Towards Cultural Humility: Theorising Cultural Competence as Institutionalised Whiteness


  • Sonia Tascon University of Western Sydney
  • Kathomi Gatwiri Southern Cross University


Cross-cultural competence became a buzzword in the 1990s in the English-speaking world, particularly in professional settings, as practitioners were increasingly working with people from culturally diverse backgrounds and wanted to do so sensitively. It is a term that has often been used as descriptor for a set of strategies, policies, and training programs to demonstrate that organisations and professions are ‘dealing’ with cultural diversity. Discursively, the emphasis on competence has led to a transference of a set of skills that enable those who undergo its programmatic delivery to state that they are culturally competent. This often means that culture in the term is transformed into a substitutable absence; that is, it dissolves into relative insignificance as mastery is the central aim. In this there is a power relation; moreover, aspects of that power are racialised. In this paper we contend that cultural competence, as it has come to be used in the Western world, by extension in the professions, and here we focus more specifically on the profession of Social Work, has resulted in a discourse that seeks to neutralise racialised power by deflecting it, and thereby retaining its power. It does this through the quick resolution of a tension posed by the bringing together of the two terms, one of which represents complexity – culture – and the other its ready resolution.


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Beyond “cultural competency”: Confronting whiteness in social work