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I'm Not A Fan Of Cultural Competency

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Or at least, the way it's being taught in therapy schools

This post won’t go in-depth about how the field started, or how it’s changed. That’s not my expertise. This post will be about my own experiences as a person of colour, having gone through and am going through psychotherapy training programs. It’s about the isolating and often harmful ways the training programs impact people of colour. It’s about why these training programs need to change the way they teach. It’s about how education should become more inclusive, and reconstruct curriculum so that it encompasses the needs of BIPOC folks.

Let’s begin by saying that psychotherapy as a field was born from cisgender, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied, white men. A lot of the foundations of psychotherapy are based on the white experience. What is considered normal is also based on whiteness. Many of the theories, which form the basis of psychotherapy are centred on the assumption of whiteness as the norm.

In recent years, and my experiences, there is an attempt to include cultural awareness and competency when educating students. Which is great! Culturally aware and sensitive therapists will lower the possibility of harmful impacts on clients. It’s the way that it’s taught and discussed that creates problems for me.

Oil and Chalk Pastel Self Portrait of Asta's frustration
A visual response: capturing frustration & anger in a self-portrait

Bubbling Frustrations: Just One of Many

These discussions are usually with either white professors or white classmates. A recent experience that I struggled with was a discussion about practicing with multicultural clients. The readings assumed whiteness as normal. The discussion questions did not take into consideration that a person of colour was in the class. I was asked to talk about how to expand my cultural competency by experiential learning (I.e. making friends of different cultures). I was asked to take an inventory of my friends and reflect on how many friends I had were BIPOC. All of these questions assumed that I was not a person of colour. Experiential learning, a cultural inventory: these words were used to describe me, a POC. It made me feel like I was an experiment or a checkbox on a list of competencies.

I decided to be honest and vulnerable about my struggles with the readings. I could not relate to the readings as they just weren’t meant for my lived experiences. I could not answer the questions without feeling uncomfortable and disgust. I decided to speak up about how not culturally sensitive the course and the material were. And throughout the whole thing, I was wary that I would be penalized for it. After all, I am not the one with power, and I am criticizing the ones that do.

My classmates asked me to educate them and to tell them more. My classmates probably meant well. They wanted to know what they were doing that may cause harm, so that they can be more culturally sensitive and aware. I know it comes from good intentions. What they, and my professor, don’t understand is that speaking up and speaking out about my own experiences is tiring. It takes a lot of mental and emotional labour. It’s something I experience every single day. Just writing that post on the discussion forum took me hours. I had to formulate my experiences and thoughts into words, which meant reliving unhappy events and emotions. I had to consider who was going to read my posts because I was afraid I was the person “who makes everything about race”. I was afraid that people would become defensive if I called them out. I had to write it in a diplomatic, flattering way so I didn’t sound like I was accusing someone. It sounded ingenuine and deceitful to me to sugarcoat my words like that. I had to protect myself, and be vulnerable, all in a 200-word post. I was tired out for the rest of the week, yet there was the expectation that I still respond and contribute to the forum.

My professor asked me what I would feel like working with clients who were heterosexual, cisgender white males. I called her out, and this was the response. I’m disappointed. She ignored or missed my point. Preferably, I would have responded with “that’s really not what I’m pointing out here and would like some evidence that you listened and are reflecting on your incompetency”. If I said that, I’d probably get penalized for it. I spent another couple of hours and multiple chats and help from friends to craft a response. I had to craft another flowery, bullshit, polite response.

What I Want To See

After these experiences, I’ve come to some conclusions about how cultural competency should be addressed and taught. These are things that would make me feel comfortable in exploring other avenues of cultural competency that do not center on white fragility. I know I have a lot of work to do when it comes to my privileges and awareness, but conversations are stalled when I have Caucasian classmates who just don't get it.

Things I think are necessary:

  1. It should probably be taught by a person of colour. Seems obvious, but in my experience, that hasn't always been the case.

  2. There should not be an expectation that people of colour will be vulnerable, or teach about what’s okay and what’s not.

  3. The emotional and mental labour should be taken into account for BIPOC folks. It might be a good idea to have a cultural competency for just white folks and a separate one for POCs.

  4. That way, racial minorities don’t have to deal with whiteness and hold their fragility. It’s not on me to educate a white person on my culture. It’s not on me to tell how their words have affected me. It certainly isn’t on me to hold them in their white fragility. That’s not a responsibility I want or will bear.

  5. I'm allowed to be angry and frustrated. Don't tell me to calm down or tell me I'm too sensitive.

  6. Please. Let's have readings that are written by persons of colour in regards to cultural awareness. I'm tired of reading cultural sensitivity articles written by white people for white people, with the assumption that whiteness is the norm.

I'm pretty sure there are more things I would like to see, and it will probably be an ever-growing and ever-changing list. But this seems to be a good starting point. Probably.

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