Black Lives Matter & Intercultural Development in Higher Education

Jun 10, 2020

Each month, I write a blog post related to intercultural learning in higher education. Choosing the topic has never been as easy or obvious as it was this month. But no topic has ever been more challenging or uncomfortable for me to write about.

I was born, raised, and currently live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area in Minnesota, less than 15 miles from where George Floyd, an African-American, was recently killed by a White police officer.

As a White person who grew up surrounded mostly by people who looked a lot like me, I did not engage in many conversations about race when I was young. I’ve learned a lot since then, largely through my own intercultural work, and can now look back and recognize my obliviousness to the role race played in my life as a type of privilege. And yet, I admit I still struggle and feel some discomfort speaking about race on such a public platform, even though I know how important it is to do so.

But as an interculturalist, I recognize the importance of leaning into that discomfort, and that’s actually one of the things I want to write about. I choose to lean into the discomfort of this conversation because I don’t think the responsibility of eradicating systemic racism should fall on the shoulders of those who experience it on a daily basis.

Please note that many of my comments in this this post speak primarily to my fellow White U.S. Americans, although I hope my core message will resonate with most higher education professionals.

As an interculturalist, I have a framework that has been very helpful to me in understanding the wide variety of ways I see people—myself included—responding to the recent death of George Floyd, the protests that have followed, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The framework I’m referring to is called the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC), which is Mitch Hammer’s research-based revision of Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). I’ve written about the IDC and related assessment tool, the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) in previous posts.

According to the IDC, becoming more interculturally competent involves increasing the complexity with which we experience other people. The model frames learning to recognize, appreciate, and appropriately and effectively navigate the complex cultural differences and similarities that exist in the world as a developmental process.

Milton Bennett explains, “The recognition that people are equally complex, but different, is the strongest antidote to bigotry that I know.”

Rather than go into detail about the IDC again, I’d like to provide a brief overview of how some of the developmental orientations are playing out in the United States right now, from my point of view.

People who are in Polarization tend to recognize cultural differences exist, and approach difference in terms of “us” and “them.” This can take two forms: Defense or Reversal. Those in Defense are critical of cultural “others” and protective of their own cultural group or traditions. People in Reversal are more critical of their own cultural group, and often feel protective of other cultural groups. Reversal may look more interculturally competent on the surface, but still reflects an “us vs. them” mentality and a judgmental attitude toward difference.

Right now, it feels like statements of Polarization—both Defense and Reversal—are being slung back and forth, especially on social media. I also see statements of Polarization being countered with statements of Acceptance or Adaptation—which are developmental orientations that include a deeper, more complex understanding of cultural differences and similarities.

But because this is a developmental process, statements coming from a place of Acceptance or Adaptation don’t resonate with people in Polarization. For example, talking about things like privilege, white supremacy, or white fragility may be critical to people in Acceptance or Adaptation—as well as White people in Reversal. However, such language may cause greater defensiveness among Whites in the Defense form of Polarization, or even the next developmental orientation, Minimization.

For someone in Polarization to develop interculturally, they would need to first move into and through the orientation known as Minimization. That is, they would need to come to see the ways in which they are similar to—and what they have in common with—those that they see as “other.”

What I also notice a lot of lately—although it’s not as loud—is Minimization. In Minimization, people tend to recognize and appreciate cultural differences, but oftentimes assume that deep down, we are all more similar than we are different. What they may not understand is that the lens with which they see and understand similarity is culturally-influenced.

How is Minimization showing up right now? I see it primarily in White people who are horrified by the recent death of George Floyd and other African-Americans at the hands of Whites, but are unsure of what to do, or turn away out of discomfort.

People in Minimization typically have very good intentions. They likely consider themselves anti-racist and want to speak up, speak out, do better, but may worry they don’t know the “right” thing to do or say. As a result, they may do very little, or nothing.

They may assume that by not doing or saying something, they are protecting people. But who is being protected?

As we’ve seen demonstrated in society lately, racism exists. There is great discomfort. But the burden of this discomfort is unevenly distributed. African-Americans and other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) in our communities may be uncomfortable going out for a jog, wearing a hoodie, carrying anything in their pocket, or waiting for a son to come home. So whose comfort do you protect when you keep quiet because you don’t know the “right” thing to do or say?

Listening deeply to the experience of others is one option, but that can be challenging too, particularly for Whites in Minimization. It’s hard to hear about someone else’s pain and not want to fix it or explain it away. It is especially hard when you identify with a cultural group that’s responsible for this pain.

When people in Minimization—especially those from dominant groups—lean into the discomfort of listening, speaking up, moving toward difference instead of away from it, or putting action behind good intent, yes, they may make mistakes. They may offend someone. But the upside is that it spreads out the discomfort, shifting the burden so the discomfort does not all lie with the most marginalized groups. And that’s what’s necessary for racial and social justice to occur.

I participated in a discussion a few days ago led by Mitch Hammer—creator of the IDC—and a panel of interculturalists who use this developmental framework. Mitch and the panelists underscored the fact that in order for people to understand systemic racism, they need to be in at least late Minimization, preferably Acceptance or Adaptation. Milton Bennett has also said, “Acceptance is the minimum goal to which [higher education] programming should aspire. However, to accomplish this goal, programming needs to be sequenced developmentally. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.”

That does not, however, mean that people who are in Polarization or lower Minimization cannot come to understand and work to solve systemic racism. But to do so effectively, they will need to develop along the Intercultural Development Continuum first.

Which brings me to the role of our work as intercultural educators—and the role of the developmental approach—in higher education. Our colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to help people develop the skills necessary to engage more effectively with today’s biggest global and local issues, such as systemic racism. This must involve a focus on developing everyone’s intercultural competence, expanding the complexity with which we experience cultural differences and similarities.

In 2018, during his talks at the IDI Conference, Mitch Hammer discussed how advocacy and development work are different, yet complementary. Advocacy is about agitation, exposing inequities, and raising awareness. That is currently happening across the U.S., as well as the world, due to the societal inequities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter.

Taking a developmental approach means understanding where learners are in their intercultural journey and meeting them where they’re at to help them move along the developmental continuum. It means recognizing that someone is not a bad person just because of where they currently are on the developmental journey.

Taking a developmental approach to intercultural learning in higher education will require greater intentionality and integration. The development of intercultural competence cannot be relegated to one office or department—or, worse, one person. We cannot simply rely on study abroad experiences or a diverse campus to result in the development of intercultural competence. We must approach intercultural learning much like we currently do critical thinking—as a skill that needs to be holistically integrated into all that we do in higher education.

As I’ve discussed before, we need to be intentional about creating and facilitating intercultural learning opportunities. This is just as true for faculty and staff as for students. In fact, the student body at most colleges and universities these days is more diverse than the faculty and professional staff.

As higher education leaders, faculty, and staff, we must be willing to put in the work to develop our own intercultural competence. To explore our own biases. Examine how we’ve contributed to what is, and explore what we can do to shape a better future. Our schools need educators who are comfortable leaning into discomfort, and having difficult conversations.

We must look inward, both as individuals and as institutions. As we develop our intercultural competence, we also develop our abilities to more effectively examine and consider how to dismantle organizational and systemic racism and oppression.

This is the work I am committed to and engaging in: taking a developmental approach to helping faculty, staff, and students become more interculturally competent. Even when it is difficult or uncomfortable.

I recognize that by writing this post, I open myself up to what might be seen as criticism. For people to point out all that I don’t know, haven’t thought about, or can’t see from my particular vantage point. But I welcome the opportunity to learn, grow, and engage in developmentally-focused dialogue.


References & Related Resources

There are a lot of lists circulating right now with great resources to help us all learn more about systemic racism, social justice, and similar. The following are a few complementary resources that you may find useful in making the connection between these issues and the intercultural development framework.

The Intercultural Development Continuum:

Bennett, Milton J. (2007) Original draft: Social justice and intercultural development: New views on campus intergroup relations, published as Developing intercultural sensitivity: A model to improve intergroup relations on campus. Leadership Exchange Magazine, Fall 2007. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. 

A thoughtful reflection by my friend and fellow interculturalist (who also lives in the Minneapolis area), Dr. Akiko Maeker:

Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast, episode 193: An interview with Dr. Amer Ahmed, “Diversity and Inclusion: How Does Higher Ed Rate?”

Sorrells, K. (2016). Intercultural Communication: Globalization and Social Justice, 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

True North Intercultural professional development programs for higher ed faculty & staff:


Photo credit: munshots, Unsplash

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