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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

Understanding and Embracing Cultural Diversity

Embrace the elephant

Plenary Address for The Arc’s National Conference Saturday, August 3rd, 2013 Bellevue, Washington

I’d first like to acknowledge we are on the land of the tribes that make up the Puget Sound Salish people. One of those tribes is the Duwamish, of which Chief Seattle was a member. His name might be familiar to you. However, you may not see the Duwamish tribe listed on maps of the area, because they are still fighting for federal recognition and are at a critical moment in this struggle. If you are interested in supporting this community, please go to and make a contribution to their legal defense fund. As people who are understanding and embracing diversity, I appreciate you letting me take a moment to call for your support. That’s what happens when you ask an activist to give a keynote.

My name is Ilsa Marie Govan. My first name, Ilsa, is not from my cultural roots, which are Romanian, Polish, English, German & French. It is a Scandinavian family name of my mom’s best friend when she was a child. My mom says I whispered my name to her when I was in the womb, which is not surprising given I was born in a commune to hippy parents.

My last name, Govan, comes from my dad’s side of the family because mine, like many other families in the United States, has the cultural practice of giving the last name of the father to their children. When my French ancestors first came to this country via invasion of First Nations lands in Canada, the spelling and pronunciation of our last name was changed from Gauvin to Govan.

My mom gave me the nickname, Ilsa Marie Govan, prettiest girl in all the land—I’m sure you can see why. We later questioned this as an unusual choice for a feminist mother.

That is part of my name story, one activity we did with the Equity Team at The Arc of King County to build relationships and better understand our cultural differences. I’ve been working with The Arc of KC over the past 2 years to address issues of racial equity for people with disabilities. Today I’m going to share a big picture of what cultural competence means, focusing on racial diversity, and then the next speaker Hye Kyong Jeong will talk about some specific programs addressing equity and inclusion.

In addition to introducing myself by telling you a bit about my cultural background, I also want to start by naming the elephant.

How many of you have been told not to notice race and especially not to talk about it? In cultural competency work, we encourage people to talk about what is clear to everyone but is not being said. In this case, I’m sure most of you noticed I’m white. I’m guessing some of you thought it was a little unusual for a white person to be the one addressing issues of racial equity and cultural competence. So I’m going to talk directly about that elephant: being a white person working for social justice.

First, it is important you know the bulk of what I’m sharing today and the extent to which I understand these issues comes from the writing, speaking, partnerships and relationships with people of color working for social justice. Their scholarship and our conversations are the foundation on which I’ve built my understanding.

I also believe we all have a responsibility to address issues of inequity. Far too often, advocating for racial justice has rested on the shoulders of people of color. This work is not just about recruiting a diverse staff or serving people of color. It is about justice. Even if you are working in an all-white community, I want you to reflect today on your connection to the diversity of the larger population and how social justice enriches all of our lives. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Whether we are white or people of color, whether we are poor or wealthy, whether we have a disability or not, I invite you to join me in thinking about how we can work with, not to or for, all communities for our collective liberation.

So what does cultural competence and racial justice have to do with The Arc? Let me quote another Civil Rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

When we look at the intersection of race and disability, we find some of the most systematically disenfranchised members of our communities. Employment rates are just one example. While only 35% of white people with disabilities are employed in the US, an abysmal figure in itself, that number drops to 25.8% of African Americans and 28.6% of Native Americans or Alaskan Natives with disabilities. Clearly both the big picture of employment and the racial gap needs the attention of organizations like The Arc.

However, there can be a lot of confusion about what to do. What does it even mean to be a culturally competent professional?

As Derald and David Sue, two Chinese-American psychologists point out, cultural competence is an on-going process. Anyone who truly commits to this work has to be willing to change. You cannot just attend this fantastic plenary and the awesome panel presentation The Arc of KC is doing tomorrow afternoon, check a box, have a group hug, and continue to do things the way they’ve always been done. Cultural competence requires sustained work over time.

Changing our organizations and ourselves is not easy. We may feel our jobs are at risk as our organizations change priorities to be more inclusive. We may deny our own stereotypes or feel shame for not recognizing them and, as a result, unintentionally excluding or hurting people.

For example, there are many people who don’t want Native team mascots, like the Washington Redskins, to change, despite years of protest by Native people and their allies. When I was in Junior High, my school mascot changed from the Redmond Warriors to the Redmond Grizzlies. Many of us felt a personal connection, a sense of our identity, tied to the Warrior mascot. When I played volleyball, I was a Warrior! We would never discriminate against Native people on purpose. But even after the yearbook was published with a stereotypical drawing of an “Indian” in a headdress, it was still hard for us to admit our mistake. Besides, my ancestors didn’t create the school mascot.

Admitting we had unintentionally stereotyped Native people meant we had done something racist. None of us want that marker on our identity. It was a struggle, but social justice advocates were eventually able to convince the school to change, as they have at many across the country. And, once I was willing to really listen, I learned something valuable about my own biases in the process.

That’s one example of how we can personalize and then feel defensive about issues around race, even as we say we want to understand and embrace diversity. A key to growing your cultural competence is to make mistakes, admit them, apologize, learn, and change your behavior moving forward.

When you or your organization is working to be culturally competent, you are constantly in the process of going from unconsciously incompetent to unconsciously competent around behaviors and policies.

An example of this from my life is the use of people first language. For a long time, I wasn’t even aware that people first language existed, much less why it is important. I was unconsciously incompetent. I’d talk about the handicapped guy or the special ed kids at my school. Then I started studying to be a special education teacher in college, and my professors taught me the importance of people first. But, even though I knew better, I still would say things about the “disabled people” out of habit. I’d catch myself even as it was coming out of my mouth. That’s conscious incompetence. I call this the painful part, because you know what you want to do differently, but it’s like your thoughts and your mouth aren’t working together on this.

The next step is conscious competence. This is where you have that voice in your head reminding you of what you should do just in time to actually change your behavior. For me, it sometimes sounded like this, “Yes, I just got a job teaching (pause) people with disabilities.”

At this point, I’m wanting to pat myself on the back or maybe I’m looking for applause. While the people who have been advocating for this for what seems like forever are thinking, “Okay, you made the step to see us as more than just our disability, now let’s get on to changing some laws to be more inclusive.” They likely don’t and shouldn’t be expected to, celebrate my small victory.

The final step is where it becomes automatic. We’re unconsciously competent. This is now true for me with people first language; it feels automatic. In fact, I use what I know to correct and educate others.

In addition to recognizing it is an on-going process, there is a framework for cultural competence I’ve found very helpful to many organizations. Cultural competence consists of four parts: Awareness of one’s self, your own socialization, stereotypes, beliefs and cultural norms; Knowledge of others whose experiences and values are different from yours; Skills in cross-cultural interactions; and Action and Advocacy to make changes beyond individual relationships.

The first component, Awareness, involves not only understanding your own cultural norms, but also not valuing those over others. I’ve found the metaphor of the Grand Canyon helpful in visualizing this. Imagine this person looking out at all of this beauty and complexity and asking, “What canyon?” When we’re culturally competent, we want to notice differences. We don’t claim to be colorblind because we don’t see anything wrong with being different. We also understand that experiences with racial socialization around our own identity shape how we see the world, just as others treat us differently depending on their perception of our race. In other words, race influence how we see and how we are seen.

This is more difficult to notice when we have a dominant group identity, because we are told our experiences are “normal”. Normalization is an unearned advantage, or a privilege, in that we never have to think about it or answer questions like, “What are you?”

An easy way to see if one of your identities is privileged and normalized is to notice how often it goes unnamed. We have left-handed scissors, so the dominant group is… (right-handed). But we don’t call them right-handed, we just call them scissors. We have a WNBA, but not an MNBA. It is just assumed the NBA is for men. Many people refer to marriage equality, rather than “gay marriage” for the reason Liz Feldman comically points out…

Here’s another example of normalizing. What color is Michelle Obama’s dress? Well, according to this article, it is “flesh-colored”. I love this one because it is so clearly not the color of her flesh. Whose flesh are they referring to? This is a case of whiteness being normalized. You also see this with band-aids. And from the first lady to lotion, this one is designed for “normal to darker skin”.

Another example is these Playmobil toys. See if you can identify the normalization. That’s right, instead of saying white or European-American, these are just grandparents. We could also use this slide to talk about stereotypes, another component of awareness.

Because of normalization, it is easier for most people to notice areas where they don’t have a privileged identity, than areas where they do. You can be culturally competent and have self-awareness around one aspect, but not another. Here are pictures of some of the most popular representations of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in media. What do you notice?

Some of you will immediately notice they are all men. Some will notice many of these men don’t actually have disabilities. If you’re familiar with the movies and TV shows, you might be aware of the harmful pattern of portraying people with disabilities as having special or even magical powers; or the stereotype of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as forever simplistic and naïve. Some of you will notice the vast majority are white; media continuing to reinforce the idea that people of color do not experience intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Increasing awareness of yourself, particularly the areas where your identity is normalized and privileged, is critical in being able to see, name and work against injustice.

Another component of cultural competence is knowledge of others. This means understanding people can be in the exact same location, such as your workplace, and see the world from completely different perspectives. Such is the case in these pictures of the same location.

Many organizations think about understanding cultural differences such as hand-shaking, eye-contact, food and multicultural festivals. Although these are important, it is also critical to consider how social and political systems effect marginalized and privileged groups.

Using the canyon as a metaphor again, you’ll notice this side stream. It leads to a beautiful waterfall. But there is no way these boats can access it, because the water is simply flowing too hard against them.

However, this boat, with the large motor on the back, had no trouble pulling in. It had the equivalent of an institutional advantage. Now, instead of looking at the systemic barriers, we often hear things like, “Well, if they’d just row a little harder…” or may say something such as, “If I was on that boat, I’d be able to do it.” We must stop seeing institutional barriers as individual failures.

This belief is called the “myth of meritocracy” or the “myth of independence”. It is based on the false idea that we all get what we’ve got because of our own individual efforts and that we are all starting with the same boat. In social justice work, we need to shift our thinking to that of interdependence. Recognizing some people are granted institutional benefits through no greater effort on their part, just as some have insurmountable obstacles, despite their hard work.

Interdependence also means we think critically about how we work together in relationships. This shift in acknowledging institutional bias is particularly important in disability rights organizations where the mantra is one of maximizing independence, while recognizing the need for supportive services. You are in a unique position to articulate to others what interdependent work for systems change looks like. None of us has gotten to where we are today solely through our own efforts. Interdependent coalitions, not independent heroes are what truly shift society.

One example of institutional bias exists in is what some call the medical industrial complex.

We can see differences in people reporting fair or poor health versus those reporting good or excellent health. Again, the percent of people with disabilities is much higher than the general population, and there is a racial gap between Latinos and African Americans and Whites. This is just one of many examples of institutional racism. Knowledge of this is helpful for organizations such as The Arc in order to truly embrace cultural diversity.

Now you’re probably wondering, but what can I do? That’s a great question and it is important to understand that cultivating self-awareness and knowledge of privilege, oppression, culture and systems is an action step. If we try to jump into skills without first understanding the problem and our role in it, we are likely to repeat the same mistakes, further alienate communities of color, and cause burn-out among those working for justice.

It’s like these workers who were hired to install posts to prevent people from parking on the sidewalk. If they had more awareness of themselves, in particular where their own van is parked, and a better thought out plan, they might not be in this position. For those who don’t see the problem, here’s a hint, how will they move their van?

On the flip side, once you have awareness of yourself and knowledge of others, you’ll naturally start to develop skills. For example, I’m aware that I have a preference to call all people by their first names. This is a deep cultural norm in my family and it stems from my white parents’ liberal ideas that all people should be treated equally. We believe no one should be elevated in status over another because of their age or degree.

I also have knowledge that most African American families show respect to elders and those with degrees by calling them Mr., Ms., or Dr. This is a deep cultural norm that stems from generations of being disrespected, treated as less than, and called by their first names even while they were expected to call white peers sir, ma’am, Mr. or Mrs. The cultural norm also comes from wanting everyone to see that black people can and do earn college degrees, despite stereotypes to the contrary.

Because I understand my own cultural bias and have knowledge of this difference, I can translate this into skills by calling someone like my business partner, who is African American, Dr. Hollins. I am able to consciously shift my patterns of behavior to show her respect. Some call this the platinum rule: Treat others how theywould like to be treated.

Skills in this framework are more about our cross-cultural relationships with colleagues and community members. The final component of cultural competence, action and advocacy, is the work we do for institutional change.

In my work with The Arc of KC, we’re not just thinking about how individuals relate to one another, but also about how the organization can make changes to increase equity. One example is changing the mission and vision of the organization so it includes the belief in racial equity. Another is changing job descriptions so they explicitly talk about undoing institutional racism in work with people with disabilities. They are also addressing where and how jobs are advertised to create more equitable opportunities. Those are just a few examples of action. I encourage you to think about what creative ways your organization might address some of the institutional barriers to access experience by people of color with disabilities.

To summarize, cultural competence is an on-going process made up of 4 parts, awareness, knowledge, skills and action and advocacy.

Achieving momentum in cultural competence won’t be easy, but don’t give up. Remember, if plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet still has 25 more letters. It is only through collective, sustained effort that we can shift ourselves, our organizations, and our world to address the needs of those most systematically disenfranchised and truly embrace our cultural diversity.

Thank you.

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