Cultural Humility and Power

Big Question: If we can practice the first cultural humility component of lifelong learning and critical reflection, how do we enact the other two components:

  • recognizing and challenging power imbalances
  • advancing institutional accountability?

Time Commitment: 65 – 75 minutes

Why This Matters:

Cultural norms can include and exclude. Reflective learners committed to inclusion frequently develop and sharpen skills to respectfully make their home cultures more inclusive and to advance inclusion in other cultural contexts. Recognizing and challenging power imbalances while advancing institutional accountability and being critically reflective can help us advance the cosmopolitan obligations that every human has to every other human.

Brief Video and Personal Reflection: 

Jamila Lyiscott is a community engaged scholar, Assistant Professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a Senior Research Fellow of Teachers College, Columbia University’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Watch her four-and-a-half minute clip here before dropping into the reflection below. Keep an eye on how Dr. Lyiscott is demonstrating her own lifelong learning and critical reflection, while also calling out power and privilege inequities and even advancing institutional accountability.

Personal Reflection, 5-minute free write:

In what moments and contexts do you code-switch and perform to match varying expectations? For some individuals this happens regularly, as a daily and necessary practice. For others, who hold primarily privileged identities, this may not happen at all, or it may occur through critical moments of interaction across cultural contexts and identity groupings. If you don’t relate to code-switching then take this opportunity to reflect upon why.

Diving In: Considering Functions or Enactments of Identity

The concepts shared in this section provide a framework for understanding the ways in which we embrace, negate, and perform our identity to serve different purposes in different moments. This section is excerpted and summarized from: B.F. Schaetti’s Cultural Identity Development and Resolution: A Review of the Literature, which drew heavily on William E. Cross, Jr., Lakesha Smith, and Yasser Payne’s “Black identity: A repertoire of daily enactments” (both cited in full below). Begin with two quotes from researchers who spent a great deal of time considering identity, then dive into key terms:

  • “The primary function of identity is to give the individual a sense of personal coherence through time, social changes, and differing life roles.” – Erik Erikson
  • “Identity functions in a multitude of ways, guiding and directing how we interact with our social and material realities.” William E. Cross, Jr.

Buffering: the protective function of identity

  • When aspects of an individual’s identity serve as a psychological shield against the acts of other people and institutions, or situations that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or other types of discrimination or prejudice.
  • Provides a psychological buffer when encountering threatening circumstances, especially psychologically threatening circumstances.  Allows the individual to maintain a calm center in the face of rude, offensive, or disrespectful behavior.
  • Requires a measure of preparation (the individual’s psychological shielding must be at hand in order to be activated) and also a measure of anticipation.  The ability to buffer necessarily presupposes that people acknowledge the possibility of threat before the actual threat is present.

Bonding: the community-building function of identity

  • Bonding, or sharing experiences with those who share your culture or identity, brings together those who share a commonality of experience.
  • Provides the individual and community with a sense of home and of belonging.

Bridging: the “transcendent function” of identity

  • Allows an individual to make connections with others of different experiences
  • Intimacy is achieved through, not despite, differences; differences are often part of the source of the connectivity between two people
  • Each person in the relationship must break through layers of resistance and then face the challenging task of seriously absorbing the other persons’ culture.

Code-Switching: the culture-specific adaptive function of identity

  • Process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. 
  • Enables the individual to move between cultural contexts and to act appropriately in each.
  • Presupposes a degree of cultural fluency in the two or several cultures between which one moves.

Betweening: the culture-general adaptive function of identity

  • Enables the individual to move between cultural contexts and to act appropriately in each.
  • Emphasizes that individuals can appropriately adapt their behaviors even without specific cultural fluency, as long as the individual is sufficiently self-reflective and self-reflexive.

Personal Reflection, 5-minute free write: 

Describe a daily practice or critical incident from your own life in which you enact or enacted one or more of the functions of identity.  Which of the enactments do you / did you use and why? (It may be more than one). Analyze the daily practice or incident and your use of the enactments within the framework of cultural humility: 1) lifelong learning and critical self-reflection, 2) recognizing and mitigating power imbalances, 3) holding institutions accountable.

Reflect upon what your assumptions are/were about the people involved and what you believe(d) their assumptions are/were about you. Consider how these assumptions impact(ed) the daily practices or incident. Reflecting upon the practices/incident with what you know now, would you personally have done anything differently to align with the tenets of cultural humility? Would you suggest institutional changes to better align with the values of cultural humility? Describe why or why not. After reflecting on this individually for a few minutes, share and discuss with a partner.

Share with a partner (10 minutes – NOTE: There is always the option not to share or share only certain items that you are comfortable sharing): Take turns listening to each other and be sure to ask questions to probe more deeply into the critical incident and the ways your efforts within it related to the different functions of identity.

If you join a group debrief, you may want to share from your conversation with your partner, so ask your partner if that is okay.

Group Debrief: Identity Pie (30 minutes)

When you come back together for a share conversation with your cohort, it will begin by asking you to share something you learned through reflecting on the ways you critical reflect, negotiate power imbalances, and hold institutions accountable.

Page Completion – Outcomes:

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your capacity to:

  • articulate cultural humility as a three-pronged concept
  • further identify and articulate your own deeply held cultural assumptions
  • consider the ways in which you navigate power in different cultural contexts
  • articulate how your identity performance relates to the functions of buffering, bonding, bridging, code-switching, and betweening.

However, you may have noticed that we have not explicitly addressed how Professor Lyiscott advocates for institutional accountability. We think she advances that accountability through her life’s work, her vocation, teaching, scholarship, speaking, and spoken word. As we’ve shared in our pages on civil society activism and methods of social change, there are many different ways to make a difference. We see Professor Lyiscott holding institutions accountable through speaking truth to power several different ways.

Next: Action absent cultural humility: Disastrous “Doing good” without critical reflection

Citation for this page: Kiely, R., Zukerman, S., & Hartman, S. (2020). How can cultural humility help us recognize and challenge power imbalances while advancing accountability? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from

Further Reading

Black Appetite, White Food
This image is of a book cover, "Community-Based Global Learning: The Theory and Practice of Ethical Engagement at Home and Abroad," by Eric Hartman, by Eric Hartman, Richard C. Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, Jessica Friedrichs, and Rafia Zakaria.


Cross, W. E., Jr., Smith, L., & Payne, Y. (2002). Black identity: A repertoire of daily enactments. In P. Pedersen, J. G. Draguns, W. J. Lonner, & J. E. Trimble (Eds). Counseling across cultures (5th ed., pp. 93-108). Bayside, NY: Sage.

Hartman, E., Kiely, R., Boettcher, C., & Friedrichs, J. (2018). Community-based global learning: The theory and practice of ethical engagement at home and abroad. Sterling: VA: Stylus Publishing.

Schaetti, B. F. (1999). Cultural Identity Development and Resolution: A Review of Literature. The Union Institute and University.

Videos and pieces cited within the videos:

TED. (2014, June 19). 3 ways to speak English | Jamila Lyiscott [Video file]. Retrieved from