Four Steps to Cultural Awareness

#1: Know yourself

#2: Know what you don’t know

#3: Know your culture

#4: Know your power


#1: Know Yourself: We each see the world through our own glasses. Removing the lens of our culture—our social, economic, and historic context—isn’t easy. In every situation, our internalized perspective tells us what to look for. See how it plays out in this famous experiment.

Did you see the gorilla? If not, you’re in good company. This classic experiment found 99% of participants were so focused on watching the ball that they did not see the gorilla. The lesson? We only see what we are looking for and, because of this, we miss a lot. This can be especially true for specialists whose view of the world is shaped by extensive training. Cultural competence asks us to recognize that our glasses create blind spots. It also asks us to look at our own communication style. We all communicate in culturally informed ways, making it possible to offend others without intending to.

#2: Know What You Don’t Know: Unless your inner circle of family or friends includes Aboriginal people, you probably know very little about our worldview. Canada and Aboriginal people share a difficult history. In general, Canadians tend to downplay the ongoing impacts of colonization on our people. Avoidance of this uncomfortable subject has given rise to misconceptions that pass for “common sense.” How often have you heard somebody say about the very recent residential school system and the atrocities associated with these. “Why don’t you just get over it? or worse yet: “it was for their own good.”

Most service providers are unaware that they are acting out entrenched stereotypes. To develop cultural competency, we need to take a hard look at the glasses we’ve grown up with. We need to recognize that there is much to learn.

#3: Know Your Culture: Every culture has its own set of beliefs—different laws, governing structures, religions or spirituality, and accepted ways of being including different norms around communicating. These affect things such as basic table manners or which side of the road you drive on.

Culture also extends to our views on health, and how variations from our cultural norms surrounding health and wellness are perceived. Healthcare is cultural in nature and operates under assumptions like these:

  • Physical and mental health require separate professionals and treatments
  • Spiritual well-being is largely irrelevant to medical treatment
  • A patient’s role is to be co-operative and compliant
  • Health is the absence of disease, illness or pain
  • Medical interventions are most successful in treating any given health or wellness concern  As a service provider, you are in a position of power whether you realize it or not. Clients are affected by your words, actions, and instructions. Only by becoming aware of your position of power can you begin to develop equitable relationships with Aboriginal people, relationships where differences are acknowledged, but power imbalances are no longer perpetuated.

Resources: Defining Cultural Safety (1:46): This clip explores cultural safety and some behaviour patterns that indicate a client is not feeling safe.

The First Step (2:57): Everyone sees the world through culture-colored glasses, which can cause us to miss the obvious.

Culture is Everywhere (3:10): This clip defines culture and looks at cultural change as it affects First Nations. Health care “culture” is also described along with tips for improving cultural safety.

Why is CS so important? (2:51): This clip examines the experience of Aboriginal women with health services who identify unintentional discrimination as a persistent problem.

#4: Know Your Power: Cultural safety asks us to become aware of our position of power within society. If you are white, educated, and employed, you occupy a position of privilege. The Flower of Power is a simple exercise, by the University of Victoria, that shows how power resides in aspects of life that are easy to take for granted. The petals on the outside of the circle are power positions relative to petals on the inner circle. Where are most of your petals located?

  • “Medicine is a culture with its own set of expectations, and its way of making everybody feel like we have to adapt to fit the system.” —Syilx Community Health Nurse
  • A Syilx person is more likely to take a holistic view of healthcare. For us, all four aspects of life—the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—are interwoven and these support our wellbeing as individuals, families, and communities. We have traditions of treating many ailments with natural plants or remedies that have proven effective over time, though not through research in a laboratory.