Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Common Myths about Diversity and Cultural Competency

Thursday, June 1, 2006

June 1, 2006

(Appreciation to NCD advisory committee members under the leadership of Darrell K. Simmons, JD, and John Armendariz, 2006-07 for these perspectives)

Myth # 1: There are too many cultures in the US and world. I cannot possibly learn what I need to know about all of them.

Cultural competence does not mean learning as many “characteristics” as possible about every culture. In fact, to the contrary, the process of cultural competence means that a person (1) learns to recognize and reject his or her preexisting beliefs about a culture, (2) learns to recognize the influence of their own culture on creating those beliefs about other cultures, (3) focuses on understanding information provided by individuals within the context at hand (e.g., patient, front desk, etc.) and (4) forgoes the temptation to classify or label persons with cultural names. This process makes cultural competence a more manageable task that avoids fixed, generalized cultural misinformation.

Myth # 2: I have examined my preconceptions about the various cultures in my service area, changed some of my thoughts, and now feel culturally competent to deal with people who might appear in my clinic and/or organization.

Cultural competence is not a one-time, finite achievement. It is a life long process that is reapplied in every interaction. The process must be practiced throughout one’s career, it must be re-examined periodically by organizations. It would be dangerous for a person or organization to conclude that he/she or they have learned all there is to know about certain cultures, has reached the point of cultural competence, or has even identified (i.e., labeled) all the potentially different cultures in the local/national community. Regardless of the amount learned about a different culture, the individual person’s experience within that culture is unique.

Myth # 3: My own diversity, be it my ethnicity, my gender or my disability has taught me what it means to be culturally sensitive. I don’t need any special training on how to become cultural competent.

Each person has different levels of awareness and sensitivity about his or her own diversity or culture. Every human being, however, holds preconceptions about “different” cultures or dimensions of diversity. Every person, including a person outside the dominant culture, must use some kind of deliberate, analytical process to examine cultural misinformation and strive for cultural competence in each individual case.

Myth #4: We are already a diverse organization, so there is nothing left to be done.

Organizations are a microcosm of society, and if that is the case, then we can hardly buy into the idea that the shared and unique cultural and personal differences among employees in any particular corporate or non-profit organization are somehow readily accepted and seldom an issue or source of conflict. In fact, as organizations have become more diverse, the number of conflicts based on difference may have very well increased due to the lack of understanding and awareness about the vast dimensions of diversity people bring to work and their interplay in the workplace.  Being a diverse organization is an important first step, but just as important is learning how to include and leverage that diversity to the benefit of the organization.

Myth # 5: I need a more concrete way to achieve cultural competence. This process is too “touchy feely” in asking me to become more aware. How do I become aware? How will that make a difference in my journey towards cultural competence?

Awareness means knowledge of the existence of a thing, place, idea, etc. Awareness begins with the willingness to learn. The professional’s first step toward cultural competence in handling a situation is to become aware that he or she might have stereotypes or preconceptions about the person before him or her. Awareness is a complex skill gained over time. Only with greater cultural awareness can a person reject or avoid acting on the preconceived thoughts, obtain new individualized information and resolve the case with cultural competence.

Myth # 6: There are only a couple of cultures that are different from the dominant (American) culture in my community.

Culture is not defined exclusively by race and ethnicity. It includes a broad spectrum of identities. Regardless of the perceived diversity or lack of diversity in one’s community, every person encounters people in on a daily basis with cultural experiences that differ from their own. Using a process to practice cultural competence routinely in every case can help a person ensure fair and equal treatment of every person who comes before them for assistance.

Myth #7: Diversity equals preferential treatment for others, and doesn’t do anything to benefit me or others in the majority.        

Diversity is the collective mixture of differences and similarities among all individuals in an organization. Diversity pertains to each and every one of us, and therefore, an effective program should be inclusive-enabling everyone to have an equal voice and an equal opportunity to utilize their talents. Organizations that are making great strides in creating work environments that support diversity, and are implementing innovative people practices that provide opportunities for everyone, including women and minority staff are also the very same organizations that are winning praise and recognition for innovative, employee-focused programs that are highly valued and beneficial to all.

Myth # 8: I already attended all those legal “don’t do” trainings such as discrimination training, sexual harassment training, and disability rights training. So I know what the law says you can and cannot do.

Cultural Competency is not about behaviors governed by law, it is about behaviors and actions that improve a person’s ability to effectively and authentically communicate and interact with people perceived to be different. Cultural competency is about what you “can do” to improve the services and outcomes of people who come to you for assistance. A rule pertaining to Cultural Competency that one should strive to follow is the “Platinum Rule” which states, “do unto to others as they would want to be done unto.”  Learn what others want by becoming aware, asking questions, and seeking out information in an authentic and respectful way.

An official website of the National Council on Disability