January 30, 2021

Reflections on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: The role of Cultural Competence

By Lear Matthews, Lecturer


Discussions concerning diversity, equity and inclusion are viewed as courageous conversations at a critical time of unpredictable institutional and societal transformation. I contend that at least part of the solution to the concerns about equity, diversity, inclusion and social injustice within the context of educational institutions, must be viewed from a cultural competence perspective. This article focuses on cultural competence as a framework for operationalizing diversity, equity and inclusion. In particular, the articulation applies to English-speaking Caribbean immigrants with implications for students, faculty and staff of other ethnic backgrounds. My hope is to contribute to the dialogue on diversity and social justice, particularly among faculty, and stimulate readers’ thinking about their experience on the topic.


Cultural Competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in an institution (college, university, agency) or among professionals that enable that institution and those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations (See T. Cross, Toward a Culturally competent system of care. CASSP Child Dev. Center, Georgetown Univ. 1989). Cultural competence goes beyond cultural sensitivity. This approach is informed by a concern for human dignity, values, ethics, respect, self-determination and acknowledgement of cross-cultural differences. Using the cultural competent framework, I will address some of the questions and concerns increasingly raised by educators and human service practitioners especially in light of the summer 2020 resurgence and prominence of social injustice/racism protests.


A brief overview of labeling and its discontents

One of the virtues of cultural competence is to understand culture. In this regard, it is important to  comprehend the ways in which a group adapts to societal transformation. This includes how group members define themselves as well as how they are defined by others. In teaching or working with English Speaking Caribbean immigrants, it is important to note that most of them, regardless of self-identification are ‘placed’ within the stratified sub-cultural system of the host society (e.g. the USA, Canada, Great Britain) as “people of color”, “black” or “brown people”. This designation is aligned with their “proximate group” i.e. the ethnic or racial group category in the host society whose phenotype (physical appearance) most closely resembles or “proximate” their own. United States Vice-President elect Kamala Harris, an American citizen by birth of East Indian and Jamaican parentage is the embodiment of this phenomenon.


Mary Waters submits that there are three discernable identities among second generation Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. – “a Black American identity, an ethnic or hyphenated national origin identity, and an immigrant identity. These different identities are related to different perceptions and understanding of race relations and opportunities in the U.S”. (Ethnic and Racial Identities of second -generation Black Immigrants in New York”. IMR, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1994). Caribbean immigrants are generally indistinguishable from so-called minority groups because of their skin color and ‘otherness’. This sets the parameters of class/ethnic categories and the way in which these people are perceived and stereotyped – bearing the burden of discrimination that these terms carry with it.


The labeling and ‘othering’ of a group in this manner is a social construct which conjures up deliberately stratified designation. Such descriptive terms do not fully capture the core of one’s identity. Jamaican writer Christopher Campbell (Scholarworks.uvm.edu, vol. 38) expressing his experience as an international student states that it is important not to homogenize all people of color, since this can distort aspects of cultural identity development. Likewise, historian Kimani Nehusi (Cuffy 250 Committee Annual Forum, 8/9/20) stated that it is not prudent to use the term “Black” to describe an entire race of people. The way in which members of the Caribbean Diaspora have had labels designated to them is informed by a history of global transmigration and geopolitics. Christina Greer in her book: Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration And the Pursuit of the American Dream (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013) refers to Caribbean immigrants as among the “new blacks” in America. Writer Shourga Agarwal (J.Medium.com/Agarwal, Nov. 5, 2020) shared her conversation with a Nigerian national who argues that “Africans are not black….they are Igbo, Yoruba, Akan….They become black when they land in the Western world that chooses to see them that way.” Such an assertion may be controversial, but deserves attention in any conversation about culture, race and immigration.


Some persons are insulted when called ‘black’, while members of other ethnic groups who wish to be ‘politically correct’ are ambivalent about which term to use (This is not unusual in the classroom). Yet others would say “I don’t see color”. There is also likely to be some identity ambivalence among those who are referred to as “mixed race”. These labeling considerations may have become more pronounced with the ascendance of the Black Lives Matter Movement. ‘African American’ is nation-specific. A person from the Caribbean may not wish to be referred to as ‘African American’ but takes pride in the ‘Black’ designation since it aligns her/him with others who fight against discrimination and advocate for social justice. “I’m Black and I’m Proud” has been a familiar mantra, having gained popularity during the 1960’s and 1970’s. To this point, having pride in one’s race which implies empowerment through group consciousness is one way to resist racism. Notably, the “Black Power Movement” which had key participation of Afro-Caribbeans, was a driving force for racial justice.


Globally, racialized people, in particular Black people, have historically been denied their many accomplishments as well as their humanity. An interesting question is whether a person can easily embrace a racial category that he/she simultaneously knows has been imposed on him/her. An immigrant from the Caribbean residing in the U.S. may believe that it is strategic to say to a potential employer, “I am of Caribbean heritage”, rather than identify as Black or African American. Others may deliberately “lose” their accent to “pass” in their adopted home. Coping with their racialized identity in a new environment can be rather challenging for many immigrants. In some cases the legality of their immigration status makes it more complicated.


Having come from countries where people of African and East Indian ancestry are in the majority, their new racialized identity and ethnic casting as part of a “marginalized group” is a stark reality they cannot escape. The underbelly of this reality has been exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic by the brutal facts about economic and health disparities in comparable “communities of color”. This is compounded by distrust and hesitancy about taking the COVID-19 vaccine.


Communication and language differences for some immigrant students and employees entering a new and different education system can be demanding, even traumatizing. There are a number of disparities in communication between educators and diverse student populations. These incongruities tend to emerge as a result of differences in expectations, values and socialization related to teaching and learning. If educators recognize this, adjustment will be facilitated, enhancing cultural competence.


The following quote is an interview response from a research project entitled: “Micro-aggression and the Caribbean Diaspora” (Christiana Best-Giacomini and Lear Matthews. Forthcoming, 2021): 


Life in the American workplace for me as an assistant professor isn’t easy. We don’t get to make mistakes. I don’t think I would be able to come back from a mistake. In order for me to be authentically me, there is a price I have to pay. In order for me to wear my hair in a natural state and use my accent I have to come with even more than the other person in and out of the classroom. It’s what they call Black Tax”. 


In this comment, the remarks about making mistakes and potential ramifications are particularly poignant. There have been reports of “stress and anxiety” with regards to “ridicule and judgement” about natural hair. Black women are more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. Furthermore, the above-mentioned comment confirms that many  Women of Color in the United States (including Caribbean immigrants) may have had to change their hair or hairstyle to obtain a job or get a promotion. This is an example of both institutional and individual discrimination/racism. These women were perceived as less professional and are often compelled to “check their identification,” which becomes one more “anxiety burden”. In relation to this topic, The CROWN ACT - Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair: The Crown Coalition, 2019), was founded to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles, by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, Locks, twists and Knots in the workplace, including educational institutions. A book entitled: Hair Love by Matthew Cherry which focuses on encouraging young Black girls to love their own natural hair is recommended for further reading on this topic.


Implications for teaching and mentoring

Reactions to ongoing social unrest and increasing awareness to racial disparities vary from fear and anger to uncertainty and commitment to change within and across communities at large.


Both providers and consumers of educational services must ask the question, perhaps with unprecedented determination: What are some of the cross-cultural challenges to teaching and learning, particularly in this unchartered environment?  As we search for answers, diversity must be explored through the lens of multiple informed perspectives so that both students and educators will expand their awareness and increase knowledge and skills to work effectively in today’s culturally diverse environment. Assessment of “Teaching and Mentoring” is based on expertise in the subject matter and the ability to demonstrate excellence in disseminating knowledge in an organized, scholarly manner. However, this is only one dimension of gaining insight into interactions with others through the opportunity to examine what it means to engage in cultural competent ways. 


A typical though not often verbalized question educators ask is:  How can I  better serve my students? Among the guiding principles in serving contemporary students is first to become familiar with one’s institution Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy (assuming one exists).


Educators and administrators must embrace diversity including the experience of immigrants, as an integral component of quality academic and social experience that prepare students for success in a multicultural, multiracial and multilingual society ( See SUNY Empire State College, Mission Statement on DEI Policy 2020).


In order to actualize such goals, educators and other institutional personnel should pledge not to help fight racism and discrimination “on behalf of” oppressed people or as “an act of charity, but because they truly believe in the moral obligation to join the forces to resist and end injustice (See JMedium.com/@JL, 2020). An important caveat here is that diversity at the leadership level, i.e. executive/management is essential if indeed institution-wide equity and inclusion are to be meaningfully effectuated. There have been concerns about the disconcerting implications for colleges and universities regarding the (2020) U.S. State Department’s suspension of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training programs. They are regarded as “divisive concepts”. This is not only egregious, but is expected to be reversed by the new U.S. government administration. Against this backdrop I proffer twelve (12) suggestions to help faculty deal with cultural competence.


Suggested cultural competence guidance for faculty

Reassess teaching methodology, approaches and course content including (when applicable), assessment of concepts such as culture, identity and privilege. This should not diminish input from students, but challenging them to think about these and other related concepts and their application to real life situations; (2) In light of a growing nation-wide volatile social environment, expect emotional expression to cloud objectivity at times, potentially infecting rational thought process. An important goal should be to turn feelings of despair and helplessness (experienced by both students and faculty) into action that will be impactful; (3) Encourage mutually respectful dialogue in the class or Virtual room, but prepare to be challenged. When giving “advice” to a diverse student population be aware that you may be perceived by some as doing so from a “place of privilege”; (4)  An important question is: How can you promote solidarity and respect among colleagues. Think of ways to encourage one another in continuing racial and social justice initiatives and to be a professional role model; (5) Think about the resources you would need to execute your responsibilities effectively in a post-COVID -19 era including outreach for mental health services for yourself and students when needed. Notably, cultural beliefs often determine how people respond to stressful situations. (6) Be prepared for ‘balanced’ discussions emerging from ideas, experiences and incidents related to the COVID-19 Pandemic and attendant protest/rallies. Topics such as ‘systemic racism’, ‘cancel culture’, slogans including ‘defund the police’ and the professor’s own thoughts about taking the COVID-19 Vaccine are likely to be raised by students. How do the above issues affect diverse students? Have a plan to respond objectively and realistically; (7) Owing to the upsurge in rumors, fears, vitriol, misinformation and varied politically motivated beliefs, it is important to assert the distinction between assumptions and facts, and between opinion and policy; (8) In order to maintain a level of currency and sense of ‘consciousness’ of the learning environment and connecting with students, you should think of the fears and uncertainties you may have. Try to develop the courage to reach out and ask questions when you are in doubt or at the risk of being misinterpreted or misconstrued, though you have good intensions. For example, there may be uncertainty about how to “correctly” address members of a specific ethnic group; (9) The way in which students are perceived and addressed by faculty and other students is as important as how faculty is perceived and addressed by students. Note that culturally embedded norms is a function of basic communication. For example, newly-arrived Caribbean immigrant students are aghast when they hear professors being addressed by their first name. Perceived mutual respect through verbal messages and body language are essential in any learning environment; (10) Introspection, non-judgement listening and encouraging ‘hope’ are significant as you interact formally and informally within the college community and society at large. These attributes fortify, if only incrementally, the healing of a nation; (11) Although most faculty are not required to have a “teaching certificate”, they are held to a level of expertise and competence based on the ability, to deliver educational services in a manner that is conducive to a diverse student population. Ultimately, the goal is to use best practices to maximize the capacity to become culturally competent; (12) Each faculty member should do a “mental self-debriefing” after each class. How this is done will vary by preference.



The courage to have difficult but mutually respectful conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion should resonate in these unpredictable times. Hopefully, this presentation has addressed some of the dynamics of navigating “Black and Brown” identities in the American Workplace. Although focusing on a particular ethnic/immigrant population, implications for other diverse groups are evident, providing useful tools for cultural competence. Perhaps this proposed approach will help to build awareness, elevate consciousness of the topic and measurably reduce the “racial battle fatigue” syndrome.


Recommended Courses:

*Anti-Racism Virtual Residency. SUNY Empire State College, spring 2021.

*Diversity and Cultural Competence. SUNY Empire State College, spring 2021.


Selected Reading:

Greer, C. (2013) Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream. Oxford University Press.


Matthews, L. and R. October-Edun (2014) English Speaking Caribbean Immigrant Students: Providing Culturally Competent Educational Services. In L. Matthews (ED) English Speaking Caribbean Immigrants: Transnational Identities. University Press of America, Lanham.


Reyes, D. (2020) Racialized Trauma on the Tenure Track. Inside Higher Education, October 23rd.



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