May 25, 2017

9-Tips for Working with Culturally Different Students on your Campus by Dr. Charles Taylor

This article contains practical advice for working with students of color on your campus. Faculty, Staff and especially student services personnel should find these tips helpful.

Introduction

Working with culturally different students can be extremely rewarding and transformative. On the other hand for those who have had limited contact with students of color, it can be a challenge that requires sensitivity and vulnerability. Because of the potential for mixed signals, suspicion and misunderstanding, it’s important that care be given to how this interaction is to be structured. While do’s and don’ts are unnecessary, it is important to acknowledge some broad generalizations that may prove helpful when working with students of color. If these guidelines are followed you stand a better chance of creating positive interactions.

Remember that racial minorities are not all the same

Avoid the tendency to lump all minorities together or view them as the same. Much has been written about the recent trend of adopting a ‘color-blind’ approach towards people of different ethnicities. Bonilla-Silva and Forman (2000) analyzed interviews and surveys conducted with white college students to highlight a form of colorblind racism where students continued to hold on to prejudiced views but considered themselves to have moved beyond prejudices by not noticing the color of the person they were talking to.

Color blindness as a long-term societal goal may be a good idea, but as it is presently practiced, is a form of prejudice since it denies people their identity and history. Diverse racial and ethnic groups have a different history in the United States, and therefore traveled very different paths to becoming part of the American Society. Lumping all minorities together is tantamount to stripping them of their collective histories, rich cultural heritage and unique experiences in the contemporary society. Helping students accept differences is more than just teaching tolerance. Practicing diversity is key to our survival as a nation and as a member of the world community. Sensitive college personnel who understand this create practices and cultural programming that respects each group’s unique cultural differences.

Celebrate diversity

Stress cultural pluralism and celebrate diversity while downplaying the notion of the U.S. as a melting pot. When one is expressing the sentiment of ignoring differences, one is generally supporting the melting pot theory. Although European immigrants were encouraged to “melt,” generally racial minorities were not permitted to. It is not surprising that the melting pot concept is rejected by many people of color today. Cultural pluralism or multiculturalism is the concept being embraced by such groups. Gold (1977) offers a reason for this when he writes:

“…multiculturalism equates with the respect shown the varied cultures and ethnic groups which have built the United States and which continue today to contribute to its richness and diversity.”

Multiculturalism recognizes that as Americans we share many things in common, but as hyphenated Americans our lifestyles and values need not be the same. The way we dance, speak, party, dress, etc., can reflect our cultural heritage and need not be considered anti-American. Multiculturalism attempts to make the point that differences are not deficiencies.

Despite the many things we have in common, we also share diverse experiences that may only be common to our “racial group.” Integration in the United States for people of color has been qualitatively different than that of the Anglo immigrants. Johnson (1997) discusses the experiences of Mexican immigrants and coins the term ‘ring of fire’ rather than melting pot to describe the difficulties that Mexican immigrants face in becoming citizens of the United States. Therefore, the U.S. has not been a melting pot for people of all ethnicities and to use that term can be construed as showing a lack of historical knowledge and/or cultural insensitivity.

Avoid stereotyping ALANA groups

Watch for stereotyping in language, in media, and in institutional practices. The way in which ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native American) groups are portrayed in the media, whether it be the news or popular films can have a significant impact on how people view that group (Bjornstorm, 2010). In general there is a tendency in the news media to report crime or other negative news due to its newsworthiness (Bjornstorm, 2010). When minorities are over represented in such news stories, the public can be influenced into projecting stereotypical negative attitudes towards the entire group.

It is therefore imperative to step back and help college students develop a more informed and critical perspective on how ALANA groups are portrayed in mass media. One should for instance consider the fact that minorities are generally underrepresented among those who are newsmakers, or hold positions of power and influence in the business of news making, and therefore there is a much greater chance for them to be portrayed negatively (Ungerleider, 1991).

We need to take this notion of stereotyping seriously because it affects the quality of life that students of color experience on predominantly white campuses. Solorzano et al’s (2000) study found that minority students were constantly exposed to subtle indicators of prejudice, in the classroom or with their peers. In social situations students reported that African American functions or gatherings were under greater scrutiny and they were held to a higher standard of following rules and regulations as opposed to white gatherings. Students in the study also reported having to spend more effort not only to perform well, but also to do so while navigating a host of racial stereotypes in almost all settings. Many students admitted to changing or dropping courses because of their inability to cope with the racial micro-aggressions in one form or another.

Treat Students fairly, rather than the same

Recognize that by treating everyone the ‘same’ does not mean that everyone is being treated fairly. If you have a financial aid policy that says all students who qualify for financial aid will get $1,000—you may have an equal policy but it may not be a fair one; especially to low income students who may have higher financial needs and fewer resources than their more affluent counterparts. Fair and equal are not the same.

Universities that adopt fair practices strive to help each student get what he or she needs to be successful at their institution. They review their policies annually to see if they have a disparate impact on students of color and make the necessary adjustments. They provide cultural competency training for their employees to enable them to deliver services in a culturally responsive and sensitive manner.

Study the history of racial minorities

Become familiar with the history of the various “racial groups” on your campus. We are all products of our history, and in these histories we carry our DNA, all the time, passed on to us through generations. To deny this history, is to deny part of ourselves, our beings, for indeed they are very much shaped by the history lived by our forebears. The notion of equality held by the public in the United States is often at odds with what people of color have experienced.

Much of the history describing the relationship between America’s white ethnic groups and people of color is a story of broken promises, racial discrimination and a ‘trail of tears’. These are harsh words but historically correct. Racial minorities in America have been dispossessed, enslaved, invaded and segregated. The contributions they have made to American society have been largely ignored and too often missing from our history books. Contemporary history texts still proclaim Columbus as the sole ‘discoverer’ of America, rather than as a European discoverer. Students are seldom taught that Spanish settlements thrived in New Mexico, Arizona and California before the English colony of Jamestown was founded.

Although George Washington might be considered an American hero to whites, since he owned slaves he may be considered just the opposite by many blacks. Most students get their information about the United States history from text books. Social scientists have examined how these text books, influenced heavily by nationalistic ideals, have whitewashed the history of the United States. In fact one major framework for teaching history has been the focus on a common history, and on a common national identity, where slavery or oppression of ethnic minorities is only viewed as an anomaly in an otherwise progressive history of the United States (Epstein, 1998).

There is a need to consider the history of the U.S. as composed of multiple narratives, where glory for some might have meant poverty, disenfranchisement and oppression for others. When groups have had such vastly different trajectories to the contemporary society, they should not be expected to perceive a common history of the United States without a vigorous challenge. They shouldn’t be viewed as un-American for questioning how their history has been portrayed but rather encouraged to search for the historical truth wherever that search might lead.

The unequal treatment that ALANA groups experienced historically has greatly influenced how they view American society. This experience helps explain why their perceptions in many cases are substantially different from that of their white counterparts.

Stay current on racial and cultural issues

Develop a contemporary perspective about race and culture. Read multicultural publications and listen to its leadership. Studies have demonstrated that many white Americans who have otherwise absolutely genuine and sincere intentions of promoting egalitarian principles might harbor negative feelings for minorities. Quillian (2008) discusses the presence of implicit prejudice in individuals who might otherwise not consider themselves to harbor racist feelings at all. These associations are learned through a life time of signals and socialization and hence one has to make a conscious effort to understand how their attitudes affect their treatment of ethnic and minority people.

Just imagine the ‘rich’ conversations you can have with students, staff and faculty of color if you have a better understanding of where they’re coming from. If you’ve traveled overseas you know the best memories are often away from the tourist traps, where you get a chance to meet the people and experience the culture. Similar experiences are available on many of our campuses especially at our large flagship ones. You have students of color from all over the country and international students from countries all over the planet. This rich diversity is there for everyone to appreciate and learn about.

Be more accepting of ALANA students’ life experiences

Be more accepting of minority descriptions and perceptions of their life experiences in America and on your campus. Students of color face a unique set of problems on predominantly white campuses, (Taylor, 2013). There are times when these problems become overbearing and students simply need someone to listen to them. During this moment of need, it’s important that there be people on campus who are capable of providing sensitive guidance to culturally different students; people who have an understanding of ALANA student problems from the students’ perspective who are able to address these problems in both a counseling and instructional manner.

Although slavery and segregation have been outlawed in the United States, it would be naïve to operate under the assumption that racism is a thing of the past. Racial incidents do occur on campus and students of color often describe the campus climate in harsh terms. For some that is their reality and they need to know that your campus will validate their reality and be responsive to their needs.

If your school is committed to addressing inequities, make it a point to know which groups are not fully receiving the benefits of its services, and actively seek to understand and rectify any barriers to participation.

Be prepared to take risks

Take some risks. Attend activities and events that are sponsored by individuals outside your ethnic group. Studies have demonstrated that one important way of combating racism and reducing prejudice is by increased inter group contact under suitable conditions (Dovidio and Gaertner, 1999). Engaging in activities inside or outside the classroom setting that have a common goal can increase cooperation and understanding and reduce feelings of bias towards racial minorities.

If there is ever a place where students should be encouraged to leave their comfort zone, that place has to be a college campus. Institutions of higher education can be described as laboratories for learning. Students have multiple opportunities to explore, debate, engage, date, visit, room with—you name it—with people who are culturally different. We should encourage them to grow and to expand their knowledge about others.

Many years ago I used to take white students and students of color on weekend retreats away from campus in the Wisconsin woods, (Taylor, 2013). The first night students would question why they agreed to attend the retreat, but by Sunday very few wanted to leave. Those students who took the risk often ended up being best friends and continued their relationships throughout the academic year. I constantly encourage faculty, staff, and students to take risks and to get to know their peers from different cultures. It opens up a whole new world.

Continue to acquire knowledge and competencies

Participate in workshops, conferences and classes that deal with race and culture. Take advantage of any opportunity to improve your cultural competency skills. Cultural competency is the ability to work effectively across cultures, to engage people in ways that respect and honor their culture, (Betancourt et al. 2003). A culturally competent organization is engaged in an intentional and continuous process of learning about and responding to the cultural communities it serves, (Olsen, 2006).

Kumagai and Lypson (2009) take the idea of cultural competence a step further and demand to include a critical consciousness in multicultural education, where acquiring knowledge about other cultures is tied to a social justice framework such that discussions on combating racism form a central part of the education.

Conclusion

I’m confident that if you adopt these tips your relationship with students of color will improve considerably. You’ll be in a better position to provide culturally sensitive services and help students feel a part of the campus. It is within your power to help build an inclusive campus. Our students are counting on you.

References

Betancourt, J. R., Green, A. R., Carrillo, J. E., & Ila, O. A. (2003). Defining cultural competence: a practical framework for addressing racial/ethnic disparities in health and health care. Public Health Reports, 118, 293-302.

Bjornstrom, E. E. S., Kaufman, R. L., Peterson, R. D., & Slater, M. D. (2010). Race and ethnic representations of lawbreakers and victims in crime news: a national study of television coverage. Social Problems, 57(2), 269-293.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists. (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Bonilla-Silva, E., & Forman, T. A. (2000). “I am not racist but…” mapping white college students’ racial ideology in the USA. Discourse & Society, 11(1), 50-85.

Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (1999). Reducing prejudice: combating intergroup biases. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(4), 101-105.

Epstein, T. (1998). Deconstructing differences in African American and European American adolescents’ perspectives on U.S. history. Curriculum Inquiry, 28(4), 397-423.

Gold, M. J., Grant, C. A., & Rivlin, H. N. (1977). In praise of diversity: A resource for multicultural education. Reston, VA: Association of Teacher Educators.

Johnson, K. R. (1997). “Melting pot” or “ring of fire”? Assimilation and the Mexican American experience. California Law Review, 85(5), 1259-1313.

Kumagai, A. K., & Lypson, M. L. (2009). Beyond cultural competence: critical consciousness, social justice, and multicultural education. Academic Medicine, 84(6), 782-787.

Olsen, L., Bhattacharya, J., Scharf, A. (2006). Cultural competency: what it is and why it matters. California Tomorrow, http://www.californiatomorrow.org/media/ccompetecy.pdf

Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggresssions and campus climate: The experiences of African American college students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60-73.

Taylor, Charles A. (2013). Effective Ways to Recruit and Retain African American Students. Madison: Praxis Publications, Inc.

Taylor, Charles A. (2013). How to Sponsor a Multicultural Student Retreat. Madison: Roar Enterprises, Inc.

Ungerleider, C. S. (1991). Media, minorities and misconceptions: the portrayal by and representation of minorities in Canadian news media. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 23(3), 158-164.

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