Building Capacity for Cultural Competence #3: Acknowledgement

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2As we build our capacity for cultural diversity, we move from Assessment (where do I stand? how do I act? what do I believe?) to Awareness (this is where I stand, this is how I act, this is what I believe). This helps us to discover the root behind a lot of our cultural disconnects: fear. Fear is a powerful set of emotions that simultaneously drives us in circles, paralyzes us, and causes us to react without seeing the whole picture. Fear leaves us feeling powerless, and urges us to act out of that powerlessness to restore a comfortable level of power and control. Fear of others drives much of the conflict around the world, whether it be war, racial/ethnic tensions, family dysfunction, or conflict in a boardroom or organization. 

In her latest post, Sandra Quick explains that fear of others often comes from ignorance of who they are, and that the appropriate response to that fear is to engage in lifelong learning to overcome the ignorance - even the ignorance dressed in what we think we know. In our increasingly global culture, can we learn enough about others, on an ongoing basis, that we can look at other cultures and not be afraid, even if we disagree? Are we unafraid because we have pushed others so far away they can't touch us, or are we unafraid because we engage so deeply that we know the "other" well enough to work through difficulties that arise?

Sandra's post did evoke fear in me - fear where I was short on knowledge of the "other." It caused me to want to go back and look at my own SELF-Assessment to take things to the next level. I would encourage you, if you haven't already, to take the SELF-Assessment. Sandra is offering a 30-minute free consultation to go over the results. I have found her to be quite helpful in seeing these results in a constructive light. Read the post, and take the Assessment!

Take A Cultural Comptetence SELF-Assessment

+Matt Thomas



By Sandra Quick: I am a Lady, an African American, 10 months from Medicare, two biscuits shy a full ton, dyed-in-the- wool American Baptist who practices yoga.  Here I am at Brio Spa at Grand Luxxe Riviera Maya in Cancun Mexico in 2011.  The asana (pose)  is the “tree pose” with hands at heart center. Ommmmm. Does this sound subversive or destabilizing to you? For me, yoga is peaceful.

Yet, here’s what some of my friends and family say to me, “Yoga? Really, yoga? Isn’t that an Eastern religion? And why in the world did YOU start practicing yoga? Isn’t your Pastor worried you’ll bring those crazy pagan worshiping ideas into your Sunday School class?” Some of my folks don’t know much about yoga and don’t want to know. They want to believe what they have always believed and not hear the truth.  Not knowing about, or being afraid of the influences of other cultures, religions, food, traditions or practices, is not a new phenomenon.  This ignorance is centuries old. Remember the witch hunts in Salem Massachusetts?  

A recent headline in the Science section of my local newspaper read, “Polish ‘vampire’ threat hit close of home.” The article reported:

      In 17th - and 18th- century Poland, the fear of vampires was so strong that some people were buried with sickles across their necks and rocks at their jaws to keep them from rising from the grave and attacking the living.  Written records suggested that these dead were stigmatized because they were immigrants. But a new study in the journal PLOS One contradicts that idea. The researchers excavated six bodies from so-called vampire graves in north-western Poland and compared the decay of radioactive strontium isotopes in the corpses’ dental enamel to that of local animals and found similar ratios, suggesting that it was unlikely the supposed vampires had come from outside the area. Instead, researchers said they might have been the first in the community to die from cholera, a disease spread through contaminated drinking water. The disease was attributed to the supernatural and people were thought to return from the dead to spread it.

The_Third_Level_of_Cultural_CompetenceThey killed their own people out of ignorance. How do you combat ignorance? How do you build capacity for cultural competence? Knowledge is power.  This wisdom is also centuries old.

The phrase, knowledge is power, is often attributed to Francis Bacon, in his Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Thomas Jefferson used the phrase at least twice. In his letter to a friend, he confides his despair of his compatriots’ ignorance of the significance of the present challenge. Jefferson  writes:

"this last establishment will probably be within a mile of Charlottesville, and four from Monticello, if the system should be adopted at all by our legislature who meet within a week from this time, my hopes however are kept in check by the ordinary character of our state legislatures, the members of which do not generally possess information enough to perceive the important truths, that knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, and that knowledge is happiness." - Thomas Jefferson to George Ticknor, 25 November 1817

Tavis Smiley’s PBS show is “a unique hybrid of news, issues and entertainment, featuring interviews with politicians, entertainers, athletes, authors and other newsmakers. Tavis Smiley was named to TIME’s list of 100 “Most Influential People in the World.” Tavis clarifies,

We give you the facts. I told you information is power - knowledge is power. We can't be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don't have the facts.

The fact is that yoga is spiritual, not religious. Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice or discipline that aims to transform body and mind. The term yoga is derived from the literal meaning of "yoking together" a span of horses or oxen, but came to be applied to the "yoking" of mind and body. I practice yoga to balance my life with work, to breath with movements, to connect my thoughts with my soul.  

Do you know the truth about yoga, about vampires, about other cultures’ food, language, traditions, and celebrations that are different from you own?  Are you afraid/ignorant of these differences? Or do you want to know more and become a lifelong learner. Knowledge is power. Don’t sit on your hands. Acknowledge you need more knowledge. Click on the Cultural Competence Self-Assessment to find what you know and what you don’t know.

In yoga, the gesture Namaste  (nah-məs-tay) represents the belief that there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra (or, as Westerners might understand it, soul). The gesture is an acknowledgment of the soul in one by the soul in another.

I write this post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. Learning to Acknowledge is an exercise on the third level of building capacity for cultural competence.  The first level is Assessment. The second level is Awareness. More specifically I define the third level of capacity building as:

Acknowledgement: Understanding that, to achieve cultural competence, each one of us must acknowledge the need to be lifelong learners. No one can become complacent.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right!

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Sandra Quick, Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Building Capacity for Cultural Competence #2: COLORblind vs colorBLIND

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Cultural Awareness, and the need to build capacity for cultural competence, has been on the news a lot lately. When I invited Sandra to begin her monthly guest posts this fall on that very topic, neither of us had any idea how much the issues around cultural competence would take over the news cycle. As we worked to edit this post, we discovered that we were both learning new things - about each other and about the topic at hand. We found that struggling and wrestling with the best language to communicate issues of awareness led us to a greater level of transparency and authenticity as we discussed the various issues this post brings up. It certainly reinforces (for us, at least) the need for all of us to be lifelong learners as we build our capacity and move from assessment through awareness and toward advocacy - which just so happens to be the topic of one of Sandra's forthcoming posts. 

But enough from me: let's hear from Sandra on the topic of COLORblindness vs. colorBLINDness. I hope her words will draw you in and encourage you to discuss this very timely topic with us!

+Matt Thomas



Isn’t this a cute picture of me and a young Chinese boy? It was taken in 2013 when I visited The Great Wall as part of my lifelong adventures to experience the 7 Wonders of the World. His parents thrust him upon me, and pantomimed, “Can he take a picture with you?” I said, “Yes.”  He was not the first or last parent, teen, grandmother to stop me on the street to make this identical request, even though I was with a large group of fellow white travelers.  Why?  

ColorBLINDness. All they saw was my color and they wanted to make sure they got a picture with the black lady. This explanation was from my Chinese tour guide.

Have you ever said or been with someone who said, “I don’t see a person’s color. We all bleed red. There’s no difference.” If this statement was made, the person suffers from the disease (dis – ease, as in not being at ease) of COLORblindness.  The COLOR is clear, not hue. On the other end of the color spectrum, have you ever said or been with someone who said, “When I walk down the street and see someone that’s… get your colored crayons out… black, brown, red, or yellow ,… I get nervous.”  Or on the other end of the color spectrum, have you ever been in a situation where you said, “When I’m in a business meeting or on the golf course (where a lot of business happens) and I am not the we-are-all-one-color, flesh tone crayon color that is soft pink… I get nervous.” If these later statements were made, the person suffers from the disease (dis - ease, as in not being at ease) of colorBLINDness. 

There is a big difference between being colorBLIND and being COLORblind. While both are highly contagious illnesses, especially in a group setting, AND both are lethal to Building Capacity for Cultural Competence, both have the potential to be terminal. BUT, there is hope. There is light to improve vision.

The_Second_Level_of_Cultural_CompetenceWhat’s the difference in these illnesses? You ask good questions. I’m glad you want to know more. I hope you want to know because you want to “see” better. COLORblindness is when one does not acknowledge, recognize and/or respect that a person’s culture is valid and relevant. Their culture doesn’t matter just as long as they “blend in” with the majority culture.  BUT, COLOR matters. On the other hand, colorBLINDness is when ALL you see is color. A person’s color is so bright that COLOR is all you see. You are BLIND to all other characteristics, talents, education, and potential of that person besides their color. This colorBLINDness is especially evident to some when the person is colored black and male (Ferguson, MO; Cleveland, OH; New York City, NY). Yet, this colorBLINDness is not so evident to others (the ranks are increasing with more community conversations and diversity training). I once was blind, but now I see.

Have either of these diseases, COLORblindness or  colorBLINDness  affected relationships in your personal  life, knowledge of diverse communities, business process procedures,  hiring practices, resources and linkages, and reaching out to culturally diverse communities? Or is this disease just one you see from afar on CNN and consider it to be not an imminent threat to you, because someone else has been raising awareness about this cause? What is the light to improve vision?  You asked another good question. Improved vision starts with sustained conversations and moves to the top of the pyramid to Advocacy (seventh level).  I once was blind, but now I see.

I write this post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence pyramid model. Learning how to be Aware is an exercise on the second level of building capacity for cultural competence. The first level is Assessment. More specifically I define the second level of capacity building as:

AWARENESS: Being aware of how cultural “blindness” and bias contribute to racism, prejudice, and discrimination and how cultural “vision” and focus contribute to add value, promote respect and foster relevance.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right! 


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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Sandra Quick, Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment

Introducing the Building Capacity for Cultural Competence Model

Posted by Matthew Thomas

matthew-thomas-2Today, I would like to introduce one of our Design Group International Preferred Providers, Sandra Quick, as a guest blogger. Sandra serves clients through Joy Unspeakable, LLC, helping people restore broken relationships and preseve healthy ones. I have known Sandra since 2008, when she worked with an organization I led that was confounded by deep conflict. Her insights gave us clarity as to how to move forward. Later, Sandra and I both served the American Baptist Churches of Ohio

This post introduces us to Sandra's Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model - the core set of ideas behind Sandra's services to organizations, educational institutions, corporations, and churches. In it, she tells a personal story that illustrates the importance of the first step toward in the model: Assessment. In future posts, Sandra will build upon this foundation to further develop your capacity for cultural competence.

Read on!

+Matt Thomas



Let’s talk hair. Let’s talk about black people’s hair. I wear a unique natural hair style.  After looking me up and down, a 20 something white guy crooned, “Your hair. It’s edgy, it’s retro.  I like it!” One older black gentleman reminisced, “It reminds me of my college ten inch ‘fro.” People, black and white, want to touch my exceptional hair. I was sitting in a business meeting around a conference table, and felt something touch the back of my hair.  Without looking, I swatted what I thought was a fly, only to collide the hand of the white woman who was sitting next to me. SHE pulled back away from ME and said, “You could feel that!” I thought to myself, that’s your response? “You could feel that!” Not something apologetic like, “Oh, I’m so sorry to have violated your personal space and person.” I moved my chair.  My daughter, who has very long, straight (relaxed) black people’s hair, wears it in a ponytail for convenience sake.  One of her white co-workers asked while touching her hair, “Now how much of this is your REAL hair?” The look my daughter gave her was cue enough that a retraction was in order. None came.

Have you ever been in a situation where you were curious about a black person’s hair, but didn’t know how to approach the subject? You didn’t want to offend, but you wondered if you would get another chance to ask your questions about their hair. You heard that you should never, ever describe black people’s hair as “nappy” or “wooly” or “kinky” even though you heard blacks refer to their hair using these terms. I am often asked, "Is your hair natural, flat-ironed, blown out, locked, tinted, twisted, braided and/or relaxed?"

The_First_Level_of_Cultural_Competence-1Here’s the answer to your question on how to approach the subject of black people’s hair. Ask permission to ask permission with a compliment to break the ice.  You can use language such as, “I really like the way your hair looks. I’ve always been curious but never had the chance to ask, may I ask you about your hair?” If permission is granted, because you may get permission and you may not, you can proceed with follow up questions such as, “How did you get your hair like that?”  If you’re bold enough, “Can I touch your hair?”

If you are a transracial adoptive parent or a parent of a biracial child and you’re pulling your vanilla hair out trying to manage and style your child’s chocolate hair, there’s help.  Chocolate Hair Vanilla Care: A Parent's Guide to Beginning Natural Hair Styling covers basic hairstyles and techniques, from learning to part naturally curly hair to styling cornrows and twists. Check out the website by the same name.

I wrote this post to build capacity by providing a “how to” to frequently encountered cultural dilemmas in order to introduce you to my Building Capacity for Cultural Competence model. Learning how to have the “black person hair talk” is an exercise on the first level of building capacity for cultural competence. More specifically I define the first level of capacity building as:

ASSESSMENT - Understanding that cultures are social constructs of humankind, each with its own adaptive strategies for a life of meaning and worth; that cultures are dynamic and continually changing, permitting continued successful adaptation to changing life circumstances.

Want to know more? Click the "Take a Self-Assessment" button in the column to the right! 

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Topics: Matthew Thomas, Sandra Quick, Cultural competence, cultural self-assessment, capacity building