From Mastery to Accountability: Cultural Humility as an Alternative to Cultural Competence

Sophie Bierly

Cultural competency has been a long held ideal for social work educators and practitioners. However, definitions and approaches to cultural competency vary widely depending on worldview, discipline, and practice context. Within social work and beyond, cultural competency has been challenged for its failure to account for the structural forces that shape individuals’ experiences and opportunities. In contrast, the concept ofcultural humility takes into account the fluidity of culture and challenges both individuals and institutions to address inequalities. This article takes a critical look at cultural competence as a concept, examining its explicit and implicit assumptions, and the impact these assumptions have on practitioners. It suggests that cultural humility may offer social work an alternative framework as it acknowledges power differentials between provider and client and challenges institutional-level barriers. The authors advocate a move from a focus on mastery in understanding ‘others’ to a framework that requires personal accountability in challenging institutional barriers that impact marginalized communities. Cultural humility, while a promising concept, has not been fully explored in social work. Therefore, the authors present a conceptual model of cultural competency along with strategic questions for providers and organizations to integrate into social work practice and education.