“What do you mean ‘cultural differences’?”

If you’ve learned anything about “culture” , you probably learned that it’s an iceberg. The part you can see is surface culture, like clothing and music and food, the foundation of any Multicultural Day celebration. Apparently there is also deeper culture, but with it being much harder to see, you might doubt its existence at all.

Like, maybe you’ve wondered, “How can cultural differences even exist in school?”

  • (Almost) everyone in the classroom is speaking the same language.
  • Black/Indigenous/Latinx children have been in the school system for years. Don’t they know how to “be” in school?
  • Schools are designed for everyone to succeed!

Here’s an insight that will hopefully change your mind

A white teacher is trying to get the attention of her class. She wants them to take their seats and listen up. Andre is over by the garbage can sharpening his pencil and seems to be ignoring her instructions to settle in, so the teacher asks, “Andre, do you wanna take your seat?”

And Andre replies, “No.”

He continues sharpening his pencil.

And then the teacher sends him to the office.

What happened there?

In Andre’s eyes, what happened? His teacher asked him a question, he answered it, and then he got sent to the office.

And from the teacher’s perspective? He was disrespectful and defiant in front of the whole class.

How can Andre not know that the teacher clearly meant for him to sit down?

Because it turns out, phrasing a command in the form of a question is a really white, middle-class thing to do. If you grew up white, you probably have lots of experience with authority figures telling you to do something through a question, and if you replied back with a “No,” you were being mouthy on purpose.

But in other cultures, and in other families, if you want someone to do something, you order them to do it. We call those imperative sentences, as in “Please sit down, Andre.

Do you see where Andre’s story goes from here?

Odds are, the principal is white, and believes Andre was being disrespectful. Andre has to try to explain himself, but no one is on his side. In the meantime, he’s been out of class and he misses half the period.

Over time, all these little cultural misunderstandings add up to Students of Colour falling behind, because they are spending proportionately more time in the office for “misbehaviour”.

Just like everything else humans do, behaviour, and misbehaviour, are cultural.