Cultural Competency, Academia and Discussions of Difference: A faculty person’s responsibility

At the end of last semester I sat in a large lecture hall at Columbia University School of Social Work with a generous mix of students and faculty, gathered together at the behest of students to discuss issues of difference, power, and privilege. Specifically, we had been gathered so that students of color could tell us about their experiences. Experiences in what had been advertised as a place where their opinions mattered and where they’d find like-minded students with whom to address issues of social justice, yet where they consistently felt marginalized and less than in comparison with the predominantly white faculty (including me) and student body. From reading the newspaper headlines and all the action related to the Black Lives Matter movement one could envision similar gatherings happening at institutions of higher learning across the country.

As a New Yorker of over 20 years and someone for whom the pace of the city is just right, I was annoyed by how long the presentation was taking to get started and generally skeptical overall. Students and faculty alike munched on sandwiches (or whole wheat wraps), chips and soda all provided by the school. A few people scurried about getting extra chairs as the audience swelled past the limits of the hall. My internal monologue was not one of general support but more of criticism towards what I perceived to be a lack of organization or clarity of roles. Finally, several minutes past the stated start time, the proceedings began.

Again my internal monologue raged with criticism. I was unclear of who was in charge and what the expectations were. Several people spoke without, in my opinion, clearly outlining what my role should be or what I could expect of the next hour or longer. I found it difficult to listen fully to the various speakers while also giving my internal voice(s) the attention demanded. I could not help but envision how I thought the event should have been organized and how I would have done the planning and presenting differently. Virtually no detail of the organization, or lack thereof, escaped my critical eye and the critical monologue grew in intensity.

Then a young woman spoke about not feeling safe, and my focus shifted. She told a story of a time in class (that part’s important, it happened in class) when she was attacked verbally and the veracity of her experience as a person of color was called into question. To this attack the professor did nothing, just moved along with the lesson. Another student spoke about a time when a white student approached her and a friend after class and spoke about really wanting to understand their condition; that she is wracked with white guilt, just really wants to help and can they help her. In other words, this student speaking felt as if it was somehow her responsibility to help the white student with her guilt.

Now my internal dialogue had shifted. I was now somewhat incredulous that these scenarios were playing out within an institution of which I was very proud to be associated; all the headlines of other institutions notwithstanding. I wondered if any of these experiences were representative of my classroom. Had I created an unsafe environment, or at the very least presided over an unsafe environment? Could I be accused of some of the same lapses in professionalism and cultural competency, or the general ineptitudes of which I was now hearing?

Once again, in that lecture hall while listening to these stories and feeling real angst, sadness and frustration, I could not help but relate what I was hearing to my own experience. In some way, I made what I was hearing about me and reflected upon my own responsibility within what I was hearing. The self of my experience (my self) was not removed from the stories and experiences I was hearing but on the contrary, my self was integral to processing the information I was receiving.

And here lies my point: while there is a responsibility of the overall institution to address issues of power, privilege and difference within the institution, the part over which I have some control is the sphere of influence within which I operate; namely my classroom and my interactions with students and peers. Also, while I’m not proud of the inner monologue I presented in the opening paragraphs of this essay, it is absolutely essential that I am aware and tuned in to what my inner monologue is at any given time. The reason being is that my thoughts and feelings drive my behavior and I must manage that inner monologue against what my stated goals and intentions are, and somehow measure whether I am moving towards my stated goals or veering from them based on how I am feeling.

In other words, and I in no way want to defend or speak for others, some faculty members might not address issues of difference because they are too uncomfortable themselves or even internally conflicted. It is much easier to allow moments to go by, unaddressed, then it is to call attention to them, name them and create a dialogue around those uncomfortable moments. Ultimately, I think that college and university administrators, classroom instructors and K-12 faculty need training in how to manage their inner thoughts and feelings such that they might allow themselves to be uncomfortable.

Discussions of power, privilege and difference are uncomfortable, by nature. Feelings of discomfort are normal though. It is difficult to learn anything new while not feeling at least in some way uncomfortable. While most students understand this, it would seem that many teachers and faculty members do not; or perhaps have forgotten. I have heard numerous stories, similar to the ones already stated, in which students sit and receive information with very little input into the dynamic of teaching and learning.

It has been my experience that most students respect a classroom environment in which they are included and I am a participant. I regularly share of my experiences in my classroom. My students are aware of some of the successes of my career and many of my failures. I let them know when I am confident about which I am speaking and also the times in which we are discussing something outside of what I would consider my area of expertise. I also acknowledge my privilege; as a white male I benefit from being in the most privileged class in American society. It is integral that I keep that fact present for me and allow my discomfort to be present but not drive my engagement with the students.

While these particulars I think are important to teaching direct practice within a graduate program of social work, the concepts I think are important to all educators. I must be tuned in to when I am feeling confident, afraid, annoyed, distracted, stimulated, etc. Within a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) model we accept the notion that thoughts and feelings drive behavior; this is the essential premise of the helping paradigm. If I can identify the preceding thoughts and feelings of any problematic behavior then I can work to identify what contributes to those thoughts and feelings and help to develop more healthy coping mechanisms. The same holds true for any of us and is absolutely essential to learning how breakdowns in perception happen.

My responsibility ultimately, is to tune in to my inner thoughts and feelings then manage how they drive my behavior and engagement. It is only through this process, and the process of dissecting my personal biases and prejudices, that I can confidently say that I am managing my classroom. If I am not managing my internal forces then I am not in a position to manage anything else. However, if I am attuned to my personal biases and how my thoughts and feelings are influencing my behaviors then I have the opportunity to remain calm and objective within a classroom discussion even if I am uncomfortable.

Similarly, I can sit in a crowded lecture hall and sit with my minor annoyance and critical voices but still be tuned in to the others in the room and truly listen as they share their experiences. My thoughts and feelings can be present but there is enough room for all of our feelings and all of our experiences. My work is not in shutting down my internal voices, rather my work is managing their volume and influence over me so that I may also listen and hear the experiences of others. I believe this is what is meant by cultural competency and this is ultimately my responsibility in allowing each person’s experience to be whatever it is.

Black lives matter. So too do the experiences that have contributed to and shape those same black lives; certainly as much as, if not more than, the internalized experiences of my self.

"Cultural Competency, Academia and Discussions of Difference: A faculty person’s responsibility, by Christopher Williams, LMSW. The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016

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