As the poet, activist, and librarian Audre Lorde teaches us: “it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

But how exactly do we learn to recognize, accept, and celebrate people’s lives and experiences? One critical step on this path is for each of us to work to develop cultural competence.

As a concept, cultural competence first emerged decades ago in the applied health sciences. It was initially aimed at counselors, social workers, nurses, and other providers who routinely care for people who differ from them. The library and information science and publishing professions came to the game much later. But whether for health professionals or for those of us who produce and provide information, developing cultural competence is about the same thing: raising one’s cultural awareness and empathy to engage in culturally responsive services and programming.

Simply stated, we learn cultural competence by engaging in ongoing critical self-reflection in an effort to better recognize, prioritize, incorporate, and celebrate the differences of others. But as I wrote about in my last PW column, critical self-reflection is hardly a simple process. It requires our cognizance, and it challenges us to put our emotional reactions and guilt to the side in favor of looking at the bigger picture of what an equitable society looks like. It requires us to be empathetic, and to have intellectual and cultural humility. And it requires us to recognize and reckon with the various privileges and disadvantages that come with our identities—and to recognize that sometimes our identities are in conflict with one another.

Similar to the work that we need to be doing to work toward social justice and anti-racism, cultural competence asks that we decenter the Western norms that we’ve all been socialized to value—whiteness, affluence, Christianity, heterosexuality—and recognize how identities and characteristics outside of these norms are devalued and othered. Cultural competence requires us to look beyond Western norms and standards to think about what's missing and who is missing. Only then can we clearly see the systemic changes needed to address the marginalization and subjugation of those whose voices aren't heard or aren't welcome. Only then can we see the factors that contribute to and perpetuate the systemic racism and inequities that divide our society.

There are many models for developing cultural competence, and many of them present the concept as a linear process—including the model, I’ve written about, and extended.

The linear model suggests that we move along a continuum from cultural destructiveness (a hatred that seeks to physically harm and destroy); to cultural incapacity (the hatred is still present, but doesn’t manifest itself as physically destructive); to cultural blindness (hatred is replaced with indifference and fake neutrality—for example, “I don’t see color” is an avoidance tactic and can be equally damaging); to cultural incompetence (the value of cultural competence is clear, but you have no idea how to achieve it); to cultural pre-competence (you’re on your way to being aware of and celebrating difference); to cultural competence (you are well aware of and celebrating differences and this knowledge is incorporated into your practices); and, finally, cultural proficiency.

However, I’ve come to believe that these linear models do not adequately convey the nuance, dynamism, or fluidity of cultural competence. Instead, I’ve come to think of cultural competence as a cycle, because a cycle conveys a back-and-forth movement, where one makes progress, but also regresses, especially if the effort toward cultural competence is not maintained.

Cultural competence requires us to look beyond Western norms and standards to think about what's missing and who is missing.

The linear model also suggests that there is an endpoint, or a checkbox to be clicked at the end of the line. But the process does not end with “proficiency” as some would suggest. There is no box checking in cultural competence.

And, of course, we don’t live in a vacuum. We’ve seen all too clearly what happens when we don’t make the effort to celebrate and truly value the differences of others: People of color are micro-aggressed and stereotyped. African Americans are subjected to excessive police presence and action for sitting in a Starbucks or for birdwatching in Central Park; Asian Americans writ large are beaten, abused, and blamed for creating the coronavirus.

With these and so many other examples of inequitable and, frankly, racist behavior there’s clearly a lot of work to be done and a lot of cultural competence to be developed. Indeed, some days it feels as though we’re not even at the basic level of humanity as described by Eli Weisel, who said we should “never let anyone be humiliated” in our presence.

I urge you to engage fully with the process of developing cultural competence—even when it makes you uncomfortable. Don't be afraid to take risks and to ask the questions that need to be asked. Being able to lean into discomfort signals growth. And I encourage you to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable when it comes to learning new concepts, and to being open to the differences and perspectives of others, even when you may not agree, because that's how we get the most out of cultural competence.

In this age of Covid-19, racial unrest, economic stress, and divisive politics, it is vital that we actively consider the differences of our students, readers, clients, friends, and family. That we think purposefully about how we interact with them. And, that we recognize how diversity and difference bring richness to the proverbial tables that are our jobs and personal lives. That’s how we learn to see others as whole people with identities and backgrounds that are as nuanced, complicated—and equally valuable—as our own.

Nicole A. Cooke is the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and an Associate Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, at the University of South Carolina. Her research and teaching interests include equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in librarianship, critical cultural information studies, human information behavior, and fake news consumption and resistance.