Culturally Healthy

March 24, 2015 by Bill Ivey

Another in my series of blogs based on and inspired by my experience at the Teaching and Learning Conference 2015.


Let’s take an imaginary person. We’ll call him James. James, who has a name that doesn’t particularly stand out, is white. He is also heterosexual, and identifies as the same gender with which he was identified at birth. He grew up in, and still belongs to, the middle class. He’s not too young but not too old. He is not disabled, either physically or with any of the invisible disabilities. He’s reasonably good-looking.

In short, James has just about any privilege of which you could think. But, you may be thinking, what if he has done everything in his power to work hard, learn, treat people with kindness, and make a success of his life? That may well be. Let’s say it is. I would value and appreciate every single one of those traits and accomplishments, and respect him for that. I would be happy to have him as a friend or colleague. All that wouldn’t change this fundamental truth:

Every single card in the stacked deck that is our society is stacked in his favour.

Privilege exists, whether or not we like it. But people of privilege often become uncomfortable when that fact is pointed out. In the article (which I discovered through David Cohen), “Why White People Freak Out When they’re Called Out About Race,” Sam Adler-Bell explores this phenomenon with professor Robin DiAngelo with respect to talking about race. In this context, Dr. DiAngelo uses the term “white fragility,” defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” (DiAngelo, quoted in Adler-Bell)

Feelings, as I periodically tell my students, are natural and normal and there is nothing inherently wrong what whatever you feel. What matters far more is what you do about those feelings. And obviously, all of the defensive moves detailed by Dr. DiAngelo aren’t going to actually make the situation any better; indeed, they may actually make it worse. So those of us with different kinds of privilege who find ourselves falling into that pattern need to do whatever it takes to break it. In my case, one thing that often helps is remembering that if I want to truly do anti-racist work, I need to be receptive to learning about the ways systemic racism has shaped me and my individual behaviors in order to avoid recurrences to the best of my ability.

One of the themes of the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference was the urgent need for cultural competence. As it happens, my father, an internationally respected expert in counseling psychology, did foundational work in developing the concept and thinking through how to acquire it. These days, though, he’s more frequently referring to the closely related concept of “cultural health.” One component of cultural health is possessing accurate information about different cultures. Another is using that information to better understand the culture from its own perspective, and a third is to use that information and understanding effectively and productively.

As a global school who has made an explicit commitment to having conversations about race, Stoneleigh-Burnham is in a strong position to promote cultural health within our community, and to share our perspective with others. And in the process, those of us with privilege of different types can (continue to) learn to decenter our world view and become more and more inclusive. It’s challenging and important work.

We can do it.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: anti-racism, social justice, Education, white fragility, white privilege