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A Lifelong Process: Cultural Competency

By Monica Bryant | November 2021

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Cultural competency is the ongoing, lifelong process by which people learn to value and respond respectfully to individuals of all cultures. When we start to view our students and colleagues through a cultural competency lens, we begin to build lasting relationships and rapport by truly getting to know them for who they are as individuals. Cultural competency requires us to intentionally examine our own thoughts and behaviors and their impact on others.

When I was in high school, either I was the only person of color or one of two in my Honors and AP courses. Because of this, teachers often wanted me to speak on behalf of my race whenever we were discussing racial tensions in books or the news. I also received compliments on how well I knew a topic, even though no one else in class would receive a compliment. I even had a teacher who continuously mispronounced my name, no matter how many times I corrected her.

As an adult, I have been followed in stores and profiled solely based on the color of my skin. However, the encounters I experienced in high school stick with me more because my teachers should have known better. They should have received better training. They should have set a better example for my fellow classmates. They should have understood that it’s not good to single students out based on race. They should have tried harder to say my name.

These sorts of things are still happening today to students, but there’s a simple step we can all take to help make a difference – cultural competency training. Our experiences help shape us. As an educator, my personal experiences help me know the importance of cultural competency in the school setting.

Cultural competency reduces racial and gender profiling. It also reduces the disproportionality of students referred to special education and increases the number of students of color getting referred to gifted and talented programs. Finally, it reduces the number of discipline referrals of students of color to numbers equal to their white counterparts.

What Is Culture?
Culture is learned, from our families, communities, religions, schools and many other aspects of our lives. Culture is learned over the course of our lives through activities we participate in and practice. Culture is also normative, setting the standard for speech, behavior, writing, etc. When we process these standards over time, they become our culture.

Culture affects how we see the world and guides how to act toward each other. Most important, culture isn’t stagnant. It’s dynamic and changing. The context in which an action is taken, a word is said or an expression given is important to each culture. I have seen cultural competency show up in schools in three areas: stereotypes, implicit bias and microaggressions.

Stereotypes are over-generalized beliefs about a particular group or class of people. By stereotyping, we infer that a person has characteristics we assume all members of that group have, whether positive, negative, explicit or implicit.

To help combat stereotypes:
  • Create identity-safe classrooms and schools, where every student’s identity is intentionally acknowledged and valued. 
  • Foster growth mindsets to counter the fixed messages in stereotypes. 
  • Emphasize high standards and capability for all students
  • Provide feedback that motivates students to improve.
Implicit Bias
Implicit bias is the unconscious attitudes, reactions, stereotypes and categories affecting behavior and understanding. It often predicts how we will behave more accurately than our conscious values and can create invisible barriers to opportunity and achievement.

Implicit bias affects students in several ways. First is discipline, in which policies result in the over-representation of students of color in suspensions, expulsions and referrals for more subjective infractions, such as defiance or disrespect. Students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive a suspension than students without disabilities. Second is special education, where there is over-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Third, gifted programs where Black and Latino students are less likely to be screened for gifted programs than white and Asian students. However, Black students are three times more likely to be referred if they have a Black teacher. Fourth, educators may have mindsets that underestimate the intellectual capacity of culturally and linguistically diverse students and often girls. Fifth, having policies that inadvertently place students of color in remedial or low-track courses. Finally, educators who have ways of thinking and/or talking about students and families that diminish or underestimate them.

To combat implicit bias:
  • Identify and acknowledge the bias within ourselves. When our own stereotypes manifest, we can ask ourselves what is actually happening in the moment. We can take action to change the bias by asking questions and engaging with people who are different from us.
  • Develop an inclusive classroom and school climate to mediate potential biases and support developing sensitivity and self-awareness.
  • Solicit feedback from colleagues (after observation) and from students via evaluations or small-group sessions.
  • Expose students and staff to individuals who contradict widely held stereotypes via speaker series, videos or professional development.
  • Gather data, especially around discipline outcomes, to identify trends and patterns. 
Microaggressions, as defined by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor of counseling psychology, are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” People are usually unaware they have engaged in an exchange that demeans the recipient of the exchange.

There are three categories of microaggressions: microinvalidations, micro-insults and microassaults. Micro-invalidations exclude, negate or invalidate thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. Microinsults are often unconscious behavioral or verbal comments that convey rudeness, insensitivity and demean a person’s racial identity. Microassaults are conscious, deliberate and either subtle or explicit biased attitudes, beliefs or behaviors that are communicated. 

Microaggressions can include failing to learn or pronounce or continuing to mispronounce students’ names; scheduling tests and project due dates on religious or cultural holidays; expecting students of any particular groups to “represent” the perspectives of others of their group; assuming the gender of any student; excluding students from accessing student activities due to high financial cost; and complimenting non-white students on their use of “good English.”

To address microaggressions:
  • Understand the difference between intention and impact; focus on how the act made others feel and address their needs. 
  • Be aware of how colorblindness can make students feel. Saying you “don’t see color” minimizes that student’s cultural background, implying that something might be wrong with it.
  • Understand that many international students are not familiar with U.S. slang words or other language idiosyncrasies.
  • Know that expressing political opinions may silence students who disagree, because educators hold a position of power.
  • Make sure your objectives in bringing in guest speakers are clear to you, students, and the speaker.
  • Speak from your own experience without comparing your oppression to others’.
Cultural competency is a lifelong process and the first step toward becoming culturally competent is realizing you probably aren’t. To become more culturally competent one must value diversity, have capacity for cultural self-assessment, be conscious of the dynamics that occur when cultures interact and have knowledge of different cultural practices and world views.

Helping Colleagues
Here are some general strategies for school counselors to help colleagues become more culturally responsive: 
  • Workshops for faculty development focused on building cultural competence and culturally responsive philosophy, curriculum, instructional practices, etc. 
  • Guest speakers to address special topics
  • Inventory of current building and classroom practices
  • Departmental task group to build philosophy, curriculum, assessments and instructional practices
  • Reading a book together to promote cultural responsiveness and discuss relevance to your school
  • Regular consultation on implementation and practice
  • School counselor/teacher collaboration focused on development of teachers’ cultural awareness
  • Individual and small-group inclusion interventions
Cultural competency leads to many benefits: Student engagement rises, student outcomes increase, student self-esteem increases, and students’ strengths are recognized and utilized. Dr. Ray Terrell of Miami University said it best: “An important aspect of cultural competence is not so much what we learn about other people but what we learn about ourselves and our reactions to other people.” Every day is an opportunity to change our mindsets, learn a little more and become more culturally responsive school counselors.

Monica Bryant has been in education for 10 years, currently residing in Las Vegas, Nev., and can be reached at