Cultural Insensitivity in Higher Education 

Cultural Insensitivity in Higher Education   

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Cultural Insensitivity in Higher Education   

Forces of globalization and technological advancements are increasing the interactions between different cultures in the world. Institutions of higher education are more culturally diverse as they admit students from multicultural communities and international students from different cultures. As the cradle of knowledge creation, universities and colleges are expected to accommodate and promote cultural diversity, and therefore serve as an example to society. The tolerance of diverse ideas in higher education institutions is expected to translate to an understanding of different cultures. As such, higher education is meant to advance intellectual and cultural pluralism. For instance, the Institute of International Education initiated the Generation Study Abroad in 2014 to double the number of American students studying abroad by 2020 and enhance the cultural competency of the human capital in the country (Leavitt, Wisdom & Leavitt, 2017). However, these institutions are afflicted by cultural insensitivity among students and faculty. In other cases, cultural insensitivity has permeated the curriculum, pedagogy and institutional management. For instance, in the United States, colleges and universities that serve specific cultural groups exist to promote a sense of belonging among students, promote participation in ethnic studies and use culturally-relevant pedagogy (Garcia, 2017). Cultural insensitivity in higher education creates a hostile environment for students and faculty, while entrenching cultural myths, biases and stereotypes, hindering learning and knowledge generation. Moreover, cultural insensitivity in these institutions may reflect the situation in society in which they exist. Besides, cultural insensitivity nurtured in tertiary institutions can be carried over to the workplaces, communities and society by the students after graduation and undermine social justice (Phillips, 2019). The different manifestations of cultural insensitivity in higher education are discussed from global and American contexts. Also, efforts to address cultural insensitivity in colleges and universities are discussed.

Cultural Insensitivity

Cultural insensitivity is the lack of skills that hinder people from learning about and understanding others who are different. It is the inability to recognize the cultural similarities and differences between people leading to the lack of understanding and respecting other people’s characteristics and cultures. It can also be viewed as engaging in behavior that is culturally blind or offensive to other people (Leavitt, Wisdom & Leavitt, 2017). In institutions of higher education, cultural insensitivity takes many forms and plays out in many contexts and levels. Tertiary institutions are melting pots of multiple cultures, which may be compatible or incompatible with each other. However, students may be culturally insensitive to each other and the faculty may be culturally insensitive to students. Also, the curriculum, pedagogy and institutional management may be culturally biased, narrow and influenced by the dominant culture in society, thus making them culturally insensitive. Allen, Scott and Lewis (2013) refer to hegemonic curriculums perpetrating curriculum violence. For instance, the curriculum may use examples from the dominant culture and stifle the use of culturally diverse experiences in discussions. Some higher education institutions are known to have implemented culturally insensitive policies such as banning certain types of foods, regulating behavior and dressing, emphasizing some sports and not others, and implementing curriculums that focus on the dominant culture.

Cultural insensitivity extends to issues related to gender, age, religion, race, disability, and socioeconomic status (Carpani & Somerville, 2019). The differences between western culture and eastern cultures manifest in higher education institutions and may be expressed as cultural insensitivities (Alexander & Hermann, 2016). For instance, students from collectivistic cultures may find academic arguments between a western student and professor offensive due to the violation of respect for elders. Also, such students may lose marks for being passive in class discussions, which is a culturally-rooted learning behavior.  Moreover, they may find the openly sexualized and rape cultures of the west offensive (Newsome & Cooper, 2016). Similarly, students from the west may be disturbed by restrictions in expression, teacher-centered instruction, little interaction with faculty, which are prevalent in collectivistic cultures. Other culturally-insensitive practices include microagressions, lack of emotional and psychological support, pretentious empathy, condescension (Cabrera, 2014). Besides, Myers and Cowie (2017) observed that online technologies provided alternative avenues for the perpetuation of cultural insensitivity through cyberbullying. Cyberbullies used the internet because of its anonymity, expansive reach in the college community and cost-effectiveness (Myers & Cowie, 2017). 

Usually, culture shock confronts students and faculty from the less dominant and foreign cultures. This may explain why the insensitivities directed towards the minorities may go unnoticed while those against the dominant community may be met with ruthlessness. The dominant culture confers some privileges to its members, which immunizes them from negative cultural representations (Newsome & Cooper, 2016). As such, cultural conflicts may ensue from cultural inconsistencies. While culture shock may be the first step towards acculturation, it may also present offensive cultural expressions that challenge strongly-held beliefs and threaten one’s sense of identity and wellbeing (Newsome & Cooper, 2016). University and college students may be unable to reconcile the cultural inconsistencies, which may have long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Notably, considering that college students are transitioning the turbulent period between adolescence and young adulthood, some negative cultural experiences encountered during this phase may develop into strong cultural prejudices and stereotypes, as explained by the theory of self-evolution (Bai, 2016).

Cultural insensitivity can be explained using the critical race theory, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the theory of self-evolution (Franklin, 2016; Newsome & Cooper, 2016). According to Maslow’s theory, human needs and motivations are hierarchically ordered, explaining the behavior of people. While all cultures may share similar low-level needs, esteem and self-actualization are emphasized in individualistic cultures and not collectivistic ones (Newsome & Cooper, 2016). That is why western cultures tend to denigrate non-western cultures in higher education settings. The critical race theory posits that race is socially constructed to advance the interests of the white people, and therefore is not natural or grounded in biology. Racism is entrenched in society and has been normalized by the dominant and marginalized cultures. Moreover, systemic institutionalized racism is embedded in tertiary institutions (Alexander & Hermann, 2016). According to the theory of self-evolution, transitioning into adulthood presents complexities related to meaning-making structures (Franklin, 2016). In the developmental progress towards self-authorship, individuals are exposed to many experiences that create dissonance, making sense-making complex. This explains why college students react differently to various cultural experiences in the process of creating their identity. It also explains why college students experience acculturative stress when confronted with different cultural experiences (Bai, 2016). 

Global Experiences

Colleges and universities in different parts of the world share many culturally insensitive practices. Higher education institutions seek international recognition by seeking accreditation from Europe and North American and adopting the European American culture. This practice is common in non-European countries and some non-English speaking European countries. For instance, many higher education institutions adopt English as the instructional language. Therefore, students lacking English language proficiency are required to take English lessons and proficiency tests before they can engage in their college or university program. The same happens with universities and colleges in countries such as Germany, Russia, Japan and China where the instructional language is German, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese, respectively. Often, the students who speak the indigenous language as a second language are disadvantaged because they struggle in and out of class due to the language barrier. In the same vein, political events shape the cultural atmosphere in higher education institutions. For instance, the election of President Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom have heightened racial sentiments in colleges and universities, with international students being viewed as outsiders (Jindal-Snape, 2018).

Also, many colleges and universities import curricula from prestigious universities in the west, such as Oxford and Harvard, sometimes with little modifications (Alghamdi, 2014). The justification is that prestigious colleges and universities in the west provide the best higher education in the world. The student-centered instruction in American institutions and technological advancements are often cited as the attractions of the American system. However, these practices undermine indigenous cultures and make tertiary education in these countries culturally irrelevant (Valdez, 2015).

Moreover, some countries have cultures that restrict some foreign behavior. For instance, many colleges and universities in the Arab and Muslim world prohibit the open consumption of alcohol and displays of affection. Similarly, countries such as France, Austria, Belgium, and Bulgaria have banned the hijab or the burqa among Muslim students (Hussain, 2019). Such policies create avenues for cultural insensitivities and generate social anxiety.      

American Experiences

The United States is the most popular destination for international students in higher education. As such, many American colleges and universities are challenged by multiculturalism among students and faculty. The European American culture is the dominant culture in the United States and is reflected in the tertiary institutions. As such, American ethnic, racial and religious minorities, as well as international students, encounter cultural insensitivities in colleges and universities in the country. On one hand, minority cultures of the African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans are usually ignored in curriculum, pedagogy and institutional management, and ridiculed among faculty and students. On the other hand, international students are acculturated into the American culture, but the Americans are not aware of the foreign cultures. Since the foreign students are the minority in these institutions, they are most susceptible to cultural insensitivities from other students, faculty and institutional administration. Moreover, the white privilege feeling is prevalent in American institutions of higher education, which undermines the cultures of minority Americans and non-Caucasian foreign students. White privilege is most observed in the curriculum, pedagogy and institutional management where the European American male ideals are often advanced in policy and practice. For instance, African American female students were often marginalized by white faculty as revealed by an engineering student whose professor refused to include her in his research group, which was dominated by white male students (Alexander & Hermann, 2016). In another case, college professors from foreign countries are not expected to hold liberal and intellectual views regarding global issues because they are limited by their inferior origins (Cotiner, 2019). 

Similarly, virtue signaling is common in tertiary institutions as people seek acceptance by the dominant culture, and those from the dominant cultures strive to cement their privilege through insincere gestures. People from the dominant culture express their lifestyles choices, political attitudes, religious convictions, ethical principles and moral values conspicuously to perpetuate their dominance. For instance, a white student may cause mayhem when another confuses the names of minority students to signal the support for nondiscrimination (Cotiner, 2019). Likewise, cultural appropriation occurs when a privileged group adopts some of the culture of a marginalized group to belittle it or to erase its role in society (Jaschik, 2017). For example, Latina students at Pitzer College in California asked white students to stop wearing hoop earrings as it was an appropriation of the Latina culture. In the same vein, the president and staff members of the University of Louisville who took pictures in sombreros were criticized for misappropriating the Mexican culture. Minority students have protested cultural appropriations in higher education institutions. For instance, Asian students protested against the Asian food served at Oberlin College because it was not authentic. Likewise, black students have harassed white peers who wear braids and dreadlocks, citing cultural appropriation (Jaschik, 2017). In other incidences, white students have held themed Halloween parties denigrating minorities while the use of Native American-based team names and mascots has been banned by the national collegiate athletic association (Jaschik, 2017). In these incidences, the minority students and faculty are offended by the cultural insensitivity of their white counterparts.        

In the United States, the first amendment guarantees the freedom of speech and cultural expressions are viewed as free speech regardless of whether they are offensive or not. This allows many culturally insensitive acts to be tolerated under the guise of cultural expression. That is why Williams (2019) argued that free speech was being used by the right wing to cover for sexism, racism, anti-semitism, classism, and xenophobia and other discriminatory sentiments.       

Current Efforts

The traditional practice has been to orient new students and faculty to the traditions of the college and university. This has only managed to acculturate those from minority cultures with the dominant culture. In addition, many institutions use tokenism to demonstrate a semblance of social diversity and inclusion (Fong, Ficklin & Lee, 2017). As such, the institutions admit a limited number of faculty and students from marginalized groups. Unfortunately, these people are perceived as unqualified and incompetent by the university community, and thus exposed to cultural insensitivities. Moreover, the limited minority faculty is overloaded with mentorship duties such that minority students are not guided equitably. In other cases, the higher education institutions cater for the large cultural groups, marginalizing the smaller ones and making them invisible in the campus community (Fong, Ficklin & Lee, 2017). The United States has minority-serving institutions such as Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), Tribal Colleges Or Universities (TCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) among others. These institutions serve the interests of minority groups that are underserved by public colleges and universities (Phillips, 2019). However, these approaches do not save minority students and faculty from experiencing cultural insensitivities. 

The more effective approaches of enhancing cultural sensitivity include enhancing cultural awareness and competence, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Institutions of higher education around the world are taking steps to accommodate diverse cultures in their faculties and student bodies. Cultural awareness is advanced by encouraging interactions among different cultures using cultural events, diverse foods at cafeterias, and affording adequate time between lessons (Wyckoff et al., 2019). Moreover, ethnocentrism is eradicated through the realization that no one culture is superior or worthy over another.

Moreover, steps to make the curriculum, pedagogy and institutional management culturally sensitive are evident in tertiary institutions. For instance, culturally-relevant pedagogy (CRP) is increasingly being adopted by these institutions (Alghamdi, 2014). Use of diverse learning materials that are culturally-relevant and present international contexts may improve appreciation of different cultures and advance cultural intelligence (Jindal-Snape, D. (2018). Moreover, faculty and students are encouraged to gain multicultural exposure through student and faculty exchange programs, taking cultural courses and   


Cultural insensitivity is pervasive in higher education all over the world. Although the mobility of students and faculty has increased the cultural diversity in tertiary institutions, it presented opportunities for cultural insensitivity. Cultural insensitivity can be overt such as cultural appropriation or covert like microaggressions. It afflicts both faculty and students at home and foreign campuses, and is often directed towards the minority groups by members of the dominant culture. Differences in national cultures present more challenges to cultural sensitivity because what is acceptable in one culture may be offensive in another. That is why the white culture in some American and European universities and colleges exalt white privilege and denigrate minority cultures.

Efforts to enhance cultural diversity and inclusiveness through tokenism are ineffective in eradicating cultural insensitivity if they are not grounded in cultural awareness and competence. As such, culturally-relevant pedagogy and curriculum may address cultural intolerance more effectively and stem cultural insensitivity in higher education institutions, globally. Student and faculty exchanges and undertaking some academic activities internationally would address cultural insensitivity better because they enhance cultural intelligence. Indeed, higher education environments that are culturally tolerant are conducive for intellectual pluralism and knowledge generation.         


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