“Although some culture-centric frameworks are grounded in commitments to educational equity, they often are implemented in ways that essentialize marginalized students and mask the forms of structural injustice that feed educational outcome disparities…” -Paul Gorski
Lately, when educators or programs initiate a change process, it's common to assume that a framework will guide them. These frameworks are usually well-structured and have catchy names. While some frameworks are effective, their success depends on the specific context, situation, and needs. As professionals and practitioners in the field of change, we understand that the process can be chaotic. However, if executed correctly, it can be highly satisfying. Change can facilitate fundamental shifts in the school's structure, pedagogical approach, and community growth, leading to positive outcomes.
I have been a strong advocate for using cultural awareness and identity to promote equity and justice for many years. However, as I reflect on my journey as an activist working in the diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) field, I have experienced a significant shift in my perspective. I have come to realize that culture is just one dimension of a person's multifaceted identity. It's essential to acknowledge that no single identity or life circumstance can accurately predict a person's cultural background. Therefore, it's wise to avoid making assumptions based on any particular identity or combination of identities.
The concept of essentialism implies that there is a single, universal truth that applies to large groups of people. However, it would be misguided to assume that individuals who experience racism, poverty, or belong to specific groups such as Latinas/os, African Americans, or Africans share the same characteristics. In reality, there is no such universal truth that applies to all members of these groups. It's crucial to recognize that many teachers receive training on cultural sensitivity rather than racial or linguistic justice. However, when the focus is primarily on the cultures of specific identity groups, there is a risk of developing stereotypical and erroneous essentialist views of our students. This risk is especially prevalent in teacher training contexts.
The concept of cultural and linguistic diversity can sometimes be perceived as empty or meaningless because it's unwise to assume that diverse groups of people are homogenous in terms of cultural competence. When cultural competence is viewed in this narrow way, it can lead to dangerous assumptions of cultural homogeneity within large and diverse groups of people. Unfortunately, this narrow view of cultural competence makes the conversation more palatable to those who are privileged, whether it be in terms of race, economics, or other factors.
As Kumagai and Lypson (2009) explained, culture centered approaches like cultural competence and cultural proficiency fail to sufficiently demand equity and justice. They fail to focus on and insist upon an equitable distribution of power. They are, instead, matters of power: of the ways in which power and opportunity, and at times even material resources, are distributed and exerted. Because inequity and injustice are not cultural problems, they cannot be resolved through cultural analyses and cultural solutions. It is clear that no amount of cultural knowledge can prepare one sufficiently to recognize and respond justly to the insidious and often implicit and intersectional inequities experienced by many students. No amount of cultural knowledge can help address racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, ableism, economic injustice, Islamophobia, sexism, and other oppressions experienced through unjust educational policy and practice.
When we emphasize culture to deemphasize justice, we are creating the illusion of progress toward justice while adopting approaches that guarantee minimal, if any, such progress. That is the inverse of equity. In order to recognize inequity and sustain equity, we also must understand the structural barriers experienced in and out of schools by the students. If we don’t understand those barriers, even the barriers we cannot eliminate like income and wealth inequality, we render ourselves incapable of developing policy and practice that are responsive to the lived realities of my most marginalized students and their families.
We must understand educational disparities reflect an unjust distribution of access and opportunity, so equity efforts that fail to redistribute access and opportunity are a threat to the possibility of equity and not a threat to the existence of inequity (Gorski, 2013). These are the realities that are masked by culture-centric “diversity” paradigms. It is, however, a call to measure our commitments to educational equity and justice, in part by considering our own equity literacy. Do we embrace approaches, or versions of approaches, for attending to “diversity?” When we do our equity work, are we constructing our conversations in ways that provide people entitled by their own privilege, people who might rather discuss made-up communication styles of African American families than the racism and economic injustice with which many African American families contend, vague notions of culture as theoretical or practical loopholes?
If we are teaching cultural proficiency, are we also teaching equity proficiency, the knowledge, and skills required to create and sustain an actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-other-oppressions classroom, school, and society? If we embrace culturally relevant or culturally responsive pedagogy, do we practice it in its intended form so we are responsive both to students’ unique individual cultures and to students’ rights to equitable and just educational opportunity?
Fuchs Stephan 2001 Against Essentialism: A Theory of Culture and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, in press.
Gorski Paul (2016) Rethinking the Role of “Culture” in Educational Equity: From Cultural Competence to Equity Literacy, Multicultural Perspectives, 18:4, 221-226
Harrison, Gai, and Rachel Turner. “Being a ‘Culturally Competent’ Social Worker: Making Sense of a Murky Concept in Practice.” The British Journal of Social Work, vol. 41, no. 2, 2011, pp. 333–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43771416. Accessed 18 Apr. 2023.
Kumagai AK, Lypson ML. Beyond cultural competence: critical consciousness, social justice, and multicultural education. Acad Med. 2009 Jun;84(6):782-7
Juan Jacobs Sheblak is the Deputy Secondary Principal at UNIS Hanoi.