This post is going to start in an incredibly boring fashion and then twist; first, the boring part: virtually every human and social service proposal, regardless of the target population, should at least nod to cultural sensitivity and related matters. Many RFPs specifically require applicants to address how project staff will be trained in cultural sensitivity and diversity to provide what is usually termed “culturally appropriate and specific services.”
But sometimes the impulse towards cultural sensitivity can go terribly wrong.
For one example of “cultural sensitivity gone wrong” check out “‘Bootie’ problem at CMS? Mom says offensive question went too far” or “Wrong Answer To The Wrong Question About A Big Bootie On High School Biology Test.” Both concern a question on a high school test about genetics:
“LaShamanda has a heterozygous big bootie, the dominant trait. Her man Fontavius has a small bootie which is recessive. They get married and have a baby named LaPrincess,” the biology assignment prompts students.
The assignment then continues to ask, “What is the probability that LaPrincess will inherit her mama’s big bootie?”
Here at Seliger + Associates, we don’t have any more details about the story apart from what we see in the media, and it would not shock us if this story is a hoax or if there is more going on than what appears in these news blurbs.* The more you know about the media the more skeptical you should be of any given story.
Nonetheless, let’s take this at face value and attempt to imagine what might have been going through the teacher’s mind: first off, the teacher said the worksheet “had been passed down to her by other teachers,” which indicates that she might not have looked closely at it. Since I’ve taught plenty of college classes, I can vouch for an instructor’s desire to use what’s been tested and teach efficiently. Secondly, though, she’s probably been hearing discourse and through mandated professional development about cultural sensitivity and incorporating non-dominant or non-Anglo cultures into her teaching for her entire career.
We’re not trying to defend the teacher, but we are saying that her thinking may be understandable, even if the execution is misplaced. Her conundrum, if it exists, can be stated simply: Where does cultural sensitivity end and cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity begin?
We have no idea, and neither do most people, because each case has to be judged one by one. We don’t have a pithy answer to this conundrum. The need for introducing concepts around cultural sensitivity is real, but so is the danger of being offensive, either inadvertently or, conceivably, advertently. In the proposal world, the easiest way to avoid this problem is by praising and promising cultural sensitivity training without specifying what that will mean on the ground, which can help grant writers avoid obvious gaffes. As a grant writer you don’t want to introduce a big bootie-style problem into your proposal, but you also can’t ignore funders’s requirements. These requirements can sometimes lead to mistakes like the one described in the news articles above.
* Which often happens; it’s not uncommon for contemporary novels, like Tom Perrotta’s Election, Anite Shreve’s Testimony, or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities to exploit the gap between shallow media understanding of an event and deeper understanding of an event.