Chapter One: Cultural Components Print

A Youth Leader's Guide to Building Cultural Competence [PDF]

What Is Culture?

Anthropologists and other social scientists offer many different definitions of "culture." Most people understand that culture has something to do with the customs and beliefs of a group of people. It is common to explain a holiday tradition, a spiritual belief or a child-rearing practice as part of someone's cultural background.

An individual's culture strongly influences his or her behavior, beliefs, attitudes and values. This is not a surprising statement; we all have an understanding that many of our present-day beliefs and behaviors have their roots in what we learned growing up in our own particular cultures.

A useful definition of culture is:
The body of learned beliefs, tradition, principles and guides for behavior that are commonly shared among members of a particular group. Culture serves as a road map for both perceiving and interacting with the world.7

Of course, many Americans do not belong to just one cultural group. Our parents may have been of different racial or ethnic groups and our homelife would then have been a mixture of the two. Likely, some of the cultural values of both groups were absorbed. For most people in the United States, in addition to specific racial or ethnic cultures, the national American culture is one that also influences us to some degree.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual people almost always move within more than one cultural world. They are born into and raised as members of at least one racial or ethnic culture. In order to find others who share their sexual orientation, however, they commonly become part of larger gay/lesbian communities.

Important Cultural Components

The journey towards cultural competence includes gaining knowledge about important components of both your own culture and the cultures you work with.

The following list of cultural components is good to keep in mind, first as you examine your own experience and beliefs, and later as you focus on learning about different cultural backgrounds. Keep HIV/AIDS prevention in mind; many of the cultural components are directly related.

Language and Communication Style

Language and communication style refers to a wide variety of verbal and nonverbal patterns and behaviors, including social customs about who speaks to whom—both how and when.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • What language or dialect is spoken in the home? How is that dialect or language perceived by those who speak Standard English? Is there a generational split among family members, with older family members speaking one language and younger ones speaking English better than the other language?
  • What expressions, gestures and posturing (body language) commonly accompany communication? Is eye contact considered polite or rude? Is usual tone of voice soft or loud? How close do people stand next to each other when speaking? Is touching acceptable?
  • Do all members of the family have the same right to speak, or do some family members have more, or fewer, rights?
  • Do children, teens and adults speak freely to one another or is there some reserve? What about men and women?
  • Are communication forms like joking, story-telling or rapping common? In what circumstances?
  • Are emotions freely expressed? All or just some? Which ones? When?

Health Beliefs

Health beliefs cover a range of assumptions about the causes of disease as well as the proper remedies for illness.

While the "germ theory" of disease—that sickness is caused by microscopic organisms such as bacteria and viruses—is the belief of the dominant culture of the United States, it is not the only explanation people have come up with for disease. The belief is growing, even among scientific circles, that the mind can affect the body's health in surprising ways. In addition, "supernatural" theories of disease, including the belief that a particular disease results from spiritually unhealthy activity, are common the world over.

Who do people turn to for medical care if they are sick? For many who live in the U.S., the answer is a doctor, someone trained in the "Western medical model" of health care and disease prevention. Nurses, physician's assistants and others who work in doctor's offices and hospitals are all trained in that model.

For many others, both in the U.S. and in other countries, other kinds of healers are sought out, including spiritualists, herbalists, shamans and others—like acupuncturists or homeopaths—who practice what is labeled as "alternative health care." Often, both Western doctors and "traditional" healers will be consulted. The availability of multiple systems through which to pursue health can be seen as an advantage.

Questions to consider: __________

  • What causes illness? Does individual behavior or fate play a role in who gets sick? What types of illnesses do individual behaviors influence?
  • How can people prevent illness?
  • To whom does one turn when sick? To which family member, if any? To what kind of doctor or healer?

Family Relationships

The family is the primary unit of society. In it, children are socialized into human society and into a culture's particular beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors. The topic of family relationships include family structure, roles, dynamics and expectations.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • Is the family structure nuclear or extended? If extended, who is considered a member of the family? Do people have to live in the same household to be considered members of the family?
  • What rights and responsibilities come with family membership? Do they vary by gender? By age?
  • Who has authority in the home? Does one adult have power over some decisions, but not others?
  • Is there value placed on having many or few children? On having girls or boys? Why?
  • Are family members expected to be involved in other family members' decisions? Which ones? Which family members' opinions receive the most respect?
  • Do families arrange marriages? If so, how?
  • What are the expectations for what parents owe children and what children owe parents? Are children expected to live at home until marriage? After marriage?
  • Are openly gay, lesbian or bisexual family members accepted?
  • Is there a difference between the way in which homosexual behavior might be tolerated and toleration of openly gay
  • Are same-sex life partners of gay or lesbian relatives considered to be family members as well? How is that expressed? What about unmarried heterosexual partners? How is that expressed?
  • What is the impact of marriage outside the cultural group? Of sexual affairs? Is there a difference between the two?
  • How is privacy treated within the home? What family matters are not to be shared with outsiders?


Sexuality involves more than genital sexual activity. It includes five major areas, sensuality , sexual intimacy, sexual identity, reproduction/sexual health and sexualization. These areas are described below.

is what enables people to feel good about how their bodies look and feel. It allows them to enjoy the pleasure their bodies can give to them and others. The need to be touched by others in loving ways, the feeling of physical attraction for another person, body image and fantasy are all part of sensuality.

Sexual intimacy is the ability and the need to be emotionally close with another and to have that closeness returned. While sensuality refers more to physical aspects of our relationships, sexual intimacy focuses on emotional needs.

Sexual identity refers to people's understanding of who they are sexually, including

  1. gender identity (their sense of being male or female),
  2. their gender role (what men and what women are supposed to do) and
  3. their sexual orientation (which gender they have primary affectional and sexual attraction to).

Reproduction and sexual health is the most familiar aspect of sexuality. It includes all the behaviors and attitudes having to do with having healthy sexual relationships and having the ability to bear children.

Sexualization is using sex to influence, manipulate or control other people. Termed the "shadow" side of sexuality, sexualization spans behaviors that range from mutually enjoyable to harmlessly manipulative to violent and illegal. It includes such behaviors as flirting, seduction, withholding sex, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, incest and rape.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • What are the "ideal" body types for men and women? Are those ideals different from the images represented in mainstream advertising? How? Are men and women generally happy with their bodies? Why or why not?
  • How is intimacy expressed? Do men and women appear to have different needs for intimacy? Is hand-holding, kissing or other forms of public affection considered acceptable or in bad taste?
  • How do men express feelings of closeness to other men? Women to other women?
  • Is sensuality expressed through clothing? How?
  • Is dating allowed? Are young people permitted to socialize in coed groups?
  • For heterosexual couples, which gender is encouraged to initiate romantic relationships by asking for a date? Which gender generally takes the lead in suggesting sexual involvement?
  • Are some sexual acts taboo? Which ones? With whom? When?
  • How is masturbation viewed?
  • Is contraception commonly used? Who is responsible for purchase and How is homosexuality viewed? Are lesbian, gay and bisexual people accepted as members of the community? Are they respected?
  • How do people flirt? What is expected behavior for men and for women? What age is seen as an acceptable one for first sexual intercourse? For males? For females? Do young people and older people agree on this? Why or why not?
  • Is childhood sexual abuse recognized as a problem? Is forced sex between partners perceived as a problem? What about sexual harassment?

Gender Roles

Gender roles refer to what is considered appropriate and acceptable behavior for men and women. There has been tremendous change in the U.S. in the last 20 years and doors have been opened to women in education and occupation. There are, however, still many deeply-held beliefs about which behaviors are feminine and which are masculine.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • Are tasks within the home assigned by gender? Are some things traditionally done by women and some by men? Which ones? Is that changing? How?
  • Are both boys and girls encouraged to stay in school? To excel in school? In which subjects?
  • Are both boys and girls encouraged, or expected, to work outside the home? In what kinds of jobs?
  • Are both genders expected to express emotions freely? Are some emotions more appropriate for one gender or another? If so, which ones? How are they typically expressed?
  • How are children cared for? How are responsibilities and tasks shared by parents?
  • Are there different expectations about sexual behavior for both genders? Is one gender supposed to be more knowledgeable, experienced or interested in sex or faithful (monogamous) in a relationship?
  • Is one gender supposed to be obedient to the other? In what ways?


Religion refers to a specific set of beliefs and practices regarding the spiritual realm beyond the visible world, including belief in the existence of a single being, or group of beings, who created and govern the world. Ritual, prayer and other spiritual exercises are commonly part of religious practice.

Religious beliefs often provide guidance for behavior and explanations for the human condition. Religious beliefs and communities are often sources of strength for cultural groups coping with the demands of the majority culture. Religion can provide a sense of community and a basis for cohesion and moral strength within a cultural group.7 Religious communities can also serve as centers of support, resistance and political action.

Many, if not all, religions establish sexual norms. Most organized religions condemn homosexuality and so it is often difficult for gay, lesbian and bisexual people to find full acceptance and spiritual peace within their families' house of worship or religious tradition.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • What religion, or religions, does this group typically adhere to?
  • What are the basic beliefs of the religion? In particular, what are the teachings about gender roles, pre- or extra-marital intercourse, homosexuality, contraception, childbirth and abortion?
  • What role does fate or predestiny, play in an individual's life?
  • How is death viewed? Does this group believe that there is life after death?
  • Are young people as religious as older people? Do young people express their religious beliefs differently from their elders?
  • How are religious beliefs incorporated into daily life? Are some teachings more followed than others?
  • Are religious leaders often consulted by family or community members? On what issues?
  • Are there behaviors or foods that are taboo? Which ones? When?
  • How is the religion perceived in the ancestral country? Is it the dominant or minority religion?

The following five components of culture are linked to the impact of U.S. society on racial and ethnic groups.

Level of Acculturation

Acculturation is a process that occurs when two separate cultural groups come in contact with each other and change occurs in at least one of the two groups. While most changes are thought to occur only in immigrant groups in the U.S., the dominant (mainstream) culture in the U.S. has undergone change as a result of contact with "other" cultures.

Individuals within racial or ethnic groups can be:

  • acculturated—having given up most of the cultural traits of the culture of origin and assumed the traits of the dominant culture.
  • bicultural—able to function effectively in the dominant culture while holding on to some traits of their own culture.
  • traditional—holding on to a majority of the traits from the culture of origin while adopting only a few of the traits of the dominant culture.
  • marginal—having little real contact with traits of either culture.8

Individuals within any given cultural group can be anywhere along the continuum. For immigrants, it is common for there to be variation even within one family, with older generations holding onto traditional traits, and young people functioning more in a bicultural manner. The further away from the immigrant experience someone is born, the more likely it is that she or he will be acculturated.

Individuals and families, even generations away from the immigrant experience, however, hold on to at least some beliefs, attitudes, customs and behaviors of the original culture. That is why the metaphor of the "melting pot" to describe the culture of the U.S., has been replaced by that of the "tossed salad." In a salad, each ingredient retains its unique flavor, texture and shape while contributing to the whole.

Of course, not all Americans willingly immigrated or were immigrants at all. Slavery brought millions of Africans to the shores of the so-called New World in chains. Mexicans living on land annexed by the U.S. government became U.S. residents without even moving from their homes. Native Americans, including Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians were already living on land that would one day be claimed or purchased by the United States. Many of those native cultures were destroyed by contact with Europeans. Others survived, but almost all lost their land, and all have suffered tremendously from exploitative government policies.

Questions to consider about individuals: __________

  • Are they bicultural, traditional, acculturated or marginal? What about their families?
  • If they are not Native, how long have they—or their families—lived in the U.S.?
  • If they are Native American, what is their, and their family's history? Tribe(s)?
  • Which cultural values, beliefs, attitudes, customs, traditions and behaviors remain?
  • What traits of the dominant culture have been absorbed?

Immigration Status

Immigration status refers to whether or not an individual is classified as a refugee, an immigrant or an undocumented ("illegal"). How one is labelled by the U.S. government has important implications for the kinds of services one can expect and rights one has in this country.

Refugees flee their countries due to fear of persecution or death. As a result of political upheaval and war, refugees have often experienced the traumas of rape, torture, starvation and the witnessing of family members being tortured or killed. Designation as a "refugee" can mean a period of cash assistance and with employment, housing and medical services fromthe government.9

Immigrants generally have more control over the conditions surrounding their migration. There are many reasons behind an individual or family's decision to come to the U.S. While the journey can certainly be difficult, it is likely that the trauma is not of the same degree or quality as it is for refugees. The designation "immigrant" can open access to government assistance with medical, educational or food programs.10

The determination of who is a refugee and who is an immigrant is based on U.S. political policy; the categories are not set in stone, nor are they always consistent.

Lastly, due to immigration quotas set for each country, those who enter the U.S. without official sanction are labelled as "undocumented." The world of undocumented migrants is difficult, as fear of discovery and deportation hang over them. No government services are available for those who are undocumented and finding employment is very difficult because employers face severe fines for hiring undocumented individuals.11

Questions to consider about individuals: __________

  • Are they refugees, immigrants or undocumented? Are they U.S. citizens? Are any or all family members U.S. citizens?
  • What was their migration experience? Did they arrive in the U.S. alone or with family members? Are their family members still in the native country? Are they in touch? Are they offering financial assistance to folks back home?
  • Are they married to U.S. citizens?
  • Do they live in a community with others from their homeland?
  • Do they live in communities with people from different racial and ethnic groups? How do those groups get along?
  • Have they moved within the U.S. since arriving here? Where else have they lived?
  • Do they—or their families—plan to stay in the U.S. or do they hope to return home one day?
  • Are they U.S. citizens or dual-nationals?

Political Power

Political power can be defined as a group's level of formal involvement in local, state and national governments as well as in informal advocacy organizations.

Those with political power are able to influence public policy decisions, often to the benefit of the group's interests. Those groups who are left out of the political process have no guarantee that they will be well-served by the process. United States' history shows that the formal political arena has been—and continues to be—largely dominated by men of European descent.

The level of a group's participation in government can be a result of restrictions against doing so. For example, the literacy tests for voting in the South effectively prevented many African-Americans from voting. The level of participation can also be influenced by a group's belief in the efficacy of politics as an avenue for group advancement. If no faith exists that the government will help a group advance, members may be less likely to participate in the political process. In fact, recent voter turnouts indicate that groups with upper income levels, advanced levels of education and are predominantly white have the highest percentage of voter turnout.

In the advocacy arena, non-elected leaders of great courage and vision have had a profound impact upon society. These alternative avenues have been instrumental to social change for women and people of color. In fact, many would argue that true social change rarely starts in the government, but that it bubbles up from community activists and informed citizens.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • How well-represented is this group in the local, state and national governments? How many women are among this group's elected and appointed officials?
  • How common is it for members of this group to have U.S. citizenship? To be registered voters? To vote? To be courted by candidates? Which ones?
  • What are the advocacy organizations that work on behalf of this group? How well do they represent the diversity of the group?
  • How active are this group's churches and other religious organizations in social movements?
  • Who are the formal and informal leaders at the local and national level?
  • What is the group's relationship with law enforcement officials like?
  • For groups who have arrived in the U.S. recently, what is the political situation in the country they came from? Is political participation encouraged? Are elections held? Are they fair?


The impact of racism in the U.S. has been devastating and far-reaching and it continues today. A blunt discussion of racism and an understanding of its effects on individuals and communities is essential for building cultural competence.

Racism can be simply defined:

Prejudice + Power = Racism

Prejudice means unreasonable feelings, opinions or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, directed against any group. Anybody can be prejudiced and everyone is. Any group can be prejudiced against any other group. Just because a group is often the target of prejudice does not necessarily stop members of that group from being prejudiced against some other group.

Racism is the addition of some form of power to racial prejudice. Only those individuals or groups who are prejudiced against a racial group and have the power to act on those prejudices can be correctly labeled racist. That power is often institutional, meaning that racial inequalities are set in policy.

Racism in the United States means that people of color have been—and continue to be—denied equal opportunities for housing, education, employment, health care and other services. In the past, laws denying equal rights to people of color were on the books, and enforced, in many parts of the country. Today, the mechanisms that tend to keep people of color out of jobs, out of school, in poor health and in certain neighborhoods are more subtle. They include a complex mix of economic issues, political decisions and individual acts that are hard to quantify and even harder to change.

Racism harms everybody. The most obvious victims of racism are people of color, but those individuals who enforce their prejudices through power are also robbed of some of their humanity. The entire society suffers when people of color are systematically denied equal opportunities.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • What is the impact of racism on this group? In the past? Today?
  • How are individuals affected by racist attitudes and practices? Communities? Are men and women affected differently? What is the impact on children and teenagers?
  • How do the informal and formal leaders of this group talk about racism? Now? In the past?

Poverty and Economic Concerns

Poverty and economic concerns are tied to racism in this country. There is no use discussing racial issues without examining the impact of poverty on communities of color in the U.S.

Often, race and socioeconomic class are confused. In particular, the assumption is frequently made that all poor people are African-American or Latino/Latina or that all African-Americans or Latinos/Latinas are poor. Of course, neither statement is true. Most poor people in the U.S. are white. And many African-Americans and Latinos/Latinas are well-educated, own their own homes, live in safe neighborhoods and have good jobs.

It is true, however, that a disproportionate number of people of color live in poverty in the U.S. The percentage of African-Americans, Latinos/Latinas and Native Americans who are poor is higher than the percentage of white people who are poor.

The causes of poverty among people of color are complex. Social scientists, politicians, advocates and poor people offer different theories and explanations: the labor market's demand for higher-skilled employees; loss of inner-city and manufacturing jobs; inadequate public education; a variety of public policy decisions; discrimination; individual behavior and choices and others. While liberals and conservatives disagree about causes and solutions, no one argues that the effects of poverty on communities of color, particularly in urban areas and on Native American reservations, is devastating.

There is poverty in all cultural groups and no one cultural group has only poor people in it. Therefore, questions about poverty and economic concerns should be focused on a specific community or group of individuals, not about an entire racial or ethnic group.

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • Are most adults employed? In what kinds of jobs? Permanent or temporary? With benefits or without? What is the average salary? Are they self-employed? Do both men and women work? Are they paid equally?
  • What are the effects of unemployment and joblessness? What do unemployed adults do during the day? How hard is it for a teenager to get a job?
  • What is the level of individual involvement in the underground economy of drugs, weapons, the sex industry (prostitution) and gambling? How is the community affected by these illegal industries?
  • Are people on public assistance? How many? How many of today's recipients grew up in homes that also received public assistance? What is the impact of public assistance regulations on male/female family formation (e.g. can families receive assistance if fathers or other adult males live in the home?)
  • What kinds of employment training opportunities exist in the community? Are the public schools safe, well-staffed and well-funded? How many children are in private—including parochial—schools?
  • Do most people rent or own their houses or apartments? Do many people live in public housing, in homeless shelters or doubled-up with relatives?
  • What is the level of violence in the community? Gang involvement? Other crime?
  • What are the health problems in the community? How many doctors or clinics are available? When and how do people seek medical treatment? Do most people have private medical insurance? Participate in Medicaid/Medicare? How many are uninsured?

History of Oppression

The history of the United States includes many chapters in which government policies harmful to racial and ethnic groups were in force. Knowing this history is important, as the legacy of these laws and policies linger today.

Some examples of these laws or policies include: slavery; anti-mixed race marriage laws (anti-miscegenation laws); the forced removal of Native Americans from their land and the establishment of reservations; policies on education of Native children that required them to be separated from their families; immigration quotas for specific national groups; the internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II; the "separate but equal" policy regarding education for African-Americans; "Jim Crow" laws restricting Southern blacks' access to services; and state resistance to school desegregation demanded by Brown v. Board of Education.

Today, laws and policies are different, but many are still oppressive. For example, in some states there is a move toward English-only legislation that would restrict state agencies from providing bilingual services. People with HIV infection and AIDS are barred from immigrating to the U.S. The military ban on gay men and lesbian women serving in the armed forces is still in effect and a law criminalizing sodomy (oral or anal intercourse) has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Civil rights protections for gay and lesbian people are being attacked through ballot measures labeling those protections "special rights."

Questions to consider about cultural groups: __________

  • What is the specific history of this group in the U.S.? What laws or policies have affected them in the past?
  • What was their impact? Are there laws or policies that affect them today? Which ones? What is their effect?
  • What is the history of this group in its ancestral country? Was it discriminated against in some way?
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