The Ice Road of Cultural Insensitivity

In January of this year, a large group of Army National Guard officers of high rank, including the overall commander of the Army National Guard (based in Washington, D. C.) visited the small village of Napaskiak, AK, near Bethel.  Their ostensible mission was to deliver various awards, recognitions, and commendations to local veterans, but it was widely whispered in the area around Napaskiak that their true mission was to observe the customs surrounding Slaaviq, the Yup’ik Orthodox celebration of Christmas.  Whatever their real intent, they made known that they would be arriving on a certain day in Blackhawk helicopters.

However, when the day arrived, there was a bit of a squall and and windstorm.  So, rather than come in helicopters, they chose to drive up the river in these heavy monstrosities:

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They came, did their awards presentation, went to a house for the meal portion of Slaaviq, and then decided to leave.

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Well, by the time they were ready to leave, the winds had calmed down, and the Blackhawks had come. At this point, the commanding general and the delegation from the East Coast decided they wanted to go back down the frozen river in the heavy transport machines, rather than fly. The local Alaskan guardsmen all got into the Blackhawks, knowing that the river had been deemed unsafe multiple times in the previous week. Those from the East Coast were incautious and oblivious to the potential danger. They did not understand the terrain. They put their lives in danger needlessly, and all the Alaskan guardsmen knew it.

I think this is actually a good illustration of what a teacher who doesn’t practice Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) is like. Being insensitive to the local student population, just like the East Coast generals were insensitive to the conditions of their environment and the advice of the local servicemen, a teacher who does not practice Culturally Responsive Teaching flirts with disaster. Not understanding his own biases or the worldviews of his students, he may offend or wound them through racially or culturally insensitive language and actions. He might unintentionally reinforce racist or sexist stereotypes unconsciously, injure the self-worth of his students, and close down future potential learning opportunities for his students, as they adopt the view that their teacher doesn’t understand them and doesn’t have anything relevant to say. Even worse, they might adopt the view that members of their teacher’s race can’t speak to them.

Obviously, on an individual basis, such outcomes are fairly unlikely. The effect of eschewing cultural relevance is most likely a simple, ineffective lesson, which, in isolation, is not the end of the world. But if the teacher goes down the ice road of cultural insensitivity often enough, at some point, he’s sure to go through the ice and create real problems for himself, his students, and his students’ future teachers.

4 thoughts on “The Ice Road of Cultural Insensitivity”

  1. Nice analogy Ed, an ice road, a treacherous path, sometimes I think that even those of us with open minds walk the Ice Road of Insensitivity albeit cautiously. We try to appeal to our students and we try include them but sometimes you can’t see the glass ceiling that you ask them to break through and was meant to filter them out. In the case of the Guardsmen, I believe it was either confident stupidity or ignorance for those people to risk traveling down river. Its sad and terrifying that many people do navigate life in such a way.

    1. Whether it is ignoring local advice when traveling in the Bush or applying a curriculum to a group of kids that in some way isn’t presented with a touchstone to their daily reality, the root of this dysfunction is the same: hubris. A hubris that allows an outsider to assume they don’t have to adjust to their new environment.

      Also, those tracked vehicles should be re-allocated to every mountainous community in Alaska to support local back-country skiers:) It’s a complete waste to have hardware like that out in the flats, what do I pay taxes to the Federal government for anyway?:)

  2. I’m inspired by your post: way to be observant critical of a local event and relay your insight with journalistic flair.

  3. Thank you Ed, what a great analogy. Being insensitive to the local student populations worldview and the very real consequences of students shutting down and tuning out a teacher, as a result of repeated cultural missteps is a reality in so many classrooms.

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