The term cultural safety was coined in Aotearoa (New Zealand) by a Maori nursing student and has since then been developed by Dianne Wepa and others to be the next step in addressing cultural difference, colonialism and racism. I say miigwetch to my Maori siblings for sharing that teaching with me. I did have the great good luck to exchange some emails with Dianne herself when i first began learning about cultural safety as a concept and it was simply awesome to 'chat' with her and connect with another Indigenous person. All of us who have experienced colonialism have similar experiences and learning from one another can only strengthen us.
So, what is cultural safety? According to Wepa, a woman named Irihapeti Ramsden was instrumental in developing the concept. The approach requires an understanding of both colonial history and a sense of how culture affects individuals and professional practice. We have, over the last couple of decades been doing a lot of work on negotiating differences between different cultures, trying to make our world more accommodating of difference. It has been quite the process! The past approach to multi-cultural services has typically been to provide the same service regardless of difference... one of the major concepts of cultural safety is to provide service which is both regardful & respectful of difference. So, how do we get to there?
The process began with cultural awareness - simply acknowledging that there are differences in the way individuals from different cultures experience and interact with the world. This stands in quite the contrast to the usual mainstream/monocultural approach which assumes that there is only one culture that needs to be considered. Cultural awareness training can sensitize people to the practices of other cultures but beware the use of “cultural checklist” or seeing difference as deficit. There is a huge danger in the presumption that an observer can understand another culture and what it may mean to those who practice it.
The next step that unfolded in the process is cultural sensitivity. In this, the underlying assumption is that racism is a product of ignorance. It is beginning to acknowledge the social, political, economic and other realities linked to culture yet the focus is still on the culture of the “other”. What is problematic in this is that there is often no analysis of power imbalances or structures. It may contribute to stereotyping and simplifying of multiple contexts (eg. Pan-Indianism - you know - all Indians live in teepees!). Observers attempting to be “expert” in another culture often contribute to dis-empowerment. Cultural sensitivity also preserves policies, practices and structures that serve the dominant group. Finally, it removes the observer's attitudes, behaviours and cultural presumptions from the equation. We are all too familiar with the idea of 'professional detachment' and other myths!
Now, back to cultural safety... it is a way of being with another person, which encourages and celebrates difference. It means not only tolerating but accepting others’ difference and acknowledging your own background and culture. The key difference here is that the information
required does not come from outside of yourself – it requires that you look inward to understand that we are all different one from another, that we all live our cultures in different ways. It is important here to remember that this is a process. It is very individualised as each person carries their culture in their own unique way. It involves constant self-awareness and self-education.
The responsibility for making your interactions with others culturally safe is YOUR responsibility, not the responsibility of the person you perceive to be different. Far too often, those perceived to be different are expected to 'speak for their race'. It is more than taking a workshop, memorising any list of cultural assumptions about others or studying some sort of 'authoritative' source. Take the time to understand your culture(s) and how those scripts impact your assumptions, interactions and understandings of those you encounter. When we shift our script from ... they are different from me to I am different from them... it changes your whole perspective. Perhaps it will lessen your fear, perhaps it will open you to learning from another, perhaps it will help create safer spaces and better dialogue. It can be a first step towards decolonising our world. Share your story, explore your culture in dialogue with another human - we are all different, one from another - even within the same culture!