Honouring Other Cultures in Peer Work

A big component of peer support work includes recognizing, respecting, and honouring cultural background and beliefs. This is an active process that must be at the forefront of our minds as we support people.

As we desire to have our own cultures respected, we must also respect the cultures of others.

It can never be our goal to change anyone’s beliefs, and we also never want to negate or put down anyone’s culture or belief system.

There are many sentiments and behaviours around diversity that are culturally insensitive and unfortunately common. It’s important that we as peer workers avoid these, and that we understand why they are so damaging. Among them are:

  • Behaving as though “culture doesn’t matter” because in recovery “everybody is the same” or “everybody is equal”
  • Pretending that your program or approach is “colour blind” and ignoring cultural differences

We must never take a one-size-fits-all approach to any aspect of peer work, including the way we approach culture.

(The Social Determinants of Health module expands on this topic in relation to race and racism. In that module we will read the article “Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege” by Peggy McIntosh , found in the Appendix of this manual. It highlights the ways that people in the dominant culture might not notice what life is like for those who are in a minority group.)

Putting it all Together

“People of different religions and cultures live side by side in almost every part of the world, and most of us have overlapping identities which unite us with very different groups. We can love what we are, without hating what—and who—we are not. We can thrive in our own tradition, even as we learn from others, and come to respect their teachings.” ~Kofi Annan

What can you as a peer support worker do to be more culturally sensitive, aware, and inclusive?

1. Personally challenge your understanding of what it means to be culturally aware, humble, and sensitive.

Again, reflecting on your own relationship with culture and belonging will remind you how you want others to respect your culture. In doing so it becomes easier to be culturally sensitive to others.

Come back and read this module regularly. As well, do your own research about cultural competency & cultural sensitivity.

If you are part of the dominant culture in Canada, the chances are quite high that this isn’t a topic you’ve been forced to think about very often. However, if you are in a minority group, and especially  if you experience oppression and/or racism on a regular basis, then this is a topic you don’t have the luxury of forgetting. Part of being culturally competent and culturally aware involves a level of action, advocacy, and activism. This means paying attention empathetically to those who are different from you, putting yourself in their shoes.

This also means noticing our language and how we may – intentionally or unintentionally – put down other cultures or people groups. When we notice this happening, we need to challenge ourselves to stop the behaviour. Being culturally sensitive and competent also means calling out others who make comments that are racist and oppressive about any people group.

A great way to build the muscles of cultural sensitivity and competence is to get interested in history. Learn about the struggles other cultures and minorities have faced and continue to face. This kind of curiosity and active learning create a deeper understanding. They challenge us to step up and do something active to change the ways people are oppressed and are forced to deal with racism (or any kind of “ism” for that matter).

Like the author of the article cited above says, “the key to not repeating the past lies in knowing it.”

2. Pay attention to your judgements and implicit biases.

According to a ThoughtCo.com article called Implicit Bias: What It Means and How It Affects Behaviour, “An implicit bias is any unconsciously-held set of associations about a social group.”

As we have discussed in previous modules, we all make judgements and have biases.

The first step is to create space so that we can mindfully pay attention to our biases. This is not easy to do, but it’s essential. When we notice our biases, we need to challenge them. Perhaps talking to a friend or colleague about this would be helpful. There are many books available, and online supports that can help us work through our biases.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
~Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search For Meaning)

3. Work with other cultural groups. Get involved. Talk to people.

Find out what cultural groups are within your campus and the larger community. Figure out ways to partner with them! Perhaps you can sponsor an event together or support each other in different ways.

Can you think of some potential groups you can work with? 

List some ideas of how you might be able to work together:

4. Get curious about other cultures that are different from yours.

Continue to learn about other cultures. You don’t need to know everything about all cultures of the world. Studying ALL cultures would be a lifetime worth of work and exploration. Understanding the importance of culture and honouring that in your work is the most important thing.

As you meet people from other cultures, choose to be respectfully curious. By respectful, we mean an awareness not to ask so many questions that someone feels like they are being interrogated. Pay attention to their social cues when you are asking them about their culture. Ask them if they are comfortable sharing, and if they are not, be respectful about their answer.

We can also learn a lot from books, documentaries, and movies. Get curious and find some good resources to learn about other cultures.

If you come across something within another culture that makes you think, “gosh, that’s odd” – challenge that thought. Instead of judging it, try to understand why that culture might approach something differently than yours does. Simple practices like this will help to challenge your implicit biases, when you engage in them regularly.

5. Celebrate other cultures.

Celebrate different holidays and traditions. Plan fun events on campus! You could do things like have a potluck and everyone brings a dish that represents their cultural heritage. Or go out together to a local cultural community event.

What are some other ideas of how you can celebrate other cultures?

6. Choose to dialogue regularly with your team about cultural humility and the importance of being culturally sensitive.

Make this a topic that you regularly talk about. Ask the question, “how can we improve our cultural sensitivity?”

7. Be aware of the physical environment. Does it reflect cultural sensitivity and diversity?

Does your meeting space reflect an organization that celebrates and respects other cultures? Are there things that might be considered culturally insensitive?

Perhaps you can choose to display art from different cultures, with care that it is not cultural appropriation. (Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture takes the art or customs of another potentially disadvantaged culture and modifies it to fit in with the dominant culture).

Be aware of language barriers. Perhaps you might have some of your organization’s material translated into another language.

What are some other things you can do to be culturally sensitive in your environment?

The bottom line is this: Trust is central to peer relationships; we don’t want to erode the sense of trust we develop by mishandling the issue of culture. We want to make it a priority to recognize, honour, and respect other cultures.

For Reflection

  • Have you ever run into difficulties with someone and realized the issues were related to cultural differences? Were you able to overcome them?
  • Briefly list a few ideas that you have about what it means to be “mentally healthy.” Then consider the perspective of a different cultural group in your community—would their list look different from yours?
  • If you had to sum up how people with mental health struggles have been treated throughout history in 25 words or less, how would you do it?
  • Now consider how that history has impacted the mental health of our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, who have experienced colonization, and theft of culture. What are your thoughts about that?

“We owe the Aboriginal peoples a debt that is four centuries old. It is their turn to become full partners in developing an even greater Canada. And the reconciliation required may be less a matter of legal texts than of attitudes of the heart.”
~ Romeo LeBlanc (Former Governor General of Canada)

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ~ Nelson Mandela


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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