Rediscovering Cultural Competence – A Book Review and Interpretation

By John E. Long

The second edition of We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know (2006) by Gary R. Howard challenges those engaged in the field of education to confront the realities of historic white privilege and the profound impact this understanding can have on cultural competence and diversity awareness. Mr. Howard is white, and holds a master’s degree in education. I will propose expanding the application of his assertion to include career development professionals, alongside our “cousins” the educators.

Chapter 1 opens with Howard describing his journey as a student at Yale University and then a resident of “the Hill”, an impoverished neighborhood often described as a ghetto. As a young man in the 1960s, Howard wanted to fight racism and effect positive change, but found that African Americans in the Hill viewed him as a White and privileged Yalie. So he decided to retreat to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains of western Washington to teach middle school and reflect upon his journey to date. Howard came to realize the importance of approaching multicultural competency with authenticity, from his perspective of White identity. His journey begins in the K-12 environment with the effort of professionals advancing guidance, school and college preparatory counseling initiatives. He provides a wonderful challenge to career practitioners as they strive to address the needs of diverse student populations. 

Chapter 2 addresses social oppression stemming from White dominance, and its expansive influence in our communities, organizations, societies, and nations. Howard offers his challenge: to retract from our cycle of blame and guilt and embrace a process of healing through social transformation. A core goal of this process must be to show our students how to identify, grow and apply their uniqueness in their daily activities and challenges, rather than blend in or fit a mold likely forged by White dominance.

Chapter 3 delves into the roots of racism and social dominance in the United States. Howard examines three key practices that converge to form what he calls the “dynamics of dominance”. These practices include:

  • the assumption of rightness (including the roots of rightness)
  • the luxury of ignorance
  • the legacy of privilege.

He contends that if educators can more fully understand these dynamics, past and present, they can then contribute to a more promising future for all students. This information is blunt and honest. Each student seeking guidance on a strategy to launch following high school graduation might be better served if we show them how to seek out a strong cultural fit with an employer, technical school, community college, or university that matches their values. Historically, we may have been subconsciously and erroneously showing students how to best morph into a system ruled by the dynamics of dominance.

In Chapter 4, Howard tells the reader about his journeys down the Colorado River and uses this as a metaphor for his “River of Diversity” (his work in multicultural education). Mr. Howard goes on to describe key offerings educators can make to advance the healing process of social change. These contributions fall under four categories:

  • honesty
  • empathy
  • advocacy
  • action.

Chapter 5 examines racial identity from the perspectives of both Blacks and Whites. Howard references William Cross’ five stage theory of Black identity development which encompasses pre-encounter, encounter, immersion/emersion, internalization, and internalization-commitment. He then speaks to Janet E. Helms’ work on White racial identity development which spans abandonment of racist identity (contact, disintegration, and reintegration) and establishment of a nonracist White identity (pseudo-independence, immersion-emersion, and autonomy). As career practitioners, this key issue of identity must be adopted in all that we do for our students. We acknowledge that career becomes a core element of identity. Therefore, we must help students forge identity through discovery of distinct strengths and accomplishments.

White identity orientations are explained in Chapter 6. The fundamentalist are exacting and unyielding in their support of White supremacy. Integrationists will acknowledge, with lukewarm open mindedness, that differences exist and a need for diversity awareness. Transformationists engage in self-reflection and display authenticity in their effort to understand diverse perspectives. The word Transformationist feels like a genuine descriptor for our work within career development!

Howard’s call to action, Change Begins With Us, comes in Chapter 7, along with his belief that individuals act upon a calling when they become a professional educator. If we identify and act upon our values, by seeking out a career role that allows us to feed our values, we are living a more authentic life. By modeling cultural competency, while promoting and taking action in support of the change we desire, we fuel this authenticity. The career practitioner stands side-by-side with educators in this vital mission.

Howard also offers his "Achievement Triangle" in Chapter 7 and discusses how it contributes to transformationist pedagogy. The inner sides of the triangle represent levels of awareness and how they converge at each concurrency point (triangle tip) to form rigor, relationships and empowerment. The blending of two concurrency points form passion for equity (rigor + relationships), cultural competence (relationships + empowerment), and culturally responsive teaching (empowerment + rigor).

Howard throws down the gauntlet in front of the career professional and educator. His challenge is to become a transformationist and confront the current educational system by acting to reject White dominance, subvert the achievement gap, and serve students with authenticity.


The book closes by conceding that much has been done and much is left to do, to “populate a new land of multicultural consciousness, a place from which we can nurture and sustain our vision of educational and social change” (Howard, p. 142). Chapter 8 offers one final call to action, in which Howard encourages us to forge a fresh identity of what it means to be White. This identity is built by discarding the need for dominance and by living and promoting a commitment to positive change and social justice. This commitment is in true alignment with our mission and ethical responsibilities as career practitioners.

The information and perspectives Howard shares in this book are truly bold, direct, and thought provoking. I enjoyed the manner in which he “peels the onion” so to speak and challenges the reader to keep their eyes and mind wide open. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is charged with the task of educating, advising, coaching, or counseling students.


About Gary - Gary R. Howard (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ghequityinstitute.com/bio/GHbio.html


Howard, G.R. (2006). We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.



John LongJohn E. Long, M.S., MCDP, GCDF, BCC, is a nationally certified coach and university instructor based in Atlanta, GA. He serves as a part-time instructor of education at Kennesaw State University (GA) and also operates a private coaching practice. John specializes in career and life coaching, as well as the administration and interpretation of career and personality assessments. John coaches his students and clients using a strengths-based approach blended with elements of positive psychology and solution focused change. He can be reached at


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