Although education about culture, race and ethnicity has increasingly been viewed as an important addition to the medical undergraduate curriculum, internationally the evidence of its effectiveness is mixed. Research to date fails to show why. We chose to explore how contrasting approaches to learning about cultural diversity impacted on medical students. The views of second year students towards teaching about cultural diversity at two UK medical schools, with differently structured curricula, were explored using a series of focus groups (7). The findings, using a methodology based on a combination of grounded theory and thematic analysis identified two potentially competing views espoused by the students at both sites. First, they claimed that although cultural diversity was important, their medical schools marginalised and failed to adequately support effective teaching. Second, in contrast, they claimed that the medical school was an ‘inappropriate’ setting for successful teaching about cultural diversity. Students did not consider the subject matter to be of central relevance to biomedicine. They felt it should be learnt experientially in the workplace and socially among peers. These narratives represent two potentially conflicting standpoints, which might be understood through the sociological concept of ‘habitus’, where students conform to the institution’s dominant values in order to succeed. The tensions identified in this study cannot be ignored if effective learning about race, ethnicity and culture is to be achieved. Early introduction to understanding the delivery of health care to diverse populations is needed. This should be accompanied by more open collaborative debate between tutors and students on the issues raised.