Thursday, December 29, 2016

Monocultural Bias and Multicultural Bias

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

Monocultural bias is the idea that familiarity with only one culture is the norm.

Multicultural bias is the idea that familiarity with multiple cultures is the norm. I like this idea better because it honors the complexities of our lives.

Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills are the holy trinity of multicultural education on most US campuses.  Pope and Reynolds, as near as I can tell, were the first to introduce this trinity in 1997, and the idea was expanded by Pope, Reynolds, and Mueller in their book Multicultural Competence in Student Affairs (2004) and the trinity is in wide use by other authors.  While Pope, Reynolds, and Mueller did not specifically address the idea of monocultural bias, the Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills trinity is a good way to unpack this idea of monocultural bias.

Learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skill as the result of experience. 

Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills are a function of experience.  Humans have quite a variety of experiences depending on their environment.  Some of us, like me, appear to have grown up in a monocultural bubble. This meant that I appeared to grow up with limited experiences outside my upper-middle class, predominantly European-American, English speaking world.  Others, like my relatives on my Mother's side grew up in a different bubble in economically disadvantaged rural Massachusetts and on my fathers side in moderately affluent exurban New Jersey.

It appears on the surface that we all grew up in a bubble.  I would argue that on closer look most of us grew up in a multicultural world.  I would argue that most of us already have an awareness of multicultural differences based on our experiences.  

Awareness comes from contrast.  I had awareness of the contrast experiences in my world as I grew up.  In my Unitarian Universalist Liberal Religious Youth program The Church Across the Street we visited local churches, synagogues, and temples and got a behind-the-scenes look after services.   Other experiences, from earnest discussions about gender to dating across national boundaries, provided a rich world of multicultural awareness experiences.  The reality was that I grew up in a world that was social class diverse, ability diverse, gender diverse, internationally diverse, religiously diverse, ethnically diverse, and not particularly LGBTQ diverse.

Reflecting on my past I realize that I never really lived in a bubble.

Awareness in language comes from being around different languages and learning them.  Awareness in culture comes from being around different cultures, however defined, and learning them.  Ask any migrant (someone not native to your nation or culture) about their awareness of language and culture.  I have a friend and former student, Kofi Barko, who grew up in Ghana with 4 languages and at least that many cultures.  The difference between Kofi and Will is a matter of degree. Kofi has easier access to the cultural diversities in his experience because of the level of contrast.  Awareness of the diversity of Will's early experiences will need some encouragement.

What does this mean for multicultural education?

One of the consequences of monocultural bias is seen in the predominant idea that people need workshop experiences to create awareness of differences.  Emotionally charged experiences like the Tunnel of Oppression, Bafa Bafra, and others are staples of increased awareness experiences.  The assumption in these experiences is that people don't have any awareness of the Other, which is a monocultural bias, and that emotionally charged experiences are the point of departure to create awareness.  This assumption of lack of experiences, and consequently awareness, disrespects the complex lives and experiences that everyone brings to multicultural education.  

Multicultural bias means that the diversities in each of our lives should be highlighted as a way to move quickly through awareness toward more knowledge and more skills.  Discussion experiences, like the Social Class of Origin Narrative Experience, are one way to enhance awareness of our diversities.   This is multicultural bias - assuming that we all have complex lives and experiences that we can draw upon to move toward multicultural Knowledge and Skill.

Our experiences are a rich source of diversity and for some an awareness of their own lives is a beginning.  When I assume that others come from a culturally complex world I honor their lifetime of experiences.  When I assume otherwise I minimize their world view and experiences.

tl;dr We all need to build upon the complex diversities in our lives.


Pope, R. L., & Reynolds, A. L. (1997). Student Affairs Core Competencies: Integrating Multicultural Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills. Journal of College Student Development, 38(3), 266-77.

N.B. This idea of monocultural bias has been adapted from recent discussions in language education about how language should be taught and the assumptions, often incorrect, found that language learners only have a single language to draw on as they learn a new language.  Learning a new language or new culture is difficult, and having multiple languages or cultures to draw on and make connections provides an individual with points of reference and connection for learning.  I am, as usual, in debt to Dr. Leslie Barratt for her insightful contributions about this idea of monolingual bias which I 'borrowed' and changed to monocultural bias.  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Social Class Categories are Stupid

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University

I recall a conversation about gender with a respected student affairs colleague when I quipped "Two is a stupid number" she got the giggles as she recognized this simple truth. 

Stupid is defined as lacking intelligence or common sense.  I use it here not to refer to people but as an attribute of the idea of categories.  Applying intelligence and common sense, anti-stupid, reveals a lot about categories.

My point is that categories for any of our identity statuses are stupid ideas.  For the most part.  The inherent problem in any categorizing scheme is the criteria for being in one or another category.  Aristotelian philosophy will not allow A and Not-A to exist at once. Aristotle posited an either/or world.  The simple interpretation is that you cannot have dual gender identities, according to Aristotle.  I recall reading the World of Null A and Players of Null A (A. E. van Vogt) as an adolescent.  The book was a science fiction condemnation of Aristotelian philosophy, embracing Null A, or a non-Aristotelian world view in which you can be multiple identities at once, and leading into what was at that time General Semantics.  I recall when I was 15 (more than 50 years ago) being at a friend's house and painting an entire piece of newsprint as shades of grey, because there was no real black and white.  In my mind at that time there were no legitimate hard categories.  This art hung over my bed for a few years.

Some categories are real, and are typically based on observable and repeatable science.  For example a Platypus is a category for a critter that meets the genetic requirements for being a Platypus.  However when we look closely there is genetic diversity among Platypuses.  So if a critter manages to fall within some fuzzy genetic boundaries it is a Platypus.

I recall as a graduate student learning about paper and pencil tests used to measure masculinity and femininity.  Any good test gave two scores, one for each gender, because the authors of the test knew that there was huge overlap in gender scores when people were classified genetically by sex.  Researchers also understood that these categorical definitions of sex and gender were culturally bound, dodgy, and fuzzy.

As part of our Unitarian Universalist Liberal Religious Youth (Sunday school for adolescents) program we had a program called The Church Across the Street in which we visited local churches, synagogues, and temples and had conversation with whoever was in charge and got a behind the scenes look. I learned about the diversity within Christianity and diversity within the Abrahamic tradition. The category of Christian is, at best, very ambiguous.

I developed the Barratt Simple Measure of Social Status (BSMSS) as an update to the Hollingshead Four Factor Index of Social Status using updated data on occupational prestige.  The BSMSS is used in a lot of public and private research.  The most common question I get from those using it is how to assign a social class category to a score.  The answer is that you cannot - the BSMSS produces a score best used in regression.

Genetics informs us a lot about ethnicity and genetically based ethnicity is complex.  Classifying someone as belonging to an ethnicity is a fuzzy idea.  I know my genetic background, thanks to, and realize that my ethnicity is genetically fuzzy.  How much non-European genetic material does it take for me to be non-European?

People like categories.  People like simple answers.  When asked about their social class most people in the USA will identity that they are some variety of Middle Class.  When asked what this means USA respondents will say a secure job and the ability to save money.  Using this as a way to define the category I would ask "How secure a job, and how much money can you save?"

Using categories is a problem.  I read things like "men are . . . " or "women are . . . " or "all White people . . . " and I tend to disregard what follows in my assumption that whoever wrote it did not think much about these handy, and wrong-minded, categories.  When you generalize I want to know what criteria you are using for men, or women, or white, or all white people.

The way we determine social class is dynamic and situational.  People in different social class circumstances and identities define social class quite differently. The best non-stupid way to look at social class is as a hierarchy, a continuum of status and prestige in which the markers of status and prestige change.  What counts as prestige for those in the upper 30% , the ruling class, is often quite different than what counts as prestige for the lower 30%.  Those of us in the upper 30% get to make the rules and set the social class categories.  And yes, this rule making is social class cultural imperialism and privilege.

tl;dr Social class categories are stupid ideas.