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In trying to describe and understand culture, we might think of it as like a river. It’s vast, dynamic, always shifting, and never exactly the same twice. Like rivers, culture can shift both very slowly over time but also very rapidly in the presence of swift moving forces. Either way, it is always shifting and evolving in ways we might not see on the surface.
The banks which hold the river in and create the boundaries of its shape and route are like the social norms that create a flow of a culture. In the river of culture, the water is made up of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions.
People would be the fish that swim along this river, sharing the components of the water and adapting to the culture as needed. While some fish may live in salt-, fresh-, or brackish water, some can swim in more than one kind, but they all have adapted to the resources their water has to offer. Similarly, people will adapt to cultures the same way and bring characteristics of their culture with them into others they may become entrenched in. Just like fish and water, the longer a person is part of a culture, the more invisible and different to see it becomes.
Cultural racism refers to a dominant culture that was founded on practices, principles, values, and norms that advantage white individuals over black, indegenous, and people of color (BIPOC)* communities. This historical foundation has contemporary legacies that serve to shape reality through the experience of white individuals. Greater value and normality are placed on white people and whiteness either consciously or subconsciously in order to justify the unequal status of BIPOC communities. Recall, however, that culture in our metaphor is the water and not the fish. It is not necessarily that people choose cultural racism, but rather that it is in the water around us, likely made invisible by how long it’s been there.
The term BIPOC is intended here to emphasize solidarity among non-white individuals and not to suggest a monolithic experience of all non-white communities. The experiences of everyone included under the BIPOC umbrella are not interchangeable and the use of the term BIPOC is not intended to suggest a generalization of those experiences. When using specific example, such as the ones found in the next section, it is best to more directly state which populations are being referenced wherever possible.
One of the products of cultural racism is white supremacy culture. White supremacy culture refers to the notion that white people and the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and actions they have are superior to and more worthwhile than BIPOC communities. It is reproduced in institutions and systems. Some examples are:
White supremacy culture can be found in all dominant institutions in the US, including higher education. In classroom spaces, we’re thinking not only about educational content, but also the culture that is being created for our students. To learn the characteristics of white supremacy visit the White Supremacy Culture website or view the document below.
Safety in the classroom is vital to creating an effective learning environment. Without safety, students are unlikely to engage with the materials or discussions. They may choose instead to check out, shut down, or withdraw from the course. It is an absolute necessity and the responsibility of facilitators to ensure the safety of their students.
In order to do so, we have to intentionally reflect on what we mean by safety.
Discomfort can look like defensive anger or frustration at being challenged, a fear of change or the loss of a personal or cultural identity, and feelings of guilt or shame. Some amount of discomfort is harmless, promotes growth, and makes space for learning. When considering safety and discomfort in our classrooms, we are really trying to navigate the line between discomfort, which is productive, and distress, which is not, for a group of people whose complete histories we have no way of knowing.
It can be helpful to use the following questions when navigating that space:
A helpful means of navigating discomfort in the classroom can be the use of community agreements. Community agreements serve to make explicit the sometimes implicit elements of the classroom culture. They establish expectations and roles for both instructors and students. These are distinct from rules in that they should come from the group as a whole rather than from a central authority like the instructor. The goal of community agreements goes beyond expectation setting, however. They are intended to build trust and create a more democratic environment for class to progress.
Similar to many practices, though well intentioned, community agreements can sometimes go awry. While they are intended to dismantle some of the power structures of the classroom, oftentimes, they simply serve to enforce some of the characteristics of white supremacy outlined above. When community guidelines are built on the assumption that a single space can be protective, validating, and respectful regardless of a student’s identity, in order words, when we strive to create a neutral space for all students, we are likely colluding with and protecting white supremacy regardless of intent.
Whenever possible encourage the whole group to add to the community agreements list. Ask follow up questions for each such as:
Strive to create opportunities for students to reflect on what they want their learning space to look like and the role they want themselves and others to play as well as what they would like to do when a community agreement is broken. While this list should certainly be aspirational, also try to guide them toward building in some humanness. What do we want it to look like if our capacity or bandwidth is low on a given day? What expectations do we want to set for ourselves and others when we’re feeling sad, frustrated, disappointed, angry, or just tired?
Push gently against community agreements that may unintentionally protect white supremacy. Consider this an opportunity to model how you would like to be challenged or have new ideas introduced to you. For instance:
While these examples may feel drastic, they are, unfortunately, too commonplace. While there may be some truth behind ideas like all opinions, voices, and stories mattering, remember that there are institutional and systemic histories of violence and ongoing examples of violence and threats that change the meaning of “always listening to both sides.”
Additional Reading: Respecting Differences? Challenging common social justice guidelines
To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question to consider how this content applies to your current or future practice.
What community agreements would be important for your class?