Cultural Proficiency: The Courage to Sit in the Dark (For a Bit)

“There is no dawning save for the path of night.” – Kahlil Gibran

Have you ever wondered about the psychological discomfort of sitting in complete darkness? Imagine you are in an auditorium full of people and the lights go out unexpectedly. Chaos could ensue. In the dark, we feel vulnerable. We could miss our step and fall. Under the cover of darkness, we could become the victim of attack or theft. As human beings, we instinctively fear the dark.

However, the process of Cultural Proficiency invites us to go beyond the instinctual and step into a voluntarily chosen kind of darkness. The process of transformation requires us to pass through a dark period. This is the darkness of what we do not know: the darkness of what is outside our lived experiences. It is listening to and trusting the experiences – the stories – of others who seem different from us.

The darkness is a metaphor not only for what we do not know but for what we find uncomfortable or even painful. When we “sit in the darkness” listening to each other, we share, explore, and discover our participation in maintaining systems of privilege and oppression. We begin to recognize and remove self-imposed barriers to cultural competence and proficiency. We do this through listening to and hearing each other’s stories. I like to call this “removing the barriers to the light.”

“Sitting in the darkness” is a delicate stage in the process of cultural proficiency, and it requires skill on the part of the facilitator. This is the stage where the facilitator must be prepared to intervene on an emotional level, for fear can trigger the brain to “downshift” into the reptilian brain – the limbic system – which controls the fight or flight response. At this point in conversations about diversity and inequity, people can resort to intellectual debate in order to escape the vulnerability of truly engaging with another’s story. Because of our painful history of inequality, it’s all too easy to project anger, guilt, blame, and shame instead of engaging with authenticity.

This is when we need to remember (or be reminded of) our courage. We truly have nothing to fear except fear itself. Courage is not the absence of fear but acting despite being afraid. This is the lesson learned by the Cowardly Lion (The Wizard of Oz, 1936), who believed he was inadequate because he felt fear. His resulting guilt and shame blocked his recognition of his innate courage, the courage he displayed throughout his journey to Oz and beyond. We, too, have the innate courage to make the journey of transformation through inherited (and often culturally destructive, incapacitating, and/or blind) beliefs and assumptions to a new world of freedom and equality.

When we sit in the darkness, it’s helpful to recognize the presence of the fear that sits with us. Without fear, there would be no need for courage. I like to remember the words of Marily Chandler McEntyre in her poem “What To Do In The Darkness”:

McEntyre invites us to have patience and trust the process. In our Cultural Proficiency journeys, sitting in the darkness is a temporary but necessary experience that leads to awareness and then to the intentional moral action necessary to eliminate achievement gaps. Without the darkness of the night, there is no light of the dawn.

Take, for example, the growth process of a mature oak tree. That mighty tree was once a tiny acorn buried in the darkness underground. If the tree could tell us its story, it surely would not describe its time in the dark earth as a time of comfort. It had to be cold, frightening, and lonely beneath the earth. If the acorn had eyes, it wouldn’t have been able to see its way out. It remained in the darkness for as long as it took to germinate and grow toward the light. The mature oak would surely recognize that its time in the darkness was a necessary part of its growth.

And so with us. We choose – courageously so – to sit in the darkness for a while as a necessary stage of growth toward culturally competent practices and policies. There are other fears to be overcome along the way, but that is another topic for another blog. We’ve already made a good start with the courage to listen and to share, especially when it’s uncomfortable.

An ideal space to practice these ideas in community is right around the corner. On June 18 and 19, the International Cultural Proficiency Institute is taking place in Santa Maria, California. This year’s theme is The Courage to Change. That change starts with the voluntary choice to sit in the darkness (for a bit).

Written by

John Krownapple specializes in facilitating professional learning and organizational development focused on social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Since 2007 he has led the development and implementation of one of the first and most comprehensive Cultural Proficiency programs in the United States. John continues to administer this program for the Howard County Public School System (Maryland) in his role of coordinator for Cultural Proficiency, where he has guided movement toward inclusion and equity for a variety of teams and groups: organizational leaders, staff members, partners, government officials, students, and families. In his book Guiding Teams to Excellence with Equity: Culturally Proficient Facilitation, he offers professional development leaders knowledge, skills, and dispositions for facilitating Cultural Proficiency in their organizations. As an educator for two decades, John has served as a district office administrator, professional development facilitator, curriculum specialist, and elementary teacher. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and McDaniel College.

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