Our American society is loaded with a false sense of cultural competence. This mentality tends to govern our country’s idea of educational for all, in turn strategically shaping school curricula to truly cater to the White majority who were born with an intrinsic investment in America’s intellectual history.
As elementary students, we became members of institutions that materialized America’s educational vision, never realizing that the overarching vision did not fully aim to cater to all student populations. We were bred to believe that our country belonged to all of us. With liberty and justice for all.
In truth, a realistic dichotomy between White versus non-White was formed simply because the declarations by which this country was founded upon, stemmed from a place of systemic oppression that, to date, still drives the American education system. We need to fix this.
The case of Ahmed Mohamed — the Texas boy who was arrested brought a clock to school only be accused of constructing a fake bomb — is a suitable exemplar for an absence of cultural competence in America. It is the story America needed to uncover how racially and intellectually bias our American education system actually is and in what capacity it has shaped our educators’ level of cultural competence. His intellect was mishandled simply because of his racial identifier. Because he is a non-White intelligent student, his agenda was made to be terroristic.
In consideration of American history, this is not the first time people of color were ostracized by our education system. It is a system that has never been intra-culturally grounded hence why our students, especially those with cultural differences, will not view education with purpose in America; and if they do, it is due to culture that fosters them at home.
We have failed in establishing a national spirit of cultural competence. We lack the educational shifts needed to advance our national consciousness as a country filled with such cultural variance. These shifts may include but are not limited to a well-developed curriculum that validates people of color, in America, and we are not in abundance of professional developments that assess and mature the cultural competence of today’s educators, ranging from administration to classroom teachers.
Our education system is the intellectual force that drives our economy. President Barack Obama made it very clear that America must “out-educate” other nations if we expect to consistently thrive economically. Although we are the see a dream-build a dream nation, we are losing what it means to identify human genius beyond its racial identifier.
While teaching literacy at one of Philadelphia’s inner city charter schools that serves a predominantly Black student population, I acquired a Chinese student. The student was strangely quiet and attempted to remain inconspicuous during discussions that followed our lessons. I questioned if we were up against a language barrier. I reflected on what I could do to help the student feel present and engaged in my classroom. After communicating my concern to administration, I shaped another lesson to deconstruct an essay about a Chinese child’s experience during the Chinese New Year. I connected this celebration to many other cultural celebrations that my students were accustomed to learning about.
We were all learners in that moment; and in the heart of the dialogue, the student offered a thorough response proving that a language barrier was never present. He was now aware that he was not a non-factor. The lesson certainly followed the expectations set within the curriculum but I had to locate the text to validate all students in the classroom. I was guilty for believing that because the student was Chinese and often quiet, a lack of understanding ensued. It forced me to re-evaluate how culturally competent I was and whether or not I was a smaller part of a system that stifled a well-rounded educational experience.
If, in America, through education, we continue to operate out of a lack of cultural competence, we will perpetuate the stigma that it’s perfectly normal to disenfranchise young learners’ educational experiences at the expense of them potentially losing a sense of self-worth and a healthy worldview that could in fact shape them to be the next generation of needed world leaders. We will also hinder educators from being self-reflective learners who should continue mastering their craft.
We have a system that has the power to educate children wholly and grant them an opportunity to adopt a mentality that proves they are not an insignificance and should be, like Ahmed, empowered to leave an imprint in our world.
I stand with Gen. Colin Powell’s assertion that this is not the way we should be doing it in America. We have to get better or we will continue to miss investing in children who have the resiliency to change the mindset that continues to drive our society’s manner of thinking.
Jovan A. Brown is an elementary educator and cultural competence facilitator based in Philadelphia. She is the mother of one and aspires to publish children’s literature that encourages self-acceptance. (www.dear-beautiful.com)