is more inclusive to all of the identities that make up a person and provides a better platform for a practitioner to use during interventions.

The second issue with cultural competence is that it forces the practitioner to be an “expert” of someone else's culture. Recent research has show that social workers can be much more effective when they adopt a position of learning from the client (Johnson & Munch, 2009). Cultural humility allows the practitioner to have a base understanding of a culture but also allows a client to become an educator of their own culture. This takes pressure off of the practitioner to be an expert on someone else’s identities, and also shifts the power from the practitioner to the client.

Thirdly, cultural competence lumps together all members of one culture and fails to consider the individuality a person embodies. By focusing on what one cultural group might value, a practitioner my miss what an individual values. Cultural humility takes a more holistic approach, focusing on the individual and the individual within their culture(s) and environment.

Lastly, past literature on cultural competence was not specific on whether or not cultural competence can actually be achieved. By practicing cultural humility, practitioners will understand that cultural competence can never be achieved and there are actually no “experts” on one culture. Essentially, cultural humility can always be practiced but never achieved. We can only use what knowledge we have and make connections from it. The vastness of culture and the identities that make up a person is far greater than one person can ever understand.

Altogether, cultural humility is more inclusive to all the identities that make up a person. This concept has been changing the way we see clients and intervention methods we use. We must not forget the importance of individuality, and remember that only the client is the expert of their life.


Johnson, Y., Munch, S. (2009). Fundamental contradictions in cultural competence. Social Work, 54(3), 220-231. doi:10.1093/sw/54.3.220

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