Who is Qualified to Teach About Cultural Sensitivity?

cultural sensitivityThrough the process of writing in this blog, I began to think about our responsibility as educators to instill change and to plant the seeds for consideration of a different path and a different means of interacting with and appreciating others. In researching content for the blog, I came across a few references that came out of the White Privilege Conference held in Wisconsin in April 2014. In one of the breakout sessions, the speaker Kim Radersma, made many remarks about the importance of educating students on topics of diversity and appreciation for difference. She claimed that educating students about difference was the responsibility of educators, and we should embrace that as part our role. One quote that emerged that was particularly interesting to me was the following:

“My partner, who is a man, can’t tell you about feminism. He knows a lot about it. He considers himself a feminist, but do you want to learn feminism from him? No,” she commented during the session. “You need to learn feminism from a woman. You need to learn what it is like to be a woman from a woman. He can’t teach that. I can’t teach students of color nearly as well as a person of color can.”

This statement was striking to me because, while the sentiment that each person’s experience is unique to the individual is clear, there was an implication that we can never truly learn from each other, as we can never truly understand the experience of the other. So what does it mean to understand? What does it mean to appreciate? What does it mean to accept? And more importantly, as we can never, as educators, embody the cultural experience of every culture, what does it mean in terms of educating students on topics of cultural competence?

So I pose an example from one of my classes that is helping me to rethink the process:

An African American student in one of my classes shared a reaction to our conversation in class. Our conversation consisted of considering the areas of privilege in their lives, those elements that distinguished them, gender, race, age, education, money etc…We discussed how we often fall into the trap of assuming that only white people have privilege and forget that even within racial and ethnic populations there are areas of privilege. For this student the discussion was enlightening because never in her life had she considered that her education and ability to pursue a graduate degree could be considered a place of privilege.

While I can appreciate the meaning of Radersma’s comments from a stance of recognizing the importance of difference in shaping us as individuals, I also think of this student who was able to learn something about her difference and learn how to appreciate more of the difference that she brings to her interactions within her ethnic culture through our conversation irrespective of our cultural difference.