Cultural competence, a reflection

In our Direct Practice course (basically clinical work 101) we are studying how to be “culturally competent.” This is a subject that I think social work students could gab about for ages because our sense of justice and equality comes from a very personal place in each of us.

Our current discussion involves the clinical treatment of Native Americans. I wanted to comment on how marginalized this group can be. A social worker in his own right, Marlon Brando’s famous Oscar acceptance (or rejection) where he sent Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to accept the award for Best Actor (the Godfather). The reception was far from inviting, and is still seen by some as a time when the Oscars became too political.


Even as a huge Natalie Wood fan, the image of Native American culture in the Western “The Searchers” is really laughable.

This reminded me of an episode from when I was in 1st grade: the whole classroom was dressed in typical “cowboys and Indians” garb. Typically mistaken for an ethnicity other than my Polish heritage that I felt so close to, I felt particularly excited to dress as an Indian. For one day, my ethnicity was not in question ~ I was in costume!

My father’s family is from South Dakota, a state that still has a rich Native American culture. Even from a young age, I was always told to respect the culture with the proper terminology. “Indian” was not ok, because the people that my family saw, and the culture surrounding us, was not connected with people from India. As a kid, I thought “gee, that makes sense.”

So, “Native American,” or preferably whichever tribe someone was in, was the most appropriate. I have always loved my parents for this strict “terminological” upbringing. I felt like I could bring myself closer to others, with the given knowledge of how to respect someone.

So, in 1st grade (or come to think about it, maybe even kindergarten), when we were sitting around and talking about what “Thanksgiving” was about (we know now as adults is a water-down representation of a giving ceremony), I felt the need to be a mini-social worker. When we began talking about “cowboys and Indians,” I spoke up and said that I preferred if we said “Native American.”

Possibly out of concern for my feelings, my teacher’s first reply was “Are you Native American, Sandra?” to which I replied, “No.” There was an awkward silence, and then nothing more was done. I felt ashamed and embarrassed that my desire to be warm, inviting, and especially thoughtful, was not met with any encouragement from this teacher. Likewise, the other students kept asking me why I had made such a “big deal” about it.

This is similar to the feelings I get when I defend Latin American/Hispanic people and their plight, being mistaken frequently for being Mexican, Spanish, etc. People find out that I’m Polish and suddenly my opinion is irrelevant.

Without being a member of the oppressed group, we are far too frequently disregarded as having a valid opinion. This also applies to the never-ending plight for gay rights. In college, it was understood by many that I had to be “at least” bisexual (even though, to me, one’s sexuality is not on a greater/lesser scale). I wanted equality for something that spoke to me as inherently equal and necessary. It’s normal for people to fear the “other,” it’s quite another thing to deny rights to people who differ in sexual preference. Although on a superficial level I don’t care (anymore) what people think about whether I “swing that way,” or not, but it says something awful about our culture and our ability to speak on behalf of the RIGHTS of others.

So the next time you hear someone talk about what is right, ethical, proper treatment, biased, tragic….hear what he/she is saying, and not if it directly applies to that one person.

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