Cultural Competency and the Importance of Curiosity

Available with English captions and subtitles in Spanish.

A conversation with Cecil R. Webster Jr., MD, McLean Hospital.

Curiosity in the Clinic

Identities of race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, sexual orientation, and disability are complex. It can be challenging for clinicians to widen their perception of patients’ identities. However, such expansion is essential.

In his talk, Webster provides a framework for how clinicians can use the concept of intersectionality to understand how patients’ overlapping identities affect their mental health.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • How intersectionality is important in understanding patients’ lived experiences
  • Why therapists’ self-exploration can be helpful in understanding intersectionality
  • How providers can overcome fear about questions related to patients’ identities

Webster begins his talk by unpacking the term “intersectionality,” originally coined by American civil rights advocate, Kimberlé Crenshaw.

He states that intersectionality can be a way of understanding interconnected and overlapping social categories and identities, such as race, class, or sexuality, that might empower or oppress people.

According to Webster, clinicians tend to manage the complexity of intersectionality by overemphasizing the identities they are personally more familiar with.

To better understand patients, it is important for clinicians to examine their own lives and consider which identities they may neglect to explore deeply in patients.

In addition to a lack of awareness about identities less familiar to them, clinicians may hesitate to inquire about aspects of a patient’s identity for fear of being offensive.

Webster offers suggestions to health care professionals about how to overcome such fears and how to phrase questions about topics such as race or gender that may initially feel uncomfortable.

Webster encourages providers to consider ways they can make their clinical environments more welcoming to all patients.

He illustrates that clinicians can display diverse signs, magazines, and books (for instance, on LGBTQ+ or BIPOC themes) and update forms to include various gender identities and family constellations. He cautions clinicians against assuming a patient’s gender identity or sexual orientation based on how the patient looks or sounds.

Webster concludes his talk by describing how, outside the clinical office, therapists can become allies. No matter where therapists are in their careers, they can continue to educate themselves about sexuality, gender, race, and other issues of identity.

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View the Slides

Audience Questions

  • How broadly are cultural competency topics being discussed across the mental health field?
  • Do you have any suggestions for providers looking to address omission of unfamiliar lines of identity?
  • What guidance do you have for providers who might avoid directly addressing a patient’s race for fear of making things uncomfortable?
  • Are there any particular resources about questions to ask during clinical intakes and interviews regarding culture or race?
  • What kind of resources are available to mental health professionals who want to build their cultural competency but don’t know how to get started?
  • Can you speak to the challenge some providers face with a fear of using incorrect terms regarding sexual identity, disability, race, and ethnicity?
  • You mentioned how valuable you’ve found humility to be in your work. Can you tell us more about that?
  • What guidance do you have for clinicians who might fear being vulnerable?
  • Is there something that you can say to let patients know that they are in a safe space in that they can feel free to disclose important parts of themselves to you?
  • Can you talk a little bit more about addressing challenging barriers clinicians might face?
  • What can clinicians—especially younger ones—do to help further the national dialogue around cultural competency?

The information discussed is intended to be educational and should not be used as a substitute for guidance provided by your health care provider. Please consult with your treatment team before making any changes to your care plan.


You may find this additional information useful:

About Cecil R. Webster Jr., MD

Dr. Webster is a board-certified psychiatrist in Boston, providing psychotherapy and medication management to adults, adolescents, and children. He is a physician educator at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital.

Dr. Webster’s areas of psychotherapy expertise include helping the individual define their identity as a whole person in the context of family and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and culture and immigration.