In reflecting on the role teachers play as social justice educators, one of the most critical components to culturally responsive and multicultural teaching is knowing oneself and one’s students well. This essential self-awareness, however, is available only through means of critical consciousness and reflection. Through critical reflection, one is able to not only evaluate his or her own cultural competence, but he or she is also able to personal privilege that impacts cultural competence. When reflecting on my own privilege, I realize that aspects of my racial, ethnic, and cultural identity have all impacted my privilege and as a result are all factors in the privilege and identities of my students. That said, with diversity being difference without deficit, the most important responsibility I have as a teacher is to continuously develop my cultural competence and one way to do so is by understanding how race is a social construct, its intersections and with and distinctions from ethnicity, as well as how each of these factors contributes to the cultural wealth present in my classroom.
In understanding the strengths of and barriers to my own cultural competence, the first concept I developed a deeper understanding of over the course of the semester was race and ethnicity, and how race is socially constructed. Prior to discussing and learning about race in this class, I had attended lectures and a social justice conference discussing how race had no meaning biologically and instead all meaning was human created both socially and culturally. Mukhopadhyay and Henze’s (2003) viewpoint, however, provided more depth on race as a social construct in a way that established a clear connection for how it might impact students, classroom dynamics, and the overall need to address this aspect of diversity within schools:
The concept of race is a cultural invention… it is about social divisions within society, about social categories and identities, about power and privilege. It has been and remains a particular type of ideology for legitimizing social inequality between groups… Indeed, the concept of race is also a major system of social identity, affecting one’s own self-perception and how one is perceived and treated by others. (p. 673)
In drawing a connection between how these social categories legitimize social inequality based on power and privilege, Mukhopadhyay and Henze challenged me to reflect on my own racial and ethnic identity. After critically reflecting and participating in further class discussions on race and ethnicity, I realized that understanding my identity required understanding that while race carries meaning because of its history of oppression, the true cultural meaning race holds is more accurately rooted in ethnicity. When I struggled determining my own racial identity as a white woman, even though I recognize that as a member of what was once a racial majority I belong to a group that abuses power and privilege on many other people groups, I realize that when identifying my ethnic identity of being an American woman I better understand and can better unpack who I am. In this unpacking of my identity, however, I recognized that my own personal privilege as a middle class, educated, supported and cared for white American female created a need for critically analyzing how I can teach a racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse class with varying levels of privilege and experiences with discrimination, prejudice, and oppression.
The process of reflection that led me to the realization that my privilege, though a positive part of my identity, directly impacts my cultural competence mirrored McIntosh’s belief in the need to ‘unpack the invisible backpack’ everyone carries. I found one of the most thought-provoking ideas in her article to be the idea that dominant and privileged groups are often ‘blinded’ from the oppression of minorities. She wrote, oppressions can exist in “embedded forms which as a member of the dominant group one is not taught to see… a ‘white’ skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not [they] approve of the way dominance has been conferred on [them]” (McIntosh, 1988). When addressing the solution to this unfortunate social system, she said. “Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems”. McIntosh’s ideas reveal the core reason that understanding my own privilege and developing cultural competence is both a necessary and important responsibility as a teacher. If, as a person who was raised in and experiences white privilege, I can be blind to oppression of minorities, then as a teacher I must study past and current events, engage in dialogue about racial and ethnic issues, and get to know the individual life stories and experiences of my students and their families; this practice is the only effective way to care for and respect the more difficult and often times hurtful components present in students’ cultural identities. Lieberman and Rodney (2003) state it nicely by saying that “the message for teachers concerned with race and racism is in the necessity of incorporating both the scientific reasons for rejecting biological race, and the cultural reasons for explaining differences between societies, with the compelling interest of diversity for the common good” (p. 144). This statement reflects that in response to working towards cultural competency, my teaching also needs to reflect the value of every member of my classroom growing in his or her awareness, acceptance, and celebration of diversity.
While the limit of our own experiences will always serve as a barrier to our ability to understand others’ experiences with oppression or discrimination, a commitment to learning more about those experiences creates room for the awareness that leads to inclusion and celebration of a group’s cultural wealth. For me, I will face barriers related to experiences with discrimination based on race, socioeconomic status, family structure, and sexuality because I have generally only experienced discrimination based on gender and religion. Coming from a place of personal privilege as a straight, middle class, white woman with a family who supports, loves and provides for me means that I need to intentionally get to know the daily, and long-term, experiences of students without those same privileges. I found the four key suggestions resulting from a parent panel to be effective and helpful ideas for how to both achieve and demonstrate increased cultural confidence. Norris (2010) identifies those suggestions as: (1) do not make assumptions based on the family structure, (2) be prepared to offer alternative assignments if necessary, (3) make an effort to involve all families, and (4) have high expectations for all students (p. 49). Overall, I believe the most important practice in developing cultural competence and celebrating my students’ cultural wealth will be asking, listening, and then responding to their stories and experiences. My materials, class discussions, and assignments and expectations will only benefit my students if they are developed in response to and in consideration of their cultural identities. Furthermore, the crucial understanding of how race is constructed socially highlights the need for social justice educators to use CRT as a means to deemphasize race as an externally defining component of identity and reemphasize the value of ethnic identity, part of which may include racially defined experiences. Both by continued critical reflection and a commitment to developing cultural competence, I strive to get to know my students and the histories of their racial and ethnic groups so that my classroom can be a place where, without a doubt, diversity is difference without deficit.
Gollnick, D.M, & Chinn, P.C. (2014). Multicultural Education in a Pluralistic Society 8th ed. Pearson Publishing, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Lieberman, L & Rodney, C.K. (2004). What Should We Teach about the Concept of Race? Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 35, (1), 137-147
McIntosh, P. (1988). Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
Mukhopadhyay, C & Henze, R.C. (2003). How real is race? Using Anthropology to make sense of human diversity. Phi Delta Kappan, 84 (9), 667-669.
Norris, K.E. L. (2010). Beyond the textbook: Building Relationships between teachers and diversely-structured families. Multicultural Education, Fall, 48-50.