Recently I was facilitating a professional development session on equity for the staff of a small high school and one topic kept coming up as a possible stumbling block: cultural relativity. Implicit in teachers’ sincere questions and comments was the need to know if I was purporting that all cultural norms are okay and to be tolerated in an educational environment. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, some people wanted to know if I expected them to “teach” students that all values, beliefs, actions, and goals are legitimate. The question raised was, “Are educators supposed to remain neutral about what is right and proper and, therefore, risk not teaching students the knowledge, skills, and ways of being that will find them success in this American Dominant Culture?” Upon some deep reflection on this topic, I realize that the issue is not about accepting all cultural differences or being culturally relative. As A. G. Johnson said, “The trouble around difference is really about privilege and power—the existence of privilege and the lopsided distribution of power that keeps it going.”
Equity work is simply not the same as cultural relativity work. Cultural relativity simply says, “There is no right or wrong; all ways of thinking and being can be viewed as valid.” Equity work, on the other hand, says something quite different. Equity work questions consistently and relentlessly:
- Who is being silenced, devalued, oppressed?
- Who is being validated, privileged, and placed as superior?
- How is this being done?
- What are the unintended messages being sent?
- Who holds the power?
- What is the impact?
- Whose perspectives am I missing?
- How should I/we respond?
- How might I/we redress this injustice?
Equity work demands that people apply a critical lens to all situations, interactions, policies, norms, etc.—both personal and institutional. Equity work requires people to be critical of culture, both their own cultures and others’ and not, as some think, to blindly accept ways of being as either as “normal” or “cultural.”
So to be clear, in partnering to do equity work at the school level, I am not asking teachers to believe that “anything goes” and to lower expectations of our culturally and linguistically diverse students. I am not asking teachers to be “culturally relative” and allow for any culture—its values, norms, and ways of being—to go unchecked. Quite the contrary because I am asking teachers to actively critique the cultural norms that dominate a school. I am asking educators to critique their visions of an “excellent education”— the goals, objectives, curriculum, instructional methods, policies, and procedures. I want people, including students and families, to start asking the questions above and the question: “Does an excellent education merely prepare students to succeed in an unjust society, or does it also prepare students to see, respond to, and redress societal injustice?” On answering this question we must be definitive, not relative.
*For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com