“Staying Woke” an Approach to Practicing with Cultural Humility

The term “woke” means to be aware. It is the opposite of slumber and suggests a person is consciously aware of their role, its influence on others, and the associated societal climate. It is an act of submission which recognizes the importance of the patient’s agency.  The term “woke” was first introduced in the 1940’s to emphasize the importance of being aware of social injustices (Ng, 2021). At the height of the racial tensions within the last ten years, the term was used in a pejorative nature to undermine another person’s stance on issues that he or she identified as worthy cause(s) to elevate. To be deliberate in addressing systemic issues that impact the underrepresented members of our communities as well as granting them the authority to narrate their stories clinicians must practice “staying woke.” Wokeness suggests an active pursuit of knowledge and consciousness. Wokeness is a deliberate practice of taking action to better inform a clinician’s practice. It requires introspective engagement, minimizing judgment to promote social change.

Culture is multifaceted! Assumptions can develop based on shared identity factors or experience can lead to the development of cognitive bias that can damage relationships with others. Recognition of the humility stance I am required to maintain, is of paramount importance when operating in the privileged position of supporting others who are in need. The term cultural humility was introduced over 20 years ago and is defined as “a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and critique, to redressing power imbalances and to developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations” (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). Practicing with cultural humility suggests a clinician is actively aware of their role, the power of their presence, without passing judgement based on their experiences or assumptions about the world. Culturally humble clinicians yearn for knowledge about their patients and are slow to act or respond to remain in a position as a lifelong learner of people. Culturally humble clinicians provide their patients with the agency to author their experiences and facilitate the change they desire. How does a clinician “stay woke or practice cultural humility?” By remaining conscious, in a non-slumber position as a lifelong learner of people and issues that impact them. What does this mean? When supporting patients, challenging biases and being deliberate in the provided responses, avoiding judgment, or making assumptions by asking questions is normal practice. Practicing with cultural humility also includes the promotion of a patient’s self-determination, use of evidence, and education to facilitate the change process.


Tervalon M, Murray-García J. Cultural Humility Versus Cultural Competence: A Critical Distinction in Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural Education. J Health Care Poor Underserved. 1998 May;9(2):117-25. doi: 10.1353/hpu.2010.0233. PMID: 10073197.

Ng, Kate, What is the History of the Word ‘Woke’ and its Modern Uses? 22 January 2021., The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/woke-meaning-word-history-b1790787.html

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