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5 Thoughtful Tips to Build Better Cultural and Social Awareness in School

Everyone gets worried about saying the wrong thing, but there are easy ways students can practice sensitivity when discussing social and cultural issues.

The United States is a cultural melting pot, and college campuses have largely helped facilitate their own microcosms of diversity and interconnectedness through the cultural exchange of ideas between diverse students. For some, college is the first place in which they have the opportunity to interact with students of varying classes, races, cultures, and ethnicities—demographics they weren’t exposed to in their hometowns—and it can be difficult to navigate this diverse environment with care. College gives students the space to develop cultural competency skills while also learning how to advocate for different social issues pertaining to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and more. And campuses have long acted as spaces for student activism and resistance, from the Black Campus Movement in the 1960s to modern student rallying around social issues like the Israel-Hamas war and gun control. Are you looking for ways to be more sensitive when discussing and writing about diversity and social issues as a student? Here are five things to keep in mind.

1. Avoid a color-blind approach

Anti-DEI legislation has forced a lot of Americans to downplay or completely erase the role that race plays in particular situations or social problems. In a country founded on systemic racism and cultural exclusion, that continues to play a role in the social and economic outcomes of people of color today; in fact, data shows that we still see disparate outcomes by race when it comes to Black women’s treatment in health care, Black students’ college enrollment and graduation rates, and more. Adopting a color-blind approach to any social problem misrepresents the actual problem and introduces biases from the majority population. Whether the issue is health care, crime, or education, make sure you do your research and understand what role race plays in producing both positive and negative outcomes before sharing an opinion on a subject.

2. Speak from your own experience

Our own individual experiences are what make us unique, and those stories allow us to understand how other people’s backgrounds influence how they view and interpret the world. However, it’s important to remember your experiences are not reflective of the larger social group you may represent. For minority groups in particular, it’s often easy for people to see them as a spokesperson for their entire race, ethnicity, or religious group. When telling your story, make sure you clearly acknowledge that your feelings are formed by your own personal experiences and should not be extrapolated to similar populations. It’s also critical for us as listeners to avoid painting a broad brush and assuming an individual story can be applied to other members of the same group.

Related: 4 Ways You Bring Culture and Diversity to Your College

3. Make room for multiple perspectives

The beauty of student discourse is you don’t all think the same, and it’s your unique identity that helps inform how you think. When talking about social issues, it’s important to make space for others to contribute to the conversation in a way that is inviting and welcoming. Making room for multiple perspectives does not mean creating space for hate speech; it means being a critical thinker and utilizing empathetic listening to ensure all perspectives are heard and respected. As an example, recently immigrated students may feel differently about the general topic of immigration compared to those who are permanent residents; similarly, US-born Black students may feel different about reparations than African students. It’s important to create space for multiple people and viewpoints when discussing or writing about a social issue. Invite others to weigh in based on their own personal experiences if they’re not speaking up while also ensuring that people maintain civility and respect for one another.

4. Only rely on factual, reputable sources

There is an infinite amount of information online that shapes public opinion, and it can be hard to decipher truth from fiction. Inaccurate information only creates narratives around false biases that can be harmful to many groups of people. Reliable information may come from different sources such as scholarly, peer-reviewed studies and books, magazine articles, and newspapers from well-established companies. When reviewing a source, pay attention to the following criteria:

  • Authorship: Who is the author, and what are their credentials? What’s their reputation? What was the purpose of the author writing this piece—to teach, present research, or entertainment?
  • Accuracy: Does the author provide citations or link to existing research or studies? Is the information biased?
  • Currency: Is the topic at hand constantly evolving? No social issue is ever stagnant, so it’s important to search for the most recent information and developments.

5. Frame your contributions as a learning experience

No one is ever an expert on any topic, and as you hear more and more about social and cultural issues around the world and around you, it’s helping shape your knowledge and worldview. Whether writing or speaking on a social issue, be sure to preface your statements by acknowledging that you are speaking from your own experience but also value the opinions of others. Make it clear you want to expand your perspective. Framing your opinions as learning experiences invites others to share and demystifies the idea that someone must be an expert on a particular issue to contribute to a discussion.

Related: Why and How to Seek Out Different Political Perspectives in College

Discussing social or cultural issues can be nerve-wracking, as you may be fearful of saying the wrong thing and hurting someone. Using these tips is a great way to maintain a level of sensitivity and feel confident in speaking your mind while being respectful of others.

One way to improve your cultural competency is to make sure you attend a supportive college! Check out our article on A More Diverse College Search: How to Find Colleges With Strong DEI Efforts.

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About Dr. Ciera Graham

Dr. Ciera Graham

Dr. Ciera Graham is the K–12 Manager for the City of Seattle. She owns her own business, Dr. C Graham Consulting, and provides college and career readiness coaching to recent college graduates. She's also a freelancer who writes for Career Contessa, the University of Washington Continuing Education Department, Medium, and Best Colleges.


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