Cultural competency as defined by Cross, Bazron, Dennis, and Isaacs (1989) is an agency or system’s ability “to value diversity, have a capacity for cultural self assessment, be conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact, have institutionalized culture knowledge, and have developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting an understanding of diversity.” To be a culturally competent educator according to the definition above one must be able to adapt curriculum to reflect their student’s culture. Gender is just one of many facets comprising someone’s personal culture. In a recent survey of college students 31% of respondents identified as gender non-conforming (Rankin et. al, 2010). Gender non-conforming means an individual does not feel they fit with the societal two-gender or gender binary system and neither identifies as male nor female.
Before entering a teaching situation it is important for educators to first reflect on any bias or stereotypes they have personally maintained (Case et al, 2009; Gross-Davis, 1999). For example, “a person with a beard is man” or “a person wearing a dress is likely a woman”. While these may be true assumptions in some cases, a gender non-conforming student may still present as male or female but identify as neither. Do not assume to know a person’s gender identity based on their outward gender expressions. Use those assumptions as a framework for changing and expanding one’s personal concepts of gender to be less based in the gender binary. In cases such as these it is appropriate to use neutral gender pronouns instead of using one’s assumptions to refer to them as he/him or she/her.
While reflecting on personal biases, one can also reflect on their language patterns (Gross-Davis, 1999). Think: When giving an example am I more likely to favor using he/him or she/her? Work on using gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them when gender is not otherwise specified. This change may not seem overly significant but in the long-term it can be way of changing larger scale language patterns to be more inclusive of “they” as a singular pronoun (Shlasko, 2015). Shlasko continues that the singular “they” is taught in formal educational settings to not be used but this rule does not really fit into modern language patterns. Continued use of “they” as a singular pronoun helps legitimize and support those with gender non-conforming identities. Linda Wayne (2005) adds, “Replacing gendered with neutral pronouns is the next responsible step in the struggle to create a nondiscriminatory common language insofar as it expands the definition of sexism to include the bias inherent in a rigid two-sex system as well as gender bias”.
In addition to paying more attention to personal word choices, educators should also look at what pronouns are frequently used in the texts for the course. Avoid texts that have preferences for masculine pronouns when gender-neutral ones are available. Texts that are inclusive to all genders will make students feel more comfortable and have an easier time relating to the material (Case et al, 2009; Gross-Davis, 1999). In addition to paying more attention to personal words choices, educators can find benefit in staying up to date on terminology used by the population being instructed.
Do establish affirming pronouns. Identifying affirming pronouns is a way to open the classroom to discussions of more difficult topics in sexuality by increasing comfort levels of students. Affirming pronouns can be addressed in a variety of ways. Students can be asked to fill out tags that include their name and affirming pronoun. Affirming pronouns can be stated by volunteer basis; seeing classmates share can encourage others to feel comfortable doing so as well. Adding preferred pronouns to introduction or icebreaker activities could be a great way to turn the classroom into a safe space.
Take time with students to develop a set of classroom rules (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996, p.126-128). It is important that all opinions are heard on this matter so breaking up students into small groups will ensure that everyone can have their voice heard. Allowing for students to make their own classroom guidelines can increase comfort levels when it comes to sharing and divulging personal information. Give the students a chance to introduce their rules, but feel free to make suggestions and edits. Make sure that respecting affirming pronouns makes the list.
A useful, visual tool for educators when opening up discussions of gender is “The Genderbread person” (Killermann, 2014). The Genderbread person illustrates how gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are not just binary systems but rather fall along a range of possibilities. It also helps explain the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Some students may not come into the class with any prior knowledge of this information so it is important to show them a good visual representation via The Genderbread person. Educators should be prepared to answer questions and give unbiased responses.
Teach about microaggressions and their impact on those who experience them. Microaggressions are small injustices committed against minority groups that can either be on purpose or unintentional (Durham-Fowler, 2013). Students who fit the gender binary may be unaware of the daily tribulations of those who are gender non-conforming. A great way to open discussion on microaggressions is to show the video “Microaggressions in Everyday Life” (2010). After viewing the video students can answer several questions in small groups such as “What are some examples of gender-based microaggressions you have witnessed or personally experienced?” “Can you think of a time you made a microaggression against gender non-conforming?” “What are some ways in which you can become more aware of everyday microaggressions?”
Introducing new teaching practices to be inclusive of gender non-conforming students helps provide a safer learning environment. Altering personal language use to include using “they” as a singular pronoun is not only respectful to students but helps dismantle larger based biases in the culture of language. It is important to establish classroom rules that respect affirming pronouns of students and set up an environment that reduces hurtful comments. Many of these practices are beneficial for teaching many varying groups. In the end, effective, culturally competent educators seek to be inclusive of all populations not just gender non-conforming students.
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