White People Have Culture

IMG_5953
“Mauri” or life principle, illustration by Nancy Nicholson in Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere’s book, te wheke: A celebration of infinite wisdom. Awareness Book Company, 1997.

The word ‘culture’ is misused and abused. We often use the word ‘culture’ as some strangely polite code word for race and ethnicity, for people who are somehow ‘not like us.’ And those of us white people, part of the dominant culture, typically don’t even believe that we have our own culture–like racism, we can’t see it because of our own power and privilege.

Within health care, we have trainings, courses, (and silly multiple-choice tests) on ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘cultural competence.’ As if being sensitive to or competent in this thing called ‘culture’ is possible, and if possible, as if it is a good thing. When what we should be doing is teaching to cultural humility and its Kiwi sister, cultural safety: building in self-reflection, life-long learning, and work to see/undo institutional racism.

I’ve written about different aspects of this issue in previous blog posts: “Cultural Competence, Meet Cultural Humility” (8-16-11), “Cultural Humility Redux” (2-2-14)  and “Cultural Safety: A Wee Way to Go” (3-12-14). Until recently, I much preferred the name/concept of ‘cultural humility’ over the name/concept of ‘cultural safety,’ mainly because I didn’t comprehend the need for the word ‘safety.’ My white privilege comfortable blindness there. But the escalating, deeply disturbing litany of racist violence in our country has forced me to see–duh!–the need for ‘safety.’ My recent return to New Zealand, the birthplace of the term ‘cultural safety,’ also opened my eyes to deeper layers of nuanced meaning of this term, of this work.

Jim Diers, MSW and I co-led an international service-learning study abroad program, “Empowering Healthy Communities,” on the North Island of New Zealand this past summer. We had a group of twenty-two engaged university students, across a range of health science and ‘other’ academic disciplines, and from a rich diversity of self-identified race/ethnicities. As many of them pointed out in their final written reflections, they learned as much from living with our group for five weeks as they did from interactions with New Zealanders. We spent a lot of our time working alongside and listening to community members on various Maori marae (villages), as well as Pacific Islander and other marginalized groups in New Zealand. We learned of their strengths, considerable community non-monetary assets, of their hopes for the future–as well as their challenges and historical traumas…the subtext being the need for cultural safety within health care, as well as within all other New Zealand institutions.

As part of a traditional Maori greeting, people introduce themselves–not by our typical name and credentials/work/university, but rather by details of where you are from: the names of the mountain and river of the land of your family/tribe. So for many members of our group, it was “My mountain is Rainer (or Tahoma as local tribes call it) and my river is the Duwamish (currently an industrial dump/Superfund site..).” And “My people are from Italy, England, Nepal, Mexico, the Philippines (and wait–why ‘the’ with Philippines?–important history lesson of oppression there), China, Israel….” Lovely diversity, except that none of us, unfortunately, could claim Native American/Indian ancestry. We were always asked about that by our Maori hosts–another important history lesson that wasn’t lost on our students. Through participating in this seemingly simple ritual of greeting, we all learned about our own cultures.

At the end of our study abroad program, we received an amazingly powerful talk on cultural safety from Denise Wilson, RN, PhD, a Maori New Zealand nurse and Director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies here in Auckland. She talked to the students about her work with cultural safety in New Zealand–about the need for the ‘cloak’ of cultural safety. She told the story of well-intentioned Pakeha (white/European New Zealander) nurses asking their Maori or Pacific Islander patients, “What are your cultural practices,” and being met with polite, blank stares. “Because that’s our language, our terms, not theirs,” she added. She gently admonished our students to get to know themselves, their own cultures and biases, and to practice humility when working with people they perceive as ‘different’ from themselves–to listen, and “really listening takes time.”

Her closing quote, from Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Pere, whose book I reference in the photo caption in this post, was this:

“Your steps on my whariki (mat)/Your respect for my home/opens my doors and windows.”

Words to live and work by.

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