Roxann Lamar on Culturally Responsive Terminology

My name is Roxann Lamar and I work in research and evaluation at the Center for Human Development, University of Alaska Anchorage. Our local AEA chapter, the Alaska Evaluation Network (AKEN) hosted a discussion on cultural competence, particularly relevant toNative cultures. About 19% of Alaskans have all or partial Native heritage.

The AEA’s statement on cultural competence in evaluation is comprehensive, covering a multitude of issues involved in working together in a diverse world. What is presented here is a perspective to think about – how people might respond to thelanguage we choose to use– not that any languageis universally right or wrong.

Lesson Learned: Our event was called, “Cultural Competence in Evaluation.” Our panel of cross-cultural experts included persons of DegXit’an Athabascan, Gwich’in Athabascan, Navajo, and non-Native heritage. All had a lifetime of personal and professional experience with cultures indigenous to Alaska. They reminded usat the startthat the words we use are important and informed us they found the term “cultural competence” to be distasteful. Theyhighly encouraged us to use the term “cultural humility” and noted it is not a new idea.They also suggested“cultural relevance” as an acceptable alternative that makes more sense in some contexts.

Our panelists explained the problem with“competence”is that it implies we will reach a point where we can say,“We areculturally competent.”That is what is inferredwhen people go to a workshop for a certain number of hoursand earn a certificate in cultural competence.Our panelists pointed out that these trainings oftendo more harm than good. For example, focusing on characteristics of specific cultures inadvertently encourages stereotyping.The panel’s audience was intrigued, and discussions among colleagues continued long after the event.

Hot Tip: In many places or contexts, a term like “cultural humility” is a respectful choice. Without a lot of explanation it conveys a humble posture of learning about self and others. It implies openness, equity, and flexibility in working with anyone.

Rad Resource: With a little looking around, I found Cultural Humility: People, Principles, & Practices. This is a 30-minute, 4-part documentary by Vivian Chávez (2012). It is focused on relationships between physicians and patients, but the principles can beappliedin other applications.

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3 thoughts on “Roxann Lamar on Culturally Responsive Terminology”

  1. Hi Roxann

    I really appreciate your article on the terminology used in Culturally Responsive Evaluation. I am currently designing a program evaluation plan as per a course in Program Evaluation and Inquiry. My evaluation plan is based in Indigenous programming and your comments on “cultural competence” resonated with me. There is certainly no way in which I could become culturally competent, even though I too have lived and worked with Indigenous people for quite a number of years. I could only strive to be culturally humble, as you say. To be culturally humble means to be respectful of one’s traditions and ways of seeing, without ever assuming to be all knowing. Another article on this website, by Mila Kachovska reiterates that we mustn’t place stereotypes on others, and I believe when someone claims “cultural competence” they may be in the best position to do just that.

    Evaluators can conduct culturally responsible program evaluations by involving stakeholders and building relationships with them, the program users, owners and beneficiaries. When there is trust between parties, then data is more authentic and utilization is more likely to occur at the completion of the evaluation.

    I appreciate how a simple shift in terminology can change my whole perspective on culturally responsive evaluation. Humility is often included as a value in traditional Indigenous teachings, so it makes sense to convey that when conducting culturally responsive evaluation. Looking within the teachings of the Indigenous people to formulate an evaluation plan will serve to build a circle of unity for evaluators and program beneficiaries, and break down any negative assumptions that may exist between them.

    Thank you for your insightful post!


  2. Roxann, thanks for sharing.

    The notion of cultural humility makes perfect sense to me. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Latvia, 1994-96), I went to Latvia thinking that I would change the world; in the end, it changed me profoundly. The virtue of humility is the best word to describe it.


    1. I have worked with and at the issue of Cultural Competence” for over 20 years, and am still in the infant stages of coming up with clear meaning for this term and its usage. I am at the point of throwing it away. You give me an opportunity to ask a question that needs definition. What is the gap called that exists between Native culture and mainstream society. On one side of the parallel is what we call the thesis and on the other side is the antithesis. Is the place in the middle called the synthesis? Sociologically and psychologically, do we have a term we used that more appropriately describes the synthesis of the two worlds?

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