Eight Tips to Become Culturally Proficient by Wendy Espinoza Cotta

Becoming culturally proficient is a lifelong journey. Growing up in southern California in the 1980s, I lived in a diverse community where I did not see race, ethnicity, or color as a barrier to friendship, that is, until I entered middle school. I am Mexican-American. My mother was Mexican and my father identified as white. In my large sixth grade class, a group of students with diverse backgrounds became my close circle of friends.

When I entered middle school in seventh grade, my group of sixth-grade friends separated into their respective ethnic and racial groups. Being of mixed background, I was conflicted about making a choice: to identify with those who came from Mexican heritage or those who identified as white Americans? I decided to focus on my academic work, where I could escape and not feel pressured to engage in the complex social dynamics that made up southern California adolescent culture in the 1980s. I couldn’t understand the division and tension among the white, black, Mexican-American/Chicano, and Asian communities.

I did not understand the larger historical context, that the drug, crystal meth, was about to enter the US and that the resulting drug and gang wars between the Crips and the Bloods and the Asian gangs would explode in a spike of violence that would define a generation of southern California kids. The violence entered my own experiences as a fellow classmate, a young Mexican student, was shot over one weekend. He survived the incident, but I never knew what became of him. The lack of cultural understanding and racial tensions were palpable in our classrooms and on our streets.

The Danger of Being Colorblind

During these times, my father taught us, through his words and actions, to accept ourselves and others, to see each person we encountered no matter their color, race or creed as having the same strengths and weaknesses as any other person. In essence, he wanted us to be colorblind. He had the best intentions, but not seeing a person for all that they are, including their color, race or ethnicity is a narrow path. It has taken me many years of reflection and conversations with people of color to understand that when we dismiss color, we don’t honor the whole person. Instead, we erase an important part of that person’s identity and their unique experience in the world. For people of color, the color of the skin and/or the second language that we speak often determines how people are seen and sadly, treated on a regular basis. There is no doubt that moving to cultural proficiency requires vulnerability and inevitable missteps along the way.

Since I have sought out training, reflected and educated myself to move towards cultural proficiency, my sense of my intersectional identity has strengthened. As an important step, I recognize and embrace my multiple identities: I am privileged as a heterosexual, upper middle-class, college graduate, humbled as a mother of a teenager and a middle schooler, critical as a graduate student and scholar-practitioner, and conflicted as a Mexican-American woman in a political climate that has painted a broad, painful brush of all those who share Mexican-American heritage or identity. There are strategies to become more culturally proficient that I have employed along this journey:

Strategies include:

1. Widen your social circle to be inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds.

2. Listen to people of color share their stories. Listen to understand, and with humility. Step back more than you step up to share your own perspective.

3. Reflect on your own family story and discuss your memories with family members to develop empathy and deeper understanding that for every experience, there are often more than two sides to the story.

4. Do some homework. Explore white racial identity development by reading books such as Waking Up White by Debbie Irving or White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo.

5. To understand historically underserved groups and systemic oppression, read critical race scholarly works such as anything by bell hooks, Paolo Ferreire, or Eduardo Galeano.

6. Read to understand the difference between an activist and an ally and how biases impact our ability to advocate for others by reading So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oleuo or The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias by Dolly Chugh.

7. Always challenge ”What has always been done….” remembering that we have a unique historical opportunity to redesign systems to be more equitable and inclusive if we simply ask, Who has a seat at the table in decision-making? Whose voice is silent, and therefore, erased? Whose voice has been elevated?

8. When you include others, realize that it is a process for truly equitable, inclusive practices to take shape. There may be an inverse relationship between the level of discomfort and the meaningfulness of the work; lean into the discomfort, allowing it to shape but not define the conversation.

More than anything, this is a journey. We are all who we are both as individuals and as individuals living within complex social systems. We impact each other, and cultural proficiency begins with both an intention and taking deliberate, concrete steps towards constructing a more equitable, inclusive world. Each small act of inclusion can make all the difference.


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