Cultural Competency (Part One) – Colonialism

What is cultural competency? How does one become “culturally competent?” Is it ones understanding of the music in a certain culture? The food? The clothing? The customs? The traditions? Maybe…

Pop Wuj ( is a Spanish Immersion School in the heart of Guatemala in a quaint town called Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango) believes that to understand any culture, it is vital to understand the history of discrimination and oppression that exists within the culture. Pop Wuj teaches that 500 years of colonization occupy the mind of the gringos (“foreigners”) and of the Guatemalan people that work together in this school and this country. Colonization has engrained within all of us the concept that some people are “better” than others and that this mentality is natural; that some people are born “better” or “worse” than others, and it is a matter of luck which side you are born into. For example, people who experience poverty or oppression internalize the thought, “I have less, therefore I am less.” In fact, this concept is so internalized in our society that it has become a normal ideology that is rarely challenged. Part of the reason this ideology is not often challenged is because frequently the oppressed and the oppressors alike do not even notice it.

One example of this concept exists within the creation of the Spanish Medical Program here at Pop Wuj. Pop Wuj typically hosts twenty medical students, physician assistants, nurses, and physicians at one time. In the mornings, they all rotate working in the local clinics and in the afternoons they practice Spanish with a tutor one-on-one. When the program first began, about ten years ago, Pop Wuj realized that after the first group came through, the doctors at the clinic did not want any more students from Pop Wuj volunteering. The staff was flabbergasted. What went wrong? After probing for answers, the staff finally learned that there was a mentality within the medical students (and the patients) that was hindering quality patient care at the medical clinic. The mentality was one of privilege, power, entitlement, and colonization. When the students went to the clinic to consult with the clients and physicians, the patients always wanted to consult with the gringos instead of the Guatemalan physicians that worked at the clinic. The physicians would explain to the patients that the gringos were only first year medical students and that they were not able to diagnose patients properly yet. But, still…they only wanted to consult with the gringos. Why? The answer was always the same…because they are white. They are smarter. They are better.


Where does that mentality come from? Is Western medicine better? How do we define better? According to Pop Wuj, this concept was created through the process of colonization and the first steps of globalization when the United States, Europe, Japan and China began trading with each other a few hundred years ago. As the ideas of capitalism grew, so did the power. Along with this power came the idea concept that when you have more, you are more. As a result, people who are from the more powerful countries in the world, have white skin, are educated, are men, or have a lot of money, are the conquerors, are the most privileged, have the most, and are perceived as being better. This mentality trickles down into our core understanding of how we view and treat ourselves and others in the world. It distorts our perceptions of reality in subtle ways that frequently go unnoticed.

Paulo Freire writes in depth about this ideology and philosophy and relates it to the pervasive system of oppression that exists in our world. Some may think that oppression is a strong word to use. I’ve heard people say, “I’m not oppressing others,” “I’m not racist,” “I love and care about all people.” There are likely very good and honest intentions behind those statements. But, it may also be true that our internalized, oppressed thoughts and actions towards others may be so internalized that we don’t even see or realize it (see Sue and Sue’s work about micro aggressions to learn more about this concept).

Additionally, oppression is a scary word. Sometimes we (the elite) like to change the terminology to something we are more comfortable with or that is less direct. In the words of Freire, for example, some may prefer to use the term disenfranchised, instead of oppression. However, using terminology like disenfranchised allows the oppressors to feel less guilt because it implies that the victim can be blamed for their situation, whereas this is not the case with oppression. When there are oppressed people, there is always an oppressor. Language distorts reality and oppressors can use these slight terminological changes to cause those who are oppressed to think that it is their fault, and also minimize the guilt felt by the oppressors.

“Other terms used, such as disadvantaged, disenfranchised, educational morality, collateral damage, or ethnic cleansing, remain unchallenged since they are part of the dominant social construction of images that are treated as unproblematic and clear” (pg. 22). Another example of this is the idea of Christopher Columbus “discovering” America? Weren’t there already people in the United States when he arrived? The conqueror gets the credit for this great nation and the Native Americans get, what? They were given the choice to conform to the dominant group, die or be oppressed? They chose a combination of all three. Why aren’t the genocides of the Native American people in the United States taught in our schools? It is the distortion of reality. It is the manipulation of those in power. The conquerors.

Paulo Freire goes on to explain that oppressing others is a process of dehumanization:

“The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having is a right they acquired through their own effort and with their courage to take risks. If others do not have the same things, then they are lazy or didn’t work as hard as you did. In addition, the oppressed are viewed as ungrateful towards the generous gestures of the dominant class. And, because they are ungrateful and envious, they can’t be trusted” (pg. 59).

I have heard examples of this in the lives of family members and friends whom dehumanize others. In my work with refugees, I frequently went into the community trying to raise financial and relational support for these newcomers. During that time, I would frequently run into people who would have strong opinions about the United States helping immigrants. They would huff and puff about how “immigrants are taking our jobs” or “why is the government spending our money bringing refugees to the United States and you are helping them find jobs when Americans can’t even get jobs?” My follow up question to their comment or question was always, “Do you know any refugees? Are you friends with any?” Almost 100% of the time, the answer was “no.” It is easier to dehumanize another person if you don’t know them or their story.


One of the many sad parts of this reality is that people choose to change their culture, clothing, language, and customs in order to adapt to the dominant group. For example, in order to be a respected doctor in Guatemala, you must renounce your culture and become more Western. Before colonialism, the idea of “traditional medicine” didn’t exist. Now “medicine” is specifically only scientific/Western thinking. The idea of using traditional medicine is frequently judged as being wrong or bad. Could it just be different?

Another maddening reality about this perspective is that when the oppressed begin to stand up to the oppressors, the oppressors reverse the situation and begin to claim and truly believe that they are then being oppressed. “Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression” (pg. 57). One example of this is through affirmative action. Have you ever heard a white person complain that they felt like it was reverse racism that they felt like they had less of a chance of getting into their desired program because they were not a minority? I have heard this complain on more than one occasion.

Does the world know how to exist without making others an object or less than? It is evolution? Is it natural? Or, is it a concept created by humans? It has always been a part of history. Is there a way to change it? This blog post is a series of four posts, all pondering on this concept based on the cultural orientation and my experience in Guatemala at Pop Wuj and also the philosophy of Paulo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which is quoted several times in each blog post. The following blog post is an in depth example of this concept within the legal system of Guatemala.

– Kelly Dent

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