To Save Ourselves from Ourselves, We Must Become Culturally Intelligent

Renee Ronika Bhatti-Klug | CITC
6 min readMay 21, 2020

“Everything that irritates us about others can help us to understand ourselves.” — Carl Jung

hand with multi-colored paint
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

One week into the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, Asian-Americans reported over 650 incidents of overt verbal or physical attacks, motivated solely on the basis of their racial identities. Asian-Americans relayed stories, from non-Asians refusing to stand near them in grocery store lines for fear of becoming infected, to their being spit on and directly blamed for the virus, which had been discovered in China (A3PCON, 2020). Notwithstanding that many of those attacked were not of Chinese descent, most wondered what they had done to deserve such abuse.

“You don’t deserve [any of this abuse] because you’re human.” — Dr. Choo

Dr. Esther Choo believes in the intrinsic value of every person. She asserts that anyone, and particularly those who are Asian-identifying, “don’t deserve [any of this abuse] because you’re human.” A Portland-based emergency-room physician, and host of a podcast on the Coronavirus pandemic, Choo doesn’t think it matters if Asian-Americans are front-line workers or just good people. In her response to a Washington Post inquiry about the onslaught of racist attacks launched at Asian-Americans during the pandemic, her message is clear: no one should have to defend their inherent worth (Jan, 2020).

The challenge, then, not only is in understanding why people denigrate others’ value based on racial or cultural heritage, but also in learning how to combat systemic ignorance and hatred.

I once believed that the opposite of love was indifference, as hate and love are bound by a likeminded energy. Emancipatory orators like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as references in the Bible (1 John 4:18), indicate otherwise; these posit that the opposite of love is fear. Educational theorist Paolo Freire, known for his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, believes love’s opposite is the fear to love, which actually is the fear of being free (Darder, 2002).

When crises occur, human nature causes many of us to reflexively blame external sources to cope with our fears. Current political leaders within the U.S. exacerbate this phenomenon. Even though the World Health Organization (2015) updated its virus naming guidelines to prohibit referencing a disease’s geographic origin, President Donald Trump (2020) continuously has referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” or “Foreign Virus.” People may argue that his using this language has been meant to call attention to the inefficiencies — and perhaps even secrecies — of the Chinese government’s handling of the virus during its onset. Nevertheless, in Trump’s refusal to distinguish to whom his ire has been directed, he has left Asian-Americans open to attacks.

If we are not sure whom to blame for what we fear, we will resort to the easiest — and most vulnerable — targets. This behavior, according to Brené Brown (2016), is indicative of a people who have “lost their integrity.” Hate, she says, is a symptom of the actual problem of fear. If fear of the unknown or otherness perpetuates hatred, but we desire freedom, how might we rise above the one to embrace the other? How do we love others, especially those who are different than us?

In my work as a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging facilitator, particularly in global contexts, I intuitively connect our nation’s ongoing racial discord and Dr. Choo’s sentiments on human worth to the tenets of Cultural Intelligence (CI, sometimes known as CQ). A framework developed by Earley and Ang (2003), CI measures people’s ability to act appropriately and effectively in diverse cultural settings. When the theorists tried to make sense of a world that had just been brandished by cultural confusion after the events of September 11, 2001, they recognized the salience of cross-cultural understanding. They drew from Sternberg’s (1986) multiple-loci of intelligence theory to explore the motivational, cognitive, and behavioral aspects of CI.

Although there are several approaches to presenting the CI framework, through my twenty years’ experience in working with culturally and linguistically diverse academics and leaders throughout the U.S. and overseas, I have determined these aspects of CI are best understood through the values of curiosity, empathy, and compassion. They are evinced through the capabilities of Cultural Openness (motivational), Cultural Awareness (cognitive), and Cultural Responsiveness (behavioral).

By developing these values and capabilities, we can begin the work of recognizing and redirecting our reflexive nature that might misjudge and mistreat others. Through becoming culturally intelligent, we not only learn to love, but we also experience the freedom of operating from love and not fear.

People who engage curiosity eagerly seek to understand themselves and others to identify how worldviews and cultural perspectives may contrast. Curiosity guides Cultural Openness, the willingness to learn about and work with people who may not look or behave like we do. Once we become culturally open, we can begin to learn about others from a place of non-judgmental inquisitiveness.

Empathy occurs when people conscientiously realign their perspectives to understand the cultural mindsets and emotions of those they seek to engage. Empathy guides Cultural Awareness, the active process of becoming well-informed of the interpersonal and cultural values of not just other people, but also of themselves. We become culturally aware by recognizing the positions of privilege we hold, owning our mistakes, examining our attitudes, and learning about how our cultural values align with, or diverge from, others’.

Compassion extends the viewpoints and feelings contained in empathy to include the desire to help (Deardorff, 2004). In this way, people intentionally demonstrate empathy and respect through behavioral changes in dynamic cultural contexts. Compassion guides Cultural Responsiveness, the ability to plan for and implement appropriate behaviors in response to multicultural opportunities and challenges. Our levels of responsiveness should generate meaningful connections with people who share different worldviews and opinions than we might; we will find ourselves listening more often than we speak. More critically, as our cultural intelligence increases, so will our ability to speak up on behalf of — but not for — the marginalized and oppressed. We will no longer tolerate acts of ignorance, hatred, or violence. Our words and actions will reflect this conviction.

If embracing these values and capabilities means more people might act appropriately and effectively with others, I wonder what could shift for us during this time of global uncertainty and unrest. If curiosity — and not disregard — were valued; if empathy — and not indifference — were fostered; if compassion — and not cruelty — were cultivated, then perhaps love — and not fear — would be our great motivator. Through this love we would recognize each person’s intrinsic worth; humans, indeed, deserve nothing less.

Learn more about Renee Ronika Bhatti-Klug, EdD (she/her), founder and Principal Facilitator at Culturally Intelligent Training & Consulting here


Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON). (2020). Stop AAPI Hate reporting center.

Brown, B. [@BreneBrown] (2016, Jul 7). Hate is a symptom. Fear is the problem. We are a country outside of our integrity. We are brave people[Tweet]. Twitter.

Darder, A. (2002). Reinventing Paulo Freire: A pedagogy of love. Westview Press.

Deardorff, D. K. (2004). The identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization at institutions of higher education in the United States (Doctoral dissertation).

Earley, P.C. & Ang, S. (2003). Cultural intelligence: Individual interactions across cultures. Stanford Business Books.

Jan, T. (2020, May 19). Asian American doctors and nurses are fighting racism and the coronavirus. The Washington Post.

Jung, C., & Jaffé, A. (1965). Memories, dreams, reflections (Rev. ed.). Vintage Books.

Trump, D.J. (2020, Mar 11). Remarks by President Trump in address to the nation. The White House.

Trump. D.J. [@realDonaldTrump] (2020, Mar 16). The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus[Tweet]. Twitter.

World Health Organization (WHO). (2015). World Health Organization best practices for the naming of new human infectious diseases [PDF].;jsessionid=0ADE8FA4641098FBE3D32368D73A8B9A?sequence=1&fbclid=IwAR1-adRnuC9wjxx6JTMsB79xUWHj_EoFC_gkLSL-8_DsuX57XA8XreMyjL4



Renee Ronika Bhatti-Klug | CITC

CITC empowers people to develop cultural curiosity, lead with empathy, and effect change through compassionate action and culturally intelligent solutions.