Cultural Humility in Social Work

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Social workers must be able to consider things from the client’s perspective.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines cultural humility – sometimes referred to as cultural competence – as “the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.”

In everyday practice, the concept simply means that a person respects other cultures and tries to understand them, then applies that understanding in their work.

Cultural humility, which is emerging as the preferred term, goes farther than competence.

“Cultural humility suggests that social workers should not view themselves as experts in other people’s cultures but as learners. By acknowledging that I do not know everything about another person’s culture, I am showing respect and I am opening my heart and mind to learning,” Allan Barsky, chair of the NASW National Ethics Committee, writes on,

The need for cultural humility is a particular concern for social workers, who may work with clients from widely disparate backgrounds and walks of life. People’s ideas on issues are shaped by their life circumstances. Everyone — even social workers — may see things very differently from a person of a different culture. To help their clients, social workers must be able to put aside their own belief systems and consider things from the client’s perspective, then apply that information in a productive, non-judgmental way.

Although many people are naturally open-minded, culturally aware social work is more than that. It requires a certain skill and education that can be obtained from a program such as Ohio University’s online masters in social work. Including topics and techniques associated with cultural humility, social work coursework helps prepare candidates for professional success with a diverse client base.

A Growing Divide

A peek at the changing demographics of the United States illustrates why cultural competence in social work is so important. According to the NASW, 80% of the population was white in 1980. By 2014, the proportion had decreased to 63%, and today it stands at 61.3%. The numbers are projected to continue tumbling, reaching 44% by 2050. This trend means that white, non-Hispanic Americans will soon be in the minority for the first time in U.S. history.

This change is a reality that those in the helping professions, such as social work, must take into account in their education and practice. The NASW sums up the challenge in this way: “Cultural competence requires social workers to examine their own cultural backgrounds and identities while seeking out the necessary knowledge, skills, and values that can enhance the delivery of services to people with varying cultural experiences associated with their race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, or disability [or other cultural factors].”

Ten Standards

Recognizing the essential nature and growing importance of cultural humility, the NASW released a publication titled “Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice.” This lengthy and comprehensive set of guidelines covers all aspects of cultural awareness and humility in the social work profession. Among other things, it lays out 10 standards that the NASW considers essential to suitable practice:

Standard 1: Ethics and Values

Social workers should function in accordance with the values, ethics, and standards of the NASW. Cultural humility requires self-awareness and cultural sensitivity, as well as a commitment to understanding and embracing culture as central to effective practice.

Standard 2: Self-Awareness

Social workers must be aware of their own privilege and power and acknowledge its impact in their work with clients.

Standard 3: Cross-Cultural Knowledge

Social workers should possess and continue to develop specialized knowledge and understanding of various cultural groups.

Standard 4: Cross-Cultural Skills

Social workers should use a broad range of skills and techniques that prioritize cultural issues in practice, policy, and research.

Standard 5: Service Delivery

Social workers should use and understand services, resources, and institutions that serve multicultural communities and be able to make culturally appropriate referrals.

Standard 6: Empowerment and Advocacy

Social workers need to be aware of the impact of social systems on multicultural client populations and advocate on behalf of their clients as appropriate.

Standard 7: Diverse Workforce

Social workers should support and advocate for workforce diversity within social work programs and organizations.

Standard 8: Professional Education

Social workers need to seek or develop professional education programs that boost cultural humility within the profession.

Standard 9: Language and Communication

Social workers should be able to provide and advocate for effective communication with clients of all cultural groups and communication abilities.

Standard 10: Leadership to Advance Cultural Competence

Social workers need to be change agents, modeling cultural humility themselves and also advancing these skills within the profession.

Everyday Application

The NASW’s guidelines provide an excellent framework, but they are a bit high-level. Every individual social worker has the responsibility to understand the overarching goals of cultural humility, then find practical ways to pursue these goals in their everyday practice.

Lu Rocha, a social worker and expert in cultural interactions, explains that some of these steps are purely internal. Social workers must be willing to continually re-evaluate their own inner landscapes, she notes, doing such work as exploring their own culture, beliefs, and values; being aware of their own world view; exploring the reasons they may feel uncomfortable with people who are different than themselves; and believing, at a core level, that it is possible to help clients who are culturally different from themselves.

Moving beyond introspection, Rocha points out some practical steps that social workers can take, including:

  • Actively seeking knowledge of different cultural practices and world views
  • Developing skills for communication and interaction across cultures
  • Studying the history of the community they work with
  • Developing a list of professionals for consultation on multicultural issues
  • Engaging in dialogue with colleagues to continually increase one’s cultural literacy

All of these actions are important. But the most important action of all, Rocha says, may be one that is not taken: incorrectly assuming that everyone in an ethnic group is the same.

“Do not generalize! When in doubt, ask,” she says. “There is nothing worse than making assumptions about a group with whom you are not familiar.” People are not the sum of their culture, race, or gender. An approach undertaken with cultural humility recognizes these factors and others — but keeps the focus firmly on the individual, where it belongs.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work

Ohio University’s online Master in Social Work degree program prepares graduates for careers in social work. Graduates assist people of all cultures, races, genders, and other differences with various life challenges.

The MSW program, which is offered through the university’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is 100% online and does not require a GRE for admission.

Additional Reading

5 Qualities of Emotional Intelligence
In Pursuit of Racial Equity: The Social Worker’s Role
Important Social Work Job Skills


National Association of Social Workers, Cultural competence definition, Cultural humility definition
National Association of Social Workers, U.S. demographics
National Association of Social Workers, Ten standards
NASW Illinois Chapter, Everyday application