Saturday, July 2, 2011

Weekly Whine: Cultural Competency

Each year in medical school, we had a comedy night, where various students would put on "funny" acts. Anyway, during one of these comedy nights, a student in my class put on a costume for his act that was very inappropriate and racist. I'm not going to say exactly what he did, but you might be able to guess.

The student didn't mean anything by dressing the way he did. He was a nice guy. He was just kind of an idiot. Fortunately, some students in the class stopped him before he could go on stage, so 99% of the school never even saw the costume.

The whole thing turned into a big incident, the result of which our students were "punished" by being forced to take a three day course on Cultural Competency. Because you can't learn to be culturally competent in one day. It takes three whole days.

We all gathered in a large auditorium, and the class opened with a movie. The movie showed this glistening ball and asked us what we thought it was. People were guessing stuff like fetus, frog, planet, etc. It turned out to be a popcorn kernel. I learned a lot about other cultures from that exercise.

Student: "So what were we supposed to learn from that?"

Me: "I think the lesson is, don't mix up popcorn with an embryo."

Student: "Yeah, sometimes when you're watching a baby be delivered, they point to the baby coming out and say 'what's that?' and you say 'it's a popcorn.'"

Me: "I won't do that anymore now."

The next exercise involved us all gathering outside the auditorium and getting different color papers stuck to our backs. Then, without being able to talk or see our own color, we had to find our same-colored groups. That was was kind of fun and also taught me a lot about other cultures.

And that's all I remember from the Cultural Competency course.

Look, I think it's important to respect other cultures. But it's a little ridiculous to think that a three day course (that's really a punishment) is going to teach anything to some racist or ignorant person. My residency was even worse: we had an hour-long lecture on cultural competency and that was it.

I grew up in very diverse part of the country and I'd like to think I'm culturally competent, whatever the hell that means. In school, I had very few friends of the same ethnicity as myself and it wasn't something I thought or cared about. But I'm sure I've also done some things that have been somehow insensitive to a person of another culture, mostly because people are dumb sometimes and I'm a person.


  1. AMEN! We've had a few of those courses, especially about Aboriginal issues, and I've always found them trite at best and borderline racist at worst.

    I mean, isn't it kind of insensitive to assume that everyone who belongs to a certain ethnic or cultural group has the same feelings/reactions to a certain action? I generally try to follow my mantra of "don't be a jerk", irrespective of who the person is.

  2. Admit it, you're a flower-ist.

  3. If it helps, I had to sit through a semester long class being lectured on how evil and bad the 'white' folk are and how, no matter how nice you (a white person) is, you're racist. I guess I should be ashamed of myself, but I can't help thinking - I never used anyone's race/culture to hurt someone and yet, it's been used against me.

  4. My NCLEX review book (from 2010) had a chapter on cultural competency. Under foods that different cultures preferred: African Americans like fried foods, greens. Asians like rice, fish, and vegetables. Hispanics like beans, rice, tortillas. White people like starchy foods and meat.

    I felt vaguely racist while reading it.

  5. When I was studying for Step 1, one of the practice questions involved an elderly Korean man who did not want to know the results of some cancer screening.

    One of the answer choices started "I understand your hesitation, respected Grandfather...."

  6. I had to write a 3 page assay about cultural competency in my training - (I know you're all jealous)
    I did just find out that people from Asia and Japan should not be called Oriental. (that term supposedly only refers to the food)

  7. Last night the doc I was with forgot to bring food, so I repeatedly offered him an extra sandwich I had, but he kept politely declining. It only dawned on me later why Dr. JewishName didn't want my BLT.

  8. AA: I think it's much worse to make assumptions about what a person can/can't eat based on their last name.

  9. Nursing: We had a semester on cultural competency. Ouch.

  10. @Shrink2B:
    And the rugs.

    I've always found the cultural competency workshops and classes my school offers to be a waste of time, and a tad condescending, too.

  11. @Shrink2B: I vaguely recall my coworker's British wife telling me that the term "Oriental" is acceptable in the UK because they use the term "Asian" for people from India. :P

    Although I don't know how people over there feel being called "Oriental"