A Note on Cultural Competency

We talk about cultural diversity in the world, in communities, in organizations, and the workplace. We also talk and dream about cultural competency: understanding this diversity and being able to navigate and perhaps leverage it. I wonder in what way such competency is possible.

I am an African, born and raised in Tanzania until I was an adult, before coming to work in the U.S.A. I have spent about three decades now trying to understand American culture. It is, clearly, a lifetime project.

I know that neither the African nor the American culture is monolithic. When I talk about African culture, I am focusing on aspects that are common to Africans. The same applies when I am talking about American culture. I am aware of the diversity.

However, no matter what cultural differences exist in Africa, Africans discover their common ties when they find themselves outside Africa. Similarly, Americans might talk about cultural diversity in their country, but they discover their common ties when they are abroad. African-American writer James Baldwin wrote that living in France, he discovered he was an American like other Americans.

Through cursory readings about other cultures, I realize that trying to understand them the way I understand the African and the American culture would be like juggling many balls in the air. I would end up confused.

What, then, is cultural competency? I can claim considerable expertise in African and American culture, but that is all. It won’t help me much in an organization or workplace with Swedes, Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and so on. That is much food for thought.

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Professor, cultural consultant, and author of several books, including "Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences."

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Joseph Mbele

Joseph Mbele

Professor, cultural consultant, and author of several books, including "Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences."

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