Cultural Humility, Not Cultural Competence, and More

September 4, 2019


“Obtaining any lasting benefit from diversity requires not just the presence of a diverse workforce but also effective leadership that can manage conflict, create cultures of inclusiveness characterized by psychological safety and growth mindsets, and make organizational change where needed to support a diverse workforce.” — Lily Zheng, on the limitations of the “business case for diversity”.


For those who work with diverse groups of people on a day-to-day basis, cultural competence has become a buzzword for success. But according to anti-violence advocate Fiona Oliphant, cultural competence is “rooted in the premise that if we simply learn generalizations about cultural traits attributed to races, ethnicities, religions and so on, then we will attain a universal understanding of everyone who identifies as a member of that group.” In other words, if you attend a training, you’ll automatically understand how to work with marginalized groups.

Instead, Oliphant calls for a newfound focus on cultural humility, which acknowledges how impossible it is to know all of the nuances of different cultures. In contrast to the “passive checklist activity” of cultural competence, cultural humility involves “a life-long process” of reflecting on one’s biases and assumptions, asking questions, and mitigating power imbalances when we notice them.

Our Take

Cultural humility is a practice that aligns directly with our belief in challenging assumptions about unfamiliar cultures and identities. Instead of considering ourselves to be “competent” in one culture or another, adopting cultural humility can foster more genuine and long-lasting relationships.

How It Affects You

Notice when you feel compelled to “fill in the blanks” in your understanding of people who seem very different from you. Ask yourself whether you’re filling in the blanks with assumptions and biases—and whether you could ask a question instead.


Some retail brands are getting pushback for hiring only “thin, white, able-bodied, 20 something” influencers to market their products on Instagram. As one user writes, “The story being told is that these experiences are only available to white people.” Maya Kelly, a former PR professional, reports that when one undisclosed company said they wanted diversity, they ended up choosing one “diversity pick”—an Asian woman. Kelly thinks it was because they consider Asians the “model minority.”

Instagram Influencer

That speaks to a trend among these Instagram brands. Their approach to diversity is not only tokenizing, but that “diversity pick” is usually someone who fits stereotypically Western beauty standards. The influencers tend to have lighter skin tones, or are racially ambiguous. Blogger Stephanie Yeoboah sums up the issue: “ is disturbing to see a continued pattern of blatant sidelining and absence of women of colour in this relatively new industry.”


These brands show us exactly how not to approach diversity and inclusion work. Their “check the box” mentality views diversity as an afterthought and an obligation, rather than an opportunity or a way to build inclusive culture. By latching onto Western beauty standards, the brands in question perpetuate stereotypes. And at their worst, they disregard diversity altogether, repeatedly choosing only “skinny white girls,” as one user put it, to represent their brands, and systematically excluding anyone who doesn’t fit their ideal influencer vision.

How It Affects You

Not all brands who hire Instagram influencers are failing in terms of diversity. For instance, REI reviewed criticisms of their marketing blind spots and came back with an effective approach. Now, they consider “diversity in terms of color, body shape, gender, ability and more,” and are careful not to tokenize. If you use Instagram influencers or any other social media marketing techniques, what can you take away from REI and other brands that take diversity seriously?

Rotten Tomatoes Film Critic


Most of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes are white and male. In fact, only 30% of the 100 or so contributors with Top Critics status are women. Critic Shannon McGrew says that sometimes, she and her fellow female critics aren’t taken as seriously as men, and that some female critics have even received death threats. Now, Rotten Tomatoes says they’ve added security measures to avoid “review bombing,” which is when movies featuring more women and minorities—like “Captain Marvel” or “Black Panther”—are flooded with negative reviews by unapproved contributors.

But Rotten Tomatoes is also thinking bigger.

The company recently launched a diversity campaign that added over 300 female critics to their ranks. Their parent company, Fandango, is also putting up $100,000 to boost diversity initiatives at film festivals and throughout the film industry. So far, according to a survey of the newly added critics, having the Rotten Tomatoes-approved status has helped to “amplify and legitimize” their voices on the site.


Diversifying a popular film criticism site like Rotten Tomatoes can do a lot for movies that feature women and people of color, as well as for the critics themselves. Because most critics who get exposure are white men, films created by or featuring women and people of color often receive biased reviews, and are subsequently sidelined.

It’s important to diversify fields like film criticism, so that creative works by underrepresented artists and innovators get fair reviews and the attention they deserve. In the film industry, diverse criticism would allow film execs to see the value in a broader range of films, leading to more opportunities for women creators and creators of color. Not to mention, the film viewing public would read reviews with more breadth.

How It Affects You

Are there any roles at your institution or organization that have a gate-keeping function, or roles that assess the quality of work that’s produced? These are roles that, if filled by a member of a marginalized group, would have a strong impact and make hiring, initiatives, and future directions more inclusive. Diversifying such roles will help you avoid tokenizing employees from marginalized groups. It’ll also be an effective way to foster an inclusive culture in the long-term.


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