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Cultural competence is a term used for the ability of people of one culture to understand and feel comfortable with the cultures of other people. The term is fairly recent but is becoming widely used in the field of education in the United States.


The United States in its earliest history had a culture influenced heavily by the predominately Northern European peoples, primarily from the British Isles, who originally settled in the original British Colonies. While the indigenous peoples, known as Indians, were the largest population of North America, they were slowly pushed away from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of North America during the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s (see Indian Removal Act describing specific actions during early 1800s). During this period, people from the British Isles (England and Scotland primarily) bringing with them the culture and religion of the British Isles became the dominant political and cultural group along the Eastern Seaboard of North America.

During the 1800s, immigration from other populations both within Western Europe and Asia as well as the results of the Atlantic slave trade during the 1700s, which brought a large population of Africans to North America especially in the Southern United States, began the process of diversifying the population of the United States though the majority of the population were White immigrants from England and Scotland and those White immigrants maintained most of the power, social and economic, of the nation.

During the 1900s, large numbers of immigrants from through out the world came to the United States bringing with them their cultural heritages.

During the early part of the 1900s, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants and their descendants began accummulating social and economic power. While these immigrants were faced with prejudice the fact that they were light skinned and shared a similar culture with the existing peoples assisted them in easier assimilation into the nation. Descendants of African slaves and immigrants faced a much more difficult challenge due to their skin color and cultural differences enforced by legal systems such as the Jim Crow law system of the United States. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, African Americans were able to achieve a number of social and political gains allowing them to more fully participate in the main stream society of the United States.

Since the 1960s, African Americans as well as other minority groups such as Mexican Americans have gained greater social and economic status and power. They have also become larger segments of society such that one can roughly divide the population of the United States into three large pieces (White predominately North European 60%, African American 15%, and Mexican American 15%) with a fourth, smaller piece composed primarily of Asian Americans (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian) and Native Americans.

Cultural competence in Education

With the larger population of minorities and with Racial integration during the 1960s and 1970s, the public school system of the United States has had to grapple with issues of cultural sensitivity as most teachers in public school system come from White, middle class backgrounds. Most of these teachers are educated, primarily English speaking, and primarily from the Western European culture. They are often confused when trying to communicate with people who speak common or standard English poorly or not at all and who do not share the same values and normative behaviors of the Western European culture. The purpose of teaching classes on the subject of cultural competence is to provide new teachers the background and skills so that teachers can recognize when a cultural conflict event is happening and be able to resolve the conflict.

Teachers and administrators in the public school system of the United States come in contact with a wide variety of sub-cultures and are at the forefront of a number of social problems facing the nation. Issues confronting teachers and administrators on a daily basis include student learning disabilities, student behavioral problems, child abuse, drug addiction, and student family poverty. Teachers and administrators within the public school system find themselves working with a variety of governmental agencies including law enforcement, family services agencies, and other social agencies as a part of dealing with daily problems in the school system.

Examples of cultural conflicts often seen by teachers in the public school system include

  • role of women in the family and the decisions they can make
  • practices among cultural groups (e.g. cupping)
  • symbol systems among cultural groups (see semiotics)

Various sub-groups within the United States


  • Diller, Jerry V., Moule, Jean (2005). Cultural Competence: a primer for educators. Thomason Learning, Belmont, California.

Specific Cultural Topics

African American

  • African American culture
  • African American contemporary issues
  • African American history

Mexican American

  • Chicano
  • History of Mexican-Americans

See also

External links

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