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Identity, exclusion, inclusion, and cultural responsiveness: A personal reflection

I have been delaying writing up this reflection for a long time...more than a couple of months in fact - the notes I took during the session have sat in draft format and I have 'mulled' over what happened and why.

Part of the reason, I guess is that it is connected to those gnarly subjects 'cultural appropriacy and responsiveness', which can lead to some strong, occasionally critical, reactions. The elephant in the room is often the feeling of not knowing how to react appropriately, and a fear that the people with whom you are interacting would not be sympathetic to your not knowing.

What happened?

The session I was participating in was a professional development session about facilitation. We discussed the idea that facilitation can take many forms, and whether it is 'good' or not is in part dependent on context and interpretation - and all of these are factors are likely to change over time as beliefs around learning and teaching shift.

All great so far...then my brain went into overdrive - for me, given the points above some of the interesting conundrums included:

  • If a person does not share your values around how facilitation is conducted, what are the implications around that?
  • Can a person elect to not engage with the way a learning experience is set up? What is the result of this?
  • Can you go in with humility if you have a set of values up front - should they be negotiated as part of the process?
  • Can we assume that every school, institution, iwi or whanau accepts that the values you go in with are the most valuable ones for them?
  • What do we have to learn about the people that we are going to be working with?
  • A suggestion was that it is necessary to bring something to a session that is 'part' of the people - analogies, images, ways of talking about things. But, how do you do that in a diverse community. What if the analogies are meaningless to some of the people in the room? Do you focus on the majority? Do you try to cover most of the cultural groups? Do you cover all of them? How? Or, is the main focus the people in the room with the most influence? People who are from that part of the world?

Image by Lazar_Shlevich


And finally, the 'pear-shaped' moment...I started to have a visceral reaction to being advised that I would need to share a specific set of values, and it felt as if there was little or no room for discussion around what was included and how it was interpreted. Furthermore, with my rapidly increasing  sense of distress, there appeared to be one main culture that was being put-forward...and much of the language being used to describe some of the values was totally foreign to me - literally. I hadn't a clue what was going on half the time. During the session I typed "I am being made to feel like an outsider...somehow lacking in cultural knowledge and awareness. And maybe that is an uncomfortable truth. It is an area that I am unfamiliar with. Is it because my own beliefs are being challenged? I find the language being used as exclusive / excluding of me and my culture".

Image by hazelowendmc

So what?

I think of myself as a person who has travelled a reasonable amount through Europe, South East Asia, and Australasia, and I have spent several years in the Middle East. It came as quite a shock, therefore, when I realised that I was having an emotional reaction around cultural responsiveness in this session - something I had experienced before, but never so strongly. It was always something that I read about in articles and research papers, and saw as an integral aspect of learning design.

Another thing I noticed, though, is as soon as I started feeling uncomfortable - I stopped really listening and engaging with the other people in the session. The only reason I remember anything except the emotional response was that I could access the notes I took at the outset of the session.

I have since spoken to other people who have experienced similar reactions...but interestingly people would have a "wow, I'm so pleased you mentioned that. No-one has before and I just thought I was being precious" type reaction. Often the reaction is dismissed as an over-reaction.

Bigger question for me, therefore, is how many times have I made students and colleagues feel similarly uncomfortable? Only one time has a student spoken about this to me (and after the sense of mortification on my part dissipated a little, I was able to consult with another student to help me work out what I had done to offend, how to address that situation, and how to make sure I didn't do it again...phew!).

What next?

There are several things I need to do and think about including:

  • grasp every opportunity to learn about other cultures in a meaningful (rather than token) sense;
  • work with individuals who I know I can ask dumb, and perhaps what turn out to be insensitive, questions -  where that they will understand I am learning...and making mistakes;
  • find the courage to speak to people in a non-confrontational way when they make me feel culturally 'other'...but to go with suggestions around how this might be addressed so as to not leave them feeling high and dry; and
  • work on, read about, and research how to design culturally responsive and appropriate online spaces and experiences - such that they are neither 'sterile', nor inclusive of only one or a few cultures. Rather I would like to design great spaces to learn and communicate for as many cultures as possible.

There are several more things I will add as I continue to reflect, but that will continue for many years I suspect! A couple of really positive things to have come out of this. There's nothing quite like experiencing something to start to understand it, and...well, I didn't even really consciously acknowledge I had a culture up until that point. As an immigrant to New Zealand I have been so busy trying to integrate and feel accepted that I guess I had stopped thinking of myself as having cultural roots, and that they may be important to me.


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Comment by Hazel Owen on July 29, 2013 at 9:48

@Jean...what a great question. My first reaction is to try to put my feet in the shoes of a facilitator based on my own experiences; however, first I needed to think more about what was happening in my own head at the time - and to question if, after a certain point, I would have been open to speaking up if given the opportunity.

Hmmm - long pause before typing. After the session, I did go up and have a chat with the facilitator about the reaction I had experienced. While I felt she was sympathetic to my feelings, I didn't have a sense that she was reflecting on the role she had played, or things she may have done differently. In some ways, that made me close down even more. 

When I reflect back, I understand that, in part it was the complex interplay of where I was at as an immigrant to New Zealand, and recently returned from 6 years living and working in the Middle East. I had been trying to figure out a sense of cultural identity for quite a while. As a professional, I also knew that my reaction was caused partly by a gap in my own skills and understanding that I could have started to address a couple of years back, and I was feeling a mixture of guilt and frustration at my own apathy. Not a positive place to be! :-)

Going back to your question...I'm not sure if I would have felt comfortable speaking out during the session (all sorts of 'political' undercurrents too); however, if the session had been facilitated where I had more of a sense that it was a 'safe' forum where contributions, questions, collaboration, and sharing would be welcomed I feel it would have been a different experience. Could the facilitator have opened up the session such that we all could have openly shared our discomforts, and unpicked our values to develop shared understandings? Could she have made it such that I felt safe to speak out and admit that I didn't understand much of what she was saying? It would certainly have been a very different session.

For me, however, the experience itself was invaluable. It pulled me out of a comfort zone, and made me really reflect on my own biases...and my own facilitation 'skills'. When I am facilitating sessions now, this experience helps inform and shape how I interact with the people there (not the people who I thought may be there, and for whom I had planned). I find I am doing a lot more listening, leaving space and time for thinking, posing questions, encouraging a wide range of thoughts and reactions, summarising things folks have said and placing them back out there for further reaction and discussion - and enjoying the way that sessions unfold organically.

Long may the learning continue, and many thanks for your thought-provoking questions, Jean.

Comment by Jean Latting on July 28, 2013 at 7:25

Thanks for the reminder that good facilitation should include room for dissenters and questionners. The ongoing challenge for facilitators is how to know whether others (such as you in that experience) are experiencing an open or closed door. What would the facilitator have had to say in this situation for you to speak up?  (I understand that moving forward, you intend to do so.  I'm asking you to go back to that moment when you felt shut up and shut out.  What would it have taken then?)

Comment by Penny Dugmore on June 28, 2013 at 13:25
Comment by Hazel Owen on June 25, 2013 at 18:01

Stereotyping, and being averse to people who are different from us, definitely appear to have a psychological...and physical function. I was listening an episode of the Brain Science podcast (by Virginia Campbell, who is interviewing Rachel Herz about 'disgust''s really worth a listen), where Virginia and Rachel touch on universal emotions (i.e. ones that can be recognised across cultures). So, disgust is a universal emotion, but the things we are disgusted by are learned (both food and moral things).

I guess we are shaped and motivated by both. And while we can't ignore universal emotions, we can re-shape what we have 'learned' to react to, and how we react to it - although this can be a tough, sometimes really uncomfortable thing to have to do. Becoming aware that many of the underpinning influences on our reactions are culturally shaped, however, may be why those who have done quite a bit of travelling are more aware of (and possibly more open to) the differences.

I was also really interested to read that you were going back to Germany after some time away. I went back to the UK for a brief visit in 2007...and it felt 'strange'. Comfortable in some ways, and I do love things such as the dawn chorus, and some of the rolling countryside with the dry stone walls; but there was also a sense of disconnect. In addition, people would either comment on my Kiwi accent or assume I was Kiwi (whereas in NZ people often mention the English accent!). There were finally all the things that we left the UK for...and they hadn't changed, and in some cases had actually got worse (well I thought so ;-p). So, I would love to hear (when / if you get anywhere near wireless...or when you return), what your impressions and experiences were...and those of your MC boys ;-)

Comment by Monika Kern on June 14, 2013 at 8:56

Thanks for sharing this, Hazel, these are exactly the questions I grapple with a lot of the time (as you might already know). I sometimes wonder if it has to do with the immigrant thing for me - in a negative and a positive sense. Some of the idiosyncrisies of the NZ culture I will never get (not only due to the language barrier), but having travelled and moved halfway around the world might have opened my eyes to things others who are not sharing this experience will not see (well, not everyone who shares that experience sees what I see either). Maybe it's to do with being individuals after all, and the stereotyping we do has a psychological function, a sense of sorting, ordering things that are too complex to otherwise understand??

I'm off to Germany in a couple of weeks, the country I grew up in and left for good 16 years ago - I will try to keep a RR of how that experience makes me feel...

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