Western Christianity focuses on virtues like humility from an individualistic rather than collective approach to being human.
However, virtue does not have to stop with an understanding of one’s own sense of self; it can include a recognition of one’s family, community, organization or culture.
Culture, the behavior and norms of a people, can be understood and expressed by that people in terms of superiority, which has long been the case for white Americans, or in terms of humility.
Cultural humility invites a different way, a modest way, of understanding the behaviors, norms, beliefs, values, customs, laws, arts and other practices of our society.
As such, from a culturally humble position, we see our American legacy for the whole truth of what it is: that our great success came at an even greater cost, particularly in terms of life for enslaved Africans and Native Americans whose entire culture and existence were destroyed in the name of our pride.
Our forefathers (patriarchy implied) saw their work as the will of God, as a manifest destiny, as a city on a hill.
In 1900, Sen. Albert Beveridge wrote, “[God] has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. … He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world.”
He was one of innumerable voices leading our nation with this view. It was expressed in Congress and the White House, on Wall Street and university settings and it was common in the church.
Cultural imperialism and white supremacy were central to every facet of life, shaping every system for centuries; this does not just go away.
Because this has been true for white supremacy, could the same become true for cultural humility? It is difficult to imagine.
The ancient chronicler of Israel invites us to humble ourselves and turn from our wicked ways in order to experience God’s healing. Turning from our wicked ways suggests a cultural shift.
A worldview rooted in a culture shaped by Philippians 2 also requires valuing others fully, a commitment to the genuine interests of others and a faithful obedience to laying down our lives.
There is a lot of work to do if we who have identified as white want to develop and live out of a humble view of our culture.
Colleague Kerri Fisher makes it practical with five steps to help move us toward cultural humility.
- We have to engage others by cultivating counterintuitive solidarity – listening to and learning from different experiences as a regular practice.
- We have to examine our reactions to what we engage and how open or dismissive we find ourselves.
- We must evaluate our culture for where racism, a preference for whiteness and an implicit bias for whiteness still show up.
- To work for change as we learn and grow, we must also enact what we learn and consider opportunities to educate others: Learning must lead to change in our lives and our systems.
- To foster change is to evolve, and we must trust we are working in conjunction with God in these efforts to make things right.
“We are all impacted by the supremacist cultures that socialize us,” Fisher writes, “so while we are not responsible for our first thought, we are responsible for our second thought and our first action. This means we must be brave enough to admit when our brain, body and behaviors are exhibiting racist reactions.”
Humility is essential to the recognition of these biases, and cultural humility invites us to learn and reflect on the pride exhibited in our culture.
Our first response to someone we perceive as different or to a situation rooted in difference may be to default to pride and superiority.
Our second thought, as Fisher writes, is an opportunity to practice humility, to ask why we have come to believe what we first thought or what we can learn about others and ourselves.
Likewise, our first action, our response, can also be grounded in humility, in putting the other before oneself and looking to support their interests.
Humility, as a virtue, is an opportunity for letting go and listening deeply.
Practiced at the level of culture, it is an invitation to learn about the ways our pride, our own cultural superiority and specifically our white supremacy, have devastated cultures and destroyed the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants, of Native Americans and of everyone not seen as white.
Cultural humility is a distinctively faith-filled response to the racism we have created, sustained and that plagues us still.
The work it requires is the work of a lifetime, and now is the time to embody it more fully, knowing it has the potential to give us a better understanding of ourselves and demonstrate the value of all God’s children.
Dean and professor of the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.