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.  

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