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Global competence: A matter of life or death

Over the past few weeks, we followed headlines about the brutal murders of young newlyweds Deah Barakat and Yusor Mohammad and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, shot at gunpoint in their Chapel Hill, North Carolina home—killed, many suspect, because they are Muslim. Then came news of the hacking death of secular American blogger Avijit Roy in his country of origin, Bangladesh, reportedly by Muslim extremists.

These stories make a compelling case for global competence education: Global competence can be a matter of life or death.

"Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act," the Chapel Hill Police Chief said regarding the murders. The word “senseless” buzzes in my head. The act is tragic – absolutely. But senseless it cannot be.

We have to make sense of intolerance, of what leads some people to attack others who look, believe or act differently than they do. Most people who feel intolerant towards others wouldn’t resort to such brutal acts of extreme violence. We deny any similarity between ourselves and such perpetrators.

And yet, most of us commit not lethal but still harmful everyday acts of discrimination. We make assumptions and attributions about people based on their outward characteristics and different identities which, when we act on them, cause misunderstandings, offense, conflict and even harm. We humans are complex beings, and to reduce people’s nuanced beliefs and identities to an accent, head scarf or blog about religion is to diminish and dehumanize them.

We have to learn how to recognize, individually and as a society, the ways we have been taught to distrust or even hate people – in extreme cases, to death - because they are different from us. We have to understand implicit bias and how internalized, often unconscious messages about religious, ethnic and national superiority contribute to individual as well as global conflict. We have to understand what we, individually and as a society, can do to prevent such discrimination and violence.

Those who are in the cultural majority, whether in number or power, cannot afford to remain in denial about the existence and enactment of discrimination and hatred. The Mayor told CNN that Chapel Hill is a safe place for Muslims and people of all faiths. "We're all struggling to understand what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit this crime. ... It just baffles us," he said. Again, the word “baffles” buzzes in my head. Despite the common perception that Chapel Hill is a bastion of liberalism, it is not a bias-free haven. It is a town like many other towns all over the world with a majority of people who are loving and well meaning and some people who are living out their learned hate.

In the wake of the murders, an African American friend posted about how her former boyfriend – also African American - felt compelled to move out of Chapel Hill because he was tired of being under constant surveillance by the white neighbors. Even people who never resort to violence may harm and alienate others through actions motivated by mistrust or fear of people who are culturally different. We can all learn greater appreciation for our differences.

I define global competence as the constellation of awareness, understanding, sensitivity and ethical practice within an individual or system that enables effective cross-cultural and country interactions, partnerships and work that result in mutually-beneficial and transformative outcomes.

As individuals, we can learn to cultivate greater awareness about ourselves in relation to others and deepen our understanding and respect for people from different cultures and countries. Cultural intolerance and false notions of ethnic, national and religious superiority are learned, and thus they can be unlearned. We can clarify our values, transform our attitudes and increase our cultural sensitivity and humility. We can commit to act in ways that are ethical and foster mutual understanding and empowerment and fight intolerance and injustice.

As a society, we can elect to dismantle institutionalized discrimination and challenge power structures that perpetuate oppression. We can commit to raising children who see themselves and others as global citizens, as people who are interconnected and mutually responsible to each other across cultural differences and country borders. We have to do this because our lives - and the future of our world - depend on it. Envision this: A society of global citizens thinking, acting and relating - for a better world.


Katherine L. Turner, MPH is President and Founder of Global Citizen, LLC, an international consulting firm that strengthens the capacity of students, professionals and institutions to interact and work more effectively and ethically across countries and cultures for mutually-beneficial and empowering outcomes. She is also adjunct faculty at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and Senior Advisor/Project Manager at Ipas, an international women’s health and rights nongovernmental organization.

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