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T H E S K I L L F U L T E A C H E R 29

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Essential Beliefs:

Cultural Proficiency and Anti-Racism

Racism in our society and a dearth of cultural proficiency in our class- rooms exert a downward force on the achievement of students of color that must be met with active countermeasures. To achieve our espoused goal of educating all children to a high level, we need to become culturally proficient and anti-racist.

This belief is of such significance that we have devoted an entire chapter to it. The topic invites us all to climb a big hill. It is foreign territory for many of us, confusing and intimidating for others, and a long overdue social justice mis- sion for still others. But it is inevitably a vital part of our work as educators. Our goal in this chapter is to urge teachers and school communities to have important and often difficult conversations about cultural diversity and race. These conversations can and should lead to action that creates a more inclusive and productive school experience for everyone. Although this can be difficult work, the rewards are well documented (Ladson-Billings, 1995). An important literature, many decades old, goes into depth on this topic far beyond what we can accomplish in this short chapter. We did, however, want to put a stake in the ground.

Let us start with a couple of postulates: cultural proficiency is not the same as anti-racism, and racism is not the same as cultural improficiency. It is im- portant for us, as teachers, to understand what is similar and what is different across these two concepts, for both have profound implications for our teach- ing and our ability to reach our students.


Cultural Proficiency is first a mindset that says, “I have to be curious about my students’ cultures and learn about them. If I don’t, my students can’t make adequate connections to the content I am attempting to teach because I won’t be able to embed the learning in culturally relevant examples.” Zaretta Ham- mond (2015) is not just saying: “I will create an environment of respect for your

Essential Beliefs Cultural Proficiency and Anti- Racism



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culture.” She is saying: “I will take the chains off your capacity to process infor- mation.” The incongruence between a student’s home culture and the culture of the school is the issue to be resolved by knowing the home culture of students of color. This mindset then provokes the use of skills to apply that knowledge in the design of culturally relevant lessons. These are vital skills for American teachers, even those who teach predominantly white students. It cannot be omitted from any text that attempts to profile the full range of generic pedagogy as we do here.

There is a scene in the French movie The Class in which a language arts teacher is trying to get his students to write a personal essay about their lives. These 8th graders, who are a very mixed group from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, are resisting him. At one point, a student says, “There might be things we’re ashamed to write about.” The teacher asks for an example. A Senegalese Muslim student says, referring to his Tunisian buddy in the back, “You can be ashamed of a friend’s Mom.”

Teacher: “So Boubacar, why? She isn’t pretty enough for you?”

Student: “No, no. For instance, Raba’s mom, she offered me a sandwich. But I refused because I was ashamed.”

Teacher: “Ashamed to eat with Raba’s mother?”

Student: “No, it’s not that.”

Teacher: “It doesn’t make sense. Explain it to me.”

Student: “There’s nothing to explain. I just don’t want to eat with her out of respect.”

Teacher: “You never eat with people you respect, out of respect!?”

Student: “I mean, c’mon. She’s not my girlfriend!”

Teacher: “You can only eat lunch with your girlfriend? Or “a” girlfriend? Tell my why, Boubacar, I am interested.”

Student: “I can’t even explain it to you. Anyway, I’m ashamed even to talk about it. I hang out with Raba. He’s my boy! So I respect his mom. I’m not going to eat in front of her.”



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Teacher: “So now we’ll know that if Boubacar eats in front of us, he is demonstrating an utter lack of respect.”

Student: “No, it’s not like that. Oh God. Look, you just can’t understand.”

Teacher: “So I’m not smart enough to understand the great Boubacar?”

Student: “No, it’s just that you’re not going to get it.”

Teacher: “All right.” [He moves on.]

This teacher is Eurocentric in interpreting what his student says. He never thinks that cultural differences could account for different behaviors or opin- ions. In this same scene, he goes on to interact this way with two more students who speak respectively from a Chinese and Tunisian cultural frame.

Even without knowing anything about Boubacar’s culture, a culturally aware teacher might suspect there was a cultural reason and inquire into it. Why might it be that Boubacar respects Raba’s mom, and therefore he says, “I’m not going to eat in front of her”? Could there be a norm in Boubacar’s culture that children do not eat in the presence of adults? Would eating at her kitchen table violate a cultural norm? A teacher proceeding from this insight might instead respond as follows:

Teacher: “Can you say more about what you mean by ashamed of a friend’s mother?”

Student: “Raba’s mom, she offered me a sandwich. But I refused be- cause I was ashamed.”

Teacher: “So there was something you felt ashamed about because she offered you something to eat.”

Student: “No, I would be ashamed to eat in front of her.”

Teacher: “Oh, and so I’m guessing that would violate an important norm in your culture. What is it in your culture, Boubacar, that makes it disre- spectful to eat in the presence of adults?”

Student: “Well, you just don’t do that!”



T H E S K I L L F U L T E A C H E R32


With a culturally proficient teacher, students feel included, that they have a place in the classroom because their culture is acknowledged, and recognized as having value.

Teacher: “…because it’s a sign of respect for children not to, is that right?”

Student : “Yes.”

Teacher : “Thanks, it’s important for us to know that so we can avoid putting anyone in an embarrassing situation when we’re in the company of folks from Senegal.”

With a culturally proficient teacher, students feel included and that they have a place in the classroom because their culture is present, acknowledged, and recognized as having value in the artifacts of the class and the examples that are used in lessons. At the very least, they experience curiosity and respect for their cultural norms and values.

Cultural improficiency is about a lack in one’s understanding of people from cul- tures other than one’s own. It makes students feel misunderstood and alien, like strangers in a strange land. The opposite, cultural proficiency, enables behaviors in the classroom that acknowledge and value the culture of those different from oneself.


Consider that over half of the children in American schools today are children of color. Some of their families have come from central and south America, Asia, eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Like all chil- dren in all schools, they need to feel known and valued to have their energy available for learning. Zaretta Hammond (2015) argues that culturally profi- cient teaching allows children to process information.

Nuri-Robbins and colleagues (2012) describe six stages of cultural proficiency illustrated in Figure 4.1. They define these points as follows:

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