The Growth Mindset and Cultural Proficiency

October 7, 2019

Stacey S. Joseph for ImpactEDI™

Conversations about race, identity, inclusivity, and cultural competency can be challenging and uncomfortable. For this reason, when facilitators deep dive into such dialogue, there’s an established agreement with regard to conversational norms that should be kept at the center of the dialogue. They include agreements to count on and lean in[to] the discomfort, state clear intentions, and listen with intent to understand. These are all tools for meaningful, authentic, and progressive dialogue in any setting. Yet, during conversations about micro aggressions and implicit bias in the workplace and classrooms, business leaders and teachers respectively, often proclaim: “I’m not racist.” and almost always profess “I don’t see color, I treat everybody the same…everybody has the same opportunity to excel here.” It becomes obvious that the very approach needed to move the conversation forward, makes us far too defensive or uneasy to embrace.

During my work with teams, I’ve found that even when businesses are aware and savvy enough to recognize, discuss, and customize outreaching business practices and ideas to meet the varying needs of different consumer demographics, business teams are still very reluctant to recognize, discuss, and customize internal business practices and ideas that actually make significant and meaningful impact. The same is true for schools and educators. During recent workshops on race and racism, culture and identity, and types of families where we open up the conversation to the entire school community, even at the most diverse schools, school leadership, faculty members, and parents, still share a level of discomfort and reluctance to include students in these conversations. We often hear questions such as: “they’re so young and innocent, they don’t notice differences….why can’t we just let them be kids.” Culturally responsive and culturally inclusive organizational practices can’t happen if there is such a resistance to having the sorts of dialogue that take us from the shallows, into areas of understanding, and where progress resides.

The above scenarios are more common than not because we are so used to limiting conversations about culture to the ways in which social and political norms have dictated we do so. However, if we are willing to move beyond these dictated norms and integrate a growth mindset into the work of cultural competency and proficiency, we will progress toward the truly inclusive communities we all aspire to create and be part of. We will create the type of communities that boosts esteem and moral, increase productivity and excellence, and promote belonging.

Overview of the Growth and Fixed Mindset

My first featured article on the Growth Mindset SeriesFive Steps to Help Children Develop and Maintain a Growth Mindset This School Year, gives an overview of two mindsets: The Fixed Mindset and The Growth Mindset. The term growth mindset was introduced by Carol Dweck of Stanford University to explain why some people succeed at just about anything they put their mind to, while others, when faced with obstacles, remain stagnant or stuck. Through long-term studies on how people respond to challenges or setbacks, Dweck found supporting evidence of two mindsets.

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success — without effort. They’re wrong,” Dweck’s website.  


“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities,” Dweck’s website

Growth and fixed mindsets exist on a spectrum (each at opposite ends) with varying degrees, and can also exist in combination with one another. For example: I can have a growth mindset and believe that over time, I can become a great public speaker through practice and repeated opportunities to speak publicly while having a fixed mindset in believing that try and practice as I may, I’ll never be a good dancer.

Without being conscious of the growth mindset, the success of many people can be attributed to its application. In both my personal and professional life, I can attest to the fact that having a growth mindset has enabled me to apply myself, push past discouragement and setbacks, and accomplish many endeavors. In fact, my decision to shift careers after twenty-three years, in order to pursue something that I am more passionate about could not have been put into motion had I been functioning under a fixed mindset. Furthermore, I have increasingly integrated the growth mindset into diversity and inclusion trainings and workshops, and am witnessing consistent shifts in thinking. Educators who used to staunchly hold onto their beliefs that in the classroom “everyone is treated the same” now understand that that sort of ‘”fixed” thinking is racially and culturally unresponsive, and only meets the needs of the dominant group. Likewise, team leaders who have been called out for speech, management, and hiring practices that reflect their personal biases and belief of stereotypes, and who respond defensively or have been dismissive of such claims, are beginning to have ‘aha moments.’ The growth mindset is attributing to authentic curiosity to learn more, and an enthusiasm to implement effective change that propels individual and organizations toward Cultural Proficiency.

The Cultural Competence Continuum

During the work and conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion, we often use the word “culture” as  it implies the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group. The word competence is used because it implies having the capacity to function effectively. A culturally competent system of care [business and/or education] acknowledges and incorporates at all levels the importance of culture, the assessment of cross-cultural relations, steadfast vigilance towards the dynamics that result from cultural differences, the expansion of cultural knowledge, and the adaptation of services to meet culturally-unique needs.

Many of us, when confronted with differences, feel uncomfortable, anxious, and even unreceptive. This happens as a result of lacking the framework that helps us understand differences, and how to build bridges between them, and embrace them. Terry Cross is the developer, founder, and executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, who happens to be a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, one of the original five, and later six tribes known as the Iroquois Confederacy. In conducting research for improved services to severely emotionally handicapped children and their families, Cross developed The Cultural Competence Continuum (see CCC spectrum above). The spectrum provides an outline of the process of growing into and in cultural competency, and eventually achieving cultural proficiency.

For individuals and organizations to fully understand where they are in the process of growing into and in cultural competency, it helps to flesh out possible and probable ways in which the individual or organization responds to cultural differences. The continuum exists on a spectrum with ‘cultural destructiveness and cultural proficiency at opposite ends, and varying possibilities between the two extremes. Once individuals and organizations work through a raw understanding of their place on the spectrum and commit to doing the sustained work required to move through the continuum, they will eventually reach cultural competency and subsequently cultural proficiency; keeping in mind that no matter how proficient a person or agency may become, there will always be room for growth. This is especially important for leaders of organizations to understand, yet usually where many people become blind-sighted. They begin to see diversity and even “progress” [which is usually measured exclusively by numbers] as the ‘end game’. About two years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with an exemplary leader of a small private school just outside of Philadelphia. I’d done pro bono marketing and sustainability work for them in the past, as well as data analytics and onsite observations. In putting together all of the information, my team and I were able to deduce that while the school had done a great job at bringing in a wonderfully diverse student body, years of decreasing re-enrollment of students of color (specifically African American Boys 11-14 yrs old) revealed probable challenges with both equity and inclusion. A handful of parents, both Black and white, confirmed that their child(ren) shared with them, repeated incidents of Black [and Brown] boys being sent to the office for disciplinary action despite the fact that more students and at times the entire class were involved in an incident of disruption. This supports the 2018 data that while Black students account for 15 percent of the student body, they make up 39 percent of students involved in school suspensions and 31 percent of the growing arrests made in schools.

I presented the Head of School with the information I collected from their enrollment records, interviews with parents, and the statistical data that could be driving their low re-enrollment rates. I followed up with a conversation about implicit racial and gender bias and how they manifest themselves in the classroom. He received all of the information openly, and then replied, “Well, we’re doing a lot better than many other schools,” and with that he ended the conversation and dismissed my proposal for racial bias training. His claim that the school was doing better than many other schools was accurate in terms of diversity, but it revealed in him, a fixed mindset about the possibility of growing a more inclusive and equitable school community so that re-enrollment would increase, thus strengthening and maintaining diversity. His claim also supported my conclusion that while the school touted their 28% diversity rate, and believes like most organizations that “our diversity is what unites us,” on the Cultural Competency Continuum, the school and its leadership was comfortably planted in Cultural Incapacity through maintaining stereotypes and seemingly unfair disciplinary practices.

Social and Cultural Myths That Impede Cultural Proficiency and the Corresponding Growth Mindsets That Addresses Them

There are common beliefs supported by social and cultural myths that impede cultural competency and proficiency. They are derivatives of fixed mindsets around race, gender, culture, socio-economic status and more. Some of these typical beliefs manifest themselves in the following typical responses to any sort of calling out, inquiry about, or suggestion of improvement with regard to color or cultural blindness; color or cultural incapacity; color or cultural destructiveness; blatant injustices; bias; and/or macro and micro-agressions. They are as follows:

The Myth of All or None: Those who are with us are with us all the way, and those who are not with us are not with us all the way. Another manner in which the ‘all or none’ myth works is to classify all groups of people who experience societal isms i.e. racism, classism, sexism, ageism etc. and assume that we have a shared understanding of the issues of all of the other isms. A common example of this would be the white female feminist lesbian who makes this sort of blanket statement: “As a gay woman, I understand oppression, and as an oppressed person, I understand the pain and plight of black people, because I know what it’s like to be and feel marginalized.” This mythicized way of thinking paralyzes us from grasping the complexities, differences, and nuances of the various types of intersectionality. It also makes us unwilling to acknowledge privilege surrounding one of our identities because we experience injustice, bias, and oppression in another. When this sort of fixed thinking is at play, it keeps us from asking questions or seeking guidance/assistance, because we spend our energy and efforts on protecting our ‘Perceived Competency Status’ or PCS rather than listening, learning, growing, and transforming.

When we apply the growth mindset, we fully understand, accept, and embrace the fact that there is always room to grow. No one person, group, or organization can fully master every aspect of cultural competency for all racial and cultural identifies. Mistakes and room for improvement is inevitable. There is always work to be done. If we can appreciate that the work is grounded in and centered around humility, curiosity, and a need and desire to better understand ourselves and our needs through understanding others and their needs, we begin to move steadily toward competency, equity and inclusion.

Concept By Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee based on The Fixed Mindset/Growth Mindset Framework by Carol Dweck


The Moral Worth Myth: She or He is a good person. They are good people. We’re a good team/school/organization. This type of ‘goodness based’ or ‘moral worth’ argument has at its foundation an ‘either or’ fixed mindset. It convinces us that we’re either good or not good, and if we’re good, then there’s nothing to work on. Additionally, it doesn’t leave room for shortfalls or mistakes, but rather teaches us that those who offend or hurt us must be doing so because they are a “bad” or morally deficient person. It also wrongfully infers (and this is the most common application of this myth) that “good” people or “good-hearted” people don’t speak or act in ways that are racist, culturally destructive or incapacitated, biased, oppressive etc. In December 2018 Delaware County’s Strath Haven High School and its surrounding community found itself in turmoil over a racist letter that was left on several doorsteps by two of its students. A picture of two students wearing Klu Klux Klan-style hoods, accompanied by a letter praising President Trump and Vice President Pence, and told the recipients of the letter to leave the United States, claiming, “There is now a law against filthy nutheads like yourself living in our country.” Once the identities of the students were found out, several other students from Strath Haven provided statements for local authorities reassuring the community that the students “are good kids” who “probably didn’t mean it.” Currently, Strath Haven High School is one of Pennsylvania’s top ranked high school; ranking #6 in the state. The school has a 99.48% graduation rate with alumni pursuing higher education at some of the nation’s higher ranking colleges and universities. I can’t attest to whether or not the students involved in this racist incident are “good kids.” However, as an alumna of Strath Haven, I can attest to the fact that it is a good school. I can also attest to the fact that when I attended the school over twenty years ago, there were students who said and did racist things, and whom I identified as racist. Their friends, parents, and many of our teachers believed them to be “good kids.”

There is another interesting way in which the moral myth plays out. If or when we simply do not know enough about a particular group or culture, we begin to host feelings of fear, embarrassment, and shame about our ignorance. Recently, while participating in a workshop on race and racism at an elementary school, a faculty member confessed to being confused about how to refer to people of color. With regard to people of the African diaspora, he said: “…it can be confusing because I don’t know when to refer to someone as African American or Black.” After sharing with him that depending upon context, I might refer to myself as Caribbean, Caribbean America, African American, Person of Color, or Daughter of the Diaspora, he responded: ” I feel embarrassed to say this but, I didn’t even know there were any other options.” To which I then responded: “Rather than sit silently in your embarrassment, why not just ask?” And then it became clear to me that because we already feel a sense of inner shame with regard to not knowing, the moral myth leaves many of us afraid to speak our mind or ask questions, for fear of public shaming.

In the growth mindset, we have a general and fair understanding that good people can in fact make mistakes. The belief that you must be perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be. If we apply this mindset to matters of race and racism, we understand that good people can not only behave in racist ways, they can also be racist. Everyone makes mistakes. Our mistakes [if truly they are mistakes] don’t define us. They can and should be the impetus for growth. In the context of diversity and inclusion work, the growth mindset reminds us that we are on a journey. And as journeys can often times be challenging, competence is always aspirational. If we are steadfast in our commitment to diversity and inclusion, we create safe spaces [through trainings, workshops, dialogue, policies etc.] for examining our personal biases and the way that they manifest themselves in our work, our processes, and our systems. When we are open and honest about the fact that good people, good teams, and good organizations can be lacking, we can then come to the table, fully prepared to do the hard work, and the heart work that creates change.

The Tonsil Bias Myth“I’m not racist, I have black friends!”  “I used to have prejudices but I took a training on implicit bias and now I get it!”In Jay Smooth’s TEDx talk, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.” He 

Scene From A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ABC/via Twitter

perfectly describes The “Tonsils of Bias” myth.  This myth misleads us into believing that bias and prejudice are like tonsils; we either have them or we don’t — and if we have them, we can get them removed.  Under this myth, those of us who may have had experiences, training(s), or relationships that help us understand another’s identity and difference, assume that we have learned everything we need to know to be competent and/or proficient.  We also believe that relationships can “fix” our misconceptions about, and bias towards an entire group of people.   As a result, we are left feeling comfortable in our complacency, believing that we have tackled and mastered an area that does not call for mastery.

In the growth mindset, we understand that the process and work which leads to authentic growth and continued understanding of bias and prejudice require consistent and steadfast commitment.  Jay Smooth likens bias and prejudice to plaque.  He asserts that there is so much misinformation in the world that is reinforced by history, systems, and media, and if we are to keep the myths at bay, we must commit ourselves to the regular practice of combating them, much like brushing and flossing every day.  Additionally, just as good oral hygiene does not guarantee that we will never had bad breath or have food stuck in our teeth, experiences, trainings, and relationships can never completely rid us of bias and prejudice.  It’s the regular questioning, learning, and engaging across differences that will continue to decrease how much and how often our bias and prejudice reveal themselves in our daily thoughts, words, actions, processes, policies, systems et al. The true work of competency is to accept this reality, to keep practicing, and to keep advocating for change.

Where to Begin

Individual work is often easier than the collective work surrounding cultural competency.  If we want to shift the mindsets of large groups of people, what we are really working on is shifting culture.  Shifting organizational culture is a process in and of itself.  It’s a process that requires a shift in organizational vision, values, and awareness that trickles down to and is reflected in the following:

  • Organizational practices to support culture change
  • Leader behaviors
  • Community behaviors i.e. employees, faculty, students, patrons
  • Ongoing cultural improvement activities 

In my work with teams who are struggling with first steps in shifting the culture of their organization, I get them to understand that while it’s difficult to picture the full journey of continued cultural competency, using the continuum to break it down into smaller goals/steps is helpful. Another extremely helpful and competent (pun intended) piece of guidance that I give is –

If you really want to identify the cultural weak points and the least culturally sensitive parts of your organization/system, you have to ask the people who are deemed least successful in it and/or who are most marginalized. They will be able to reveal or even tell you every single way that the system is failing, and thus begins the journey toward cultural proficiency.  


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