Cultural competence refers to the set of attitudes, practices, and policies that enables a person or agency to work well with people from differing cultural groups. Other related terms that have been used are cultural sensitivity, transcultural skills, diversity competence, and multicultural expertise.
Until the early 1990s literature on cultural competence in interpersonal violence was virtually unknown, although there were a few limited studies on particular problems (e.g., rape, battering) among members of specific groups. The literature began to grow in the 1990s, but many areas remain underexplored. There is a particular dearth of information on the effectiveness of cultural competency training and culturally competent approaches to interpersonal violence.
Discussions of cultural competence can be divided broadly into two groups. The first takes a cultural literacy approach. In this approach, information is provided about working with people from a specific culture on issues of interpersonal violence in general, or on a particular problem of interpersonal violence. Cultural literacy approaches emphasize learning about the history, values, and practices of members of particular cultural groups, so work can be adapted to them. While the cultural literacy approach is helpful, it can also be misleading since not everyone from a single culture behaves the same way or shares the same values, and the culture itself evolves and changes every day.
The second broad group of discussions takes a multicultural approach. The multicultural approach describes ways to be as fair, supportive, and effective as possible to individuals and families from a variety of cultural groups. Rather than offering information or guidelines about people from a specific group, the multicultural approach takes the position that there are ways to address interpersonal violence that “fit” a variety of cultures. Multicultural approaches emphasize openness, flexibility, and a respectful curiosity toward the people with whom one is working.
Individual Cultural Competence
Cultural competence is often described as a direction in which to head rather than as a plateau to be reached. Individual cultural competence includes skills such as building rapport, conducting assessments, and interviewing people from diverse backgrounds. Cultural competence also includes attitudes such as respect toward all people, an appreciation of the diversity of solutions to common problems, and openness. Other components of cultural competence include a willingness to engage in introspection and be humbled by the limits of one’s own experience and knowledge, a developed sense of the role of power in social relations, and willingness to advocate for members of oppressed groups encountered within one’s professional role. Linguistic competence is a subset of cultural competence and refers to providing services in the language preferred by the consumers of those services.
Culturally competent practice in interpersonal violence includes fair assessments, so that given problems are neither governor underreported among members of specific cultural groups. Culturally competent intervention ensures a fit between the professionals’ practices and the cultures of the people who are experiencing the intervention. Common practices that have been developed by and used with members of the dominant culture may need to be adjusted so they can fit better with people from particular cultural groups. In addition, culturally competent interventions include practices that are indigenous to the cultures in question and build upon existing strengths.
Culturally Competent Policies
Culturally competent policies are those that make it most likely that people from diverse cultural groups will benefit from the services offered and not be over penalized by punitive interventions. Culturally competent policies also work to support the hiring of professionals who are well suited to working with members of a variety of cultural groups. Sometimes this implies matching for ethnicity or race, whereas at other times it implies language competence or comfort with minority religious values.
Culturally Competent Agencies
Just as individuals vary in their cultural competence, so do organizations. In organizations, cultural competence refers to meeting the needs of stakeholders outside the agency such as clients, as well as meeting the needs of diverse members of the organization, such as employees. At one extreme are monocultural organizations, which are primarily Eurocentric and ethnocentric and which do not take cultural diversity into account. In the middle are nondiscriminatory organizations, which have inconsistent policies and practices regarding multicultural issues and where changes that are implemented to promote diversity are often superficial. On the far end of the spectrum are multicultural organizations, which see diversity as an asset; their commitment to diversity is infused throughout the organization.
A diverse staff (in terms of training, age, gender, class, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ability) improves the likelihood of cultural competence and enhances an agency’s ability to generate creative approaches to diverse client experiences. Diverse staff communicates an openness toward culture that may be key to working in ethnic minority communities.
Culturally Competent Research
Research within the field of interpersonal violence is often seen as ethnocentric and lacking cultural competence, resulting in an overemphasis on problems and an underemphasis on solutions in members of minority and oppressed groups. Culturally competent research in interpersonal violence not only conforms to the highest ethical principles within the professions, but also integrates extra sensitivity in the design, execution, and dissemination of studies, to take cultural variations into account. Such research makes sure the key concepts are relevant to the cultures being studied, that groups are labeled in ways that make sense, and that the results will be used to enhance the wellbeing of the cultures studied. Common errors, such as the confounding of ethnicity and social class, or the collapsing of subgroups into larger groups with limited validity, are avoided.
Culturally competent theory in interpersonal violence is based on principles that are either universal or especially relevant to the cultures in question, not theories that are imposed by theorists who lack knowledge of the culture being discussed. Discussions of cultural competence in the various areas of interpersonal violence such as child abuse, rape, intimate partner violence, and youth violence have developed largely independently of one another. These problems frequently are interrelated and co-occur within individuals, families, and communities; thus achieving cultural competence in the field of interpersonal violence will most likely require a knitting together of the diverse approaches generated in each of these areas and others.
- Fontes, L. A. (2005). Child abuse and culture: Working with diverse families. New York: Guilford Press.
- Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. (2006). Color of violence. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
- Lewis, A. D. (1999). Cultural diversity in sexual abuse treatment: Issues and approaches. Brandon, VT: Safe Society Press.
- Sokoloff, N. J. (2005). Domestic violence at the margins: Readings on race, class, gender and culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
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