Three zones of cultural competency: Surface competency, bias twilight, and the confronting midnight zone

Tanisha Jowsey*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleResearchpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
68 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Regulatory authorities in healthcare are authorised to develop and assess the cultural competence of their professionals. There remains significant diversity on approaches to cultural competency training and assessment. Little evidence exists about whether existing cultural competency training leads to improved patient health outcomes and reductions in health disparity. 

Discussion: In this paper I frame cultural competency as analogous to the ocean and consisting of three zones: surface competency zone, bias twilight zone, and the confronting midnight zone. The surface competency zone focuses on deployment of culturally-specific knowledge: what people see, say, and do. The bias twilight zone is where people engage in critical reflection on their inherent/unconscious biases, and how such biases inform their thoughts and practices. The confronting midnight zone is where people engage in critical consciousness and self-awareness. Here they look beyond their biases to interrogate their power and positionality in society (their own privileges and centralisation). This attention is coupled with a commitment to social justice and to working within their means to reduce health disparities. 

Conclusions: I suggest surface cultural competency is somewhat easier to see, teach and reach than the bias twilight or confronting midnight zones. But it is these deeper zones that cultural competency training needs to attend to if we are to see systemic cultural changes in healthcare provision. Research assessing the extent by which cultural competency training within each zone informs improved patient outcomes and reductions in health disparity is called for.

Original languageEnglish
Article number306
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Aug 2019
Externally publishedYes


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