Transcript: Donna Ford, PhD

Cultural and Linguistic Differences

Donna Ford discusses the importance of acknowledging cultural differences, the influence of stereotypes, and some of the factors related to academic success for students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (time: 9:00).

Narrator: This podcast is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University specializing in multicultural education, discusses issues related to cultural differences in the classroom.

Narrator: Professor Ford, can you tell us how you distinguish cultural diversity from cultural differences?

Donna Ford: More recently, I have tried to change my terminology so that I no longer use the word culturally diverse. Instead, I use the term culturally different. One of the things I want all of us to understand is that we are all culturally diverse. Everyone has a culture. When we have problems in school or problems in social settings [it] is because we are culturally different.

It’s the differences between individuals and between groups that contribute to cultural clashes or cultural misunderstandings. If your values, if your attitudes, customs, and traditions are different from someone else, that leaves a lot of room for misinterpreting behaviors: misinterpreting things like call-and-response, quietness, lack of eye contact, not understanding that when you give a compliment to a child some of them want to be closer to you in terms of proximity. Where others have a larger personal space. So, again, we all have a culture, so it’s not cultural diversity that is at work when we misunderstand someone; it’s cultural differences.

Narrator: And these differences occur even within ethnic groups?

Donna Ford: I think it’s important to understand that when we use these global or generic terms like African American or Latino or Hispanic American or Asian Americans, we should, use those terms with caution realizing that within those groups there’s differences. Asian children, we just can’t say that. Instead we should be more specific; we’re talking about a Chinese child, or a Japanese child, or a Vietnamese child. If we’re talking about Hispanic populations—or people might use the word Latino—if you are Cuban, you are culturally different from someone who’s, say, Mexican American. There are similarities but there are also differences. I think we need to use language that is specific to that population so that it captures the richness of who that group is, as opposed to this global concept that can dilute the richness of each individual culture. We don’t just need to do that with Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans; I think we also have to do it with African Americans. I don’t think people realize there’s cultural differences within the African American community. Think about the gender differences and the economic or income differences. And I think it’s really important and respectful when you do that. It honors, again, that group’s individuality and cultural differences-slash-diversity.

Narrator: What kinds of factors affect individuals from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds in the classroom?

Donna Ford: I think a common question among educators is why is it that some groups of culturally different populations become successful in the United States and in our schools and others don’t. Whenever I’m asked that question, I always think about the work of John Ogbu. In his research, he talked about the differences between what he called “involuntary minorities” and “voluntary minorities.” Voluntary minorities—another term would be immigrants—he says that those individuals or groups who’ve chosen to come to the United States tend to have different values and beliefs than others who did not choose to come to the United States. So, for example, if you are an immigrant, say, a Chinese child or adult or a Japanese family, you come to the United States more likely than not believing in the American dream. And you believe that you need to do whatever you have to do to be successful in the United States because it’s an honor, it’s a privilege to be here. You may not think about staying, but while you’re here you’re going to reap all the benefits that you possibly can. So that attitude, that belief about what America has to offer, will make you be more optimistic and resilient even in the face of discrimination or culture shock. You will take the time to get to know, so to speak, American ways so that you can survive and be successful, so that you can grow. When you for the most part are what he terms an “involuntary minority”—someone who was brought to the United States because of slavery—then you didn’t choose to come to the United States, so you’re not coming here to believe in the American dream. You’re actually being forced to come here. You’re being dragged here. So that belief in the American dream, that belief that “I will do whatever it takes to be successful in the United States and in school and in my profession or job,” may not be the same because you did not ask to be here. You have to look at the history, you have to look at people’s values, you have to look at what they’ve brought to the United States with them, why they’ve left their country, before you can really understand why some are more successful than others. Now, a more simple way to understand it is to think about going to a workshop and your principal or your superintendent says, “You’re going to that workshop. It’s going to be on cultural diversity. And whether you want to go to that workshop or not, you’re going.” Imagine the different example, where you can go to that workshop if you want to or not.

Those forced to go, especially if they don’t want to go, will come to the workshop sometimes and have a very negative attitude, not be interested in what’s being taught, just closed down, shut down, disrespectful, disengaged, and want to be any place but where they are. Those who choose to come to the workshop, on the other hand, are, like, “I really have an opportunity to learn about something I’m interested in. I have an opportunity to grow. I have an opportunity to be a better teacher, a better educator, a better psychologist, a better school counselor,” whatever it might be. So the attitude is different. Attitude really does matter, but you can’t just look at attitude without looking at history and looking at context and looking at opportunity.

Narrator: I’d like to turn for a moment to the issue of stereotyping. No one is entirely free of the impulse, of course, but teachers, it seems, have to be especially vigilant. How do stereotypes influence teacher expectations?

Donna Ford: I think it’s important to consider that there are some groups in the United States [that] we have positive stereotypes about, and there are some that we have negative stereotypes about. For the most part, for the most part, Asian Americans: We give them or hold positive stereotypes about them, high expectations of them. And, too often, we might hold lower expectations or have negative stereotypes about black students and about Hispanic Americans, especially, research says, Mexican Americans. Of all the different Hispanic groups that are in the United States, Mexican Americans tend to be the ones that have the most negative stereotypes about them. So my point is, if you have negative stereotypes about any individual, you’re going to set up road blocks and barriers, and you’re going to have lower expectations for them. How can you really reach your full potential as a student if a teacher has low expectations for you, if stereotypes run rampant, if prejudice does exist in a classroom? That’s one of the reasons, one of the critical reasons, all of us have to work on being more culturally competent. Recognize we have stereotypes, recognize we have biases, work to decrease them, if not eliminate them, so they don’t get in the way of teaching, learning, and assessment, so they don’t get in the way of building relationships with students who we are responsible for.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to this episode of the IRIS Center podcast. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at

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