Cultural responsiveness is for combatting oppressive, marginalizing powers — not for platforming or protecting oppressors.
An Asian-Latiné Autistic disabled speech-language pathologist and cultural responsiveness educator’s response to a cultural competency course for health equity taught by white women in the #4 whitest profession, who identified white neo-Nazis as a cultural identity to be responsive to.
By V. Tisi, M.A., CCC-SLP
Cultural responsiveness (the actionable step to the precursors cultural humility and cultural competency) is for combatting oppressive, marginalizing powers — not for protecting oppressors and systems of oppression.
Just as there is no such thing as “reverse racism”, there is no such thing as “reverse cultural competency” or “reverse equity”. That’s not how any of this works. People who hold power, who oppress using that power, are not oppressed people.
I need to share my narrative with you:
I am a professor of Cultural Responsiveness in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences to first-year graduate students at San Francisco State University. My co-professor and I are tasked with educating and facilitating anti-bias (including anti-ableism) and anti-racism (ABAR) lens-building as part of the very first coursework soon-to-be speech-language clinicians will then build the rest of their career-courses on. This course includes understanding the systems of power, privilege, marginalization, how it exists in the sociopolitical culture around us, and how it then impacts speech-language services, our clients, and the systems that we work in, and charges our scholars to become critical assessors of who they are and who they will be as they operate as future diagnosticians, clinicians, and researchers.
I challenge them to lean on their scholarly ancestors — the Indigenous scholars, the Asian scholars, the Black scholars, the Chicanx and Latinx scholars of La Raza, Third World Liberation (race and gender coalition), student and faculty activists, and the greater San Francisco Bay Area activists that founded the field of ethnic studies through protesting and activism at San Francisco State in 1968–1969 during the last Civil Rights Era.
This is critical because the field of speech-language pathology is literally the 4th whitest profession within the United States, on a list of a top 10 are all otherwise labor jobs that are not people-serving, where the professionals may not directly and immediately implicate harmful biases on humans that are marginalized — unlike the field of speech-language pathology.
As one can imagine, especially in the graduate cohort of 40 age diverse, socio-economic background diverse, gender-identity diverse, racial diverse, ethnic diverse, and linguistic diverse scholars who many have been targets of marginalization by our sociopolicial cultures —
It isn’t an easy, comfortable course to teach,
nor is it an easy, comfortable course to take.
I oftentimes am hurt thinking about and talking about the things we have to discuss, as I’m sure is the same discomfort reflected in our scholars’ perceptions.
But it is a critical course to go through, and is transformative for our scholars as well as for ourselves as instructor-facilitators.
It is our responsibility to learn this, because, as I teach in the course, as diagnosticians and clinicians, we hold power over our clients. And that is why cultural responsiveness is critical. To understand who we are as individuals, where we hold power over others, and, where others may hold power over us. Because when we have power, we can abuse power and oppress. And to mitigate and minimize harm, we must acknowledge that power we hold.
However, we did not teach what happens when you, as a clinician and diagnostician, have identities that are marginalized by others. And one day this past semester, a scholar asked, “But what happens if your client is a neo-Nazi?”
It shook me.
I remember looking at the faces in little boxes across my Zoom screen, seeing my Black scholars, my Latinx scholars, my Asian scholars, my Jewish scholars, my genderqueer scholars, my disabled scholars, my immigrant scholars, my scholars with non-Mainstream American accents. People who are targeted for extinction by neo-Nazis. Whose lives wouldn’t just be uncomfortable, but would cease to exist, under neo-Nazism.
And knowing the gravity of that question. A very real question. And needing to respond immediately, off-script to something I wasn’t expecting, something heavy, something heartbreaking.
I have quite an extensive knowledge about white supremacy, Nazism, and neo-Nazism, and teach a course on CREDIT Institute (Culturally Responsive Education, Diversity Inclusion Training) called What Does White Supremacy Have to Do With Autism: Intersectional Considerations for the Multiply Marginalized, where I teach about this within the context of understanding the history of Autism identification and services for Autistic people. Because white supremacy is complex and is interwoven in the fabric of our fields.
I know what neo-Nazism is. I know what sundown towns are. I was raised in an area of Los Angeles that had proud neo-Nazis and was scared off by literal Nazis in a park when I was in high school. I am biracial. I am multiply neurodivergent and disabled. I am an immigrant. Most of my friends are People of the Global Majority (PGM, as an alternate word to BIPOC that decenters whiteness). I co-founded a non-profit organization, SLPs of Color, because of how important this is to myself and my friends. Dismantling white supremacy is, afterall, my Autistic Special Interest (SpIn), like many other Autistics who are passionately interested in social justice topics.
And I thought of the article I read about the Jewish doctor, Black nurse, and Asian respiratory therapist who treated a neo-Nazi with a giant swastika tattoo in the emergency room, working to save his life from Covid-19, and my immediate response to them was reflective on that.
That we need to serve when we need to serve.
And we also aren’t emergency room clinicians responsible for a life-or-death critical moment, and that we, too, deserve well-being and safety from our oppressors. And in a field that is significantly homogenous white, abled, cis/het, and Christian, we need to be able to keep our marginalized professionals safe while practicing in this field.
I talked about how — perhaps, if one did feel safer — they can use their speech therapy, language therapy, cognitive therapy, whatever therapy to address the neo-Nazi’s cognition of what oppressive biases and harm are. I thought about how at-risk for believing #fakenews people with cognitive disabilities are, and perhaps that could be a consideration. I also talked about how speech therapy isn’t imperative on that moment, and perhaps the neo-Nazi can be referred out to a colleague who is not directly targeted by the individual’s beliefs and oppression. How one can hope they are protected by their higher-ups and human resources departments to protect them from being victimized by bigotry. How, because our field is 92% white, maybe one of our white colleagues can take one for the team in treating the individual. Someone who could be safer.
I have no idea if I did the best job I could’ve done in that conversation. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t remember half of the things I said as I was emotionally dysregulated and suppressing my reactionary f-bombs and tears while balancing knowing I was the person in power at the moment, in charge, leading… wanting to make sure my audience was validated by me, felt safe, and overall sense of oh-my-goodness, their-eyes-are-on-me. over something I hadn’t planned, hadn’t prepared for, hadn’t prepared myself for. But it was the best job I did at the moment, equipped from lived experience and years of studying ethnic studies, disability studies, critical race theory, and being in community with other educator-activists who know first hand, through lived experience, what systems of oppression are.
Today, I am breaking my mental health break from social media to share this reflection and to say that cultural responsiveness is not an “all cultures are to responsive to”.
It’s about power and marginalization, about hate and dismantling hate. Neo-Nazism is not a group of people that anyone owes any responsivity to. They are oppressors, they do the oppressing, they are not oppressed. And to reiterate to all of you the same message I shared with my scholars, that speech-language pathologists do not save lives during critical moments, and we are allowed to say no and have secured wellness and safety for ourselves.
I was shown that there is a course called Cultural Considerations and Health Equity in Dysphagia Management by Leslie W. Johnson and Kellyn Hall, hosted by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) as part of the ASHA Dysphagia Conference available on-demand between March 9–21, 2022. It teaches its attendees to acknowledge their biases against White neo-Nazis. This includes a reflective exercise including:
- I feel I can comfortably work with this person without prejudice.
- Even though I don’t agree with this person, I feel I can accept this person as they are and be comfortable working with them.
- I feel uncomfortable working with this person, but I can hide it.
- I feel biased and prejudiced against this person and don’t think I can work with them. These were listed.
Worse is, white neo-Nazi is listed amongst actual people who are marginalized and oppressed upon within the United States in a list that included: Iranian immigrant, Muslim man, Transgender woman, Jewish man, Hispanic/Latinx immigrant, African American man, alcoholic/addict, and morbidly obese person. People who are actually oppressed upon by white neo-Nazis.
How dare they list white neo-Nazi in a list with people whom actually get murdered by neo-Nazis?
Who are these instructors? Upon searching, they are both white women (or white-assumed women-assumed) faculty from North Carolina Central University’s speech-language department. One of them has published a few times on diversity considerations only starting in 2020, the year the execution of George Floyd made white people everywhere capitalize off of the new Civil Rights era. The other has an extensive publication history back to 1990, and never touched any topic related until 2020. Performative, much? Hoping to ride on a hot topic, much?
Why did ASHA give them a platform to teach cultural responsiveness anything? When we have experts who’ve dedicated their whole careers, who hold lived-experience, to understanding cultural responsiveness?
Why do we keep platforming the wrong people to teach these courses and further perpetuate harm and oppression?
Why are my friends seeing this, being harmed by this?
Everytime we platform the wrong person, we also de-platformed from opportunities to be the ones to lead these conversations, instead. Deserving people who not only know this topic, but live this topic everyday of their lives.
Frankly, I’m not surprised at all.
If you ask anyone who has been in the field of speech-language pathology and has worked on dismantling equity issues pre-2020, we are not surprised. But in a field that is overwhelmingly homogeneously white at 92%, we are silenced and we continue to be silenced from the grumbles, roars, and exhaustion that this field perpetuates. When we have a whole field trained on multicultural considerations from textbooks and textbooks written by white woman who co-opts Asian identity as a form of self-platforming through adjacency, who teaches “responsiveness” from a contrastive, whiteness-centric, oppressive view that shares harmful stereotypes about People of the Global Majority, who co-opts her own students of the global majority’s narratives without their permission in her teachings, who has no clue what race even is because she asked me and my SLP of Color admin team if white people with blonde hair and blue eyes but are immigrants are “people of color”…
Of course I’m not surprised.
It’s interwoven in our field.
It is bred in our field.
It’s taught to our field.
It is our field.
But I’m not here for the 92%. I never have been.
I am here for the 8%. I am here for the otherwise not-even-bothered-to-be-counted percent. The clinicians and students of the Global Majority. Including the Indigenous clinicians and students. The Black clinicians and students. The Pacific Islander clinicians and students. The Asian clinicians and students. The Black and Brown Latiné clinicians and students. The Disabled clinicians and students. The Neurodivergent clinicians and students. The queer clinicians and students. The transgender clinicians and students. The Jewish clinicians and students. The Muslim clinicians and students. The clinicians and students who exist at the intersections of multiple of those identities. And I am telling you to say no when you feel unsafe in the presence of neo-Nazis. To protect your own well-being. That white supremacy kills, even if slowly through microaggressions. And being told by white researchers in our field to “work on our biases and prejudices” to be equitable to neo-Nazis is not okay, not acceptable, and incredibly oppressive and wrong.
I am here, on the shoulders of the giants and ancestors that came before me (sometimes in actual linear years, sometimes just because they helped me learn; this is no way means to be an ageist term) in this field. Who’ve taught me in this field. Who’ve mentored me in this field. Who’ve been research-activists and clinician-activists in this field. Who’ve asked me questions, who’ve emboldened me, who’ve helped me heal, who’ve listened to me cry, who’ve believed in me, who’ve taught me, taught me, taught me:
The works I’ve read from and studied from of Dolores Battle and Orlando Taylor. My undergraduate and graduate school professor-mentor Gabriela Simon-Cereijido. My colleagues-turned-friends Lucía Lainez, Karina Saechao, Lucretia Whitmore-Glovers who took me in under their wings when I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, lost and broken, in a sea of the whiteness of our field. To my friends-turned-siblings Christina Navas and Stephany Orellana. Phuong Lien Palafox saying no to having her work colonized and tearing it up in Austin. AC Goldberg setting it on fire in Boston and beyond by insisting only people of lived experience should be the ones being paid-for and experts-in cultural responsiveness topics, platforming and paying for all intersectional considerations to have the time and space. Betty Yu braving topics our field has tried to suppress for decades in San Francisco. Ben Munson in Minneapolis. RaMonda Horton in Illinois. Kyomi Gregory in New York, the first person who encouraged me to present, believed my capability and voice needed to be heard by the field, and offered the free labor of mentoring me through it if I chose to again step foot into an ASHA Convention again. Reem Khamis-Dakwar in New York. Valerie Johnson in New Jersey. Yvette Hyter, congratulations on her retirement, but is it even retirement when she is still working, still being a much needed academic-activist in this field? Crysta Song in New York. Brandi Newkirk-Turner in Mississippi. Ruchi Kapila in Texas. Maria Munoz in California. Jordyn Carroll in D.C. Casey Bryn McCarthy in Massachusetts. Tamala Close in Dallas. Joshuaa Allison-Burbank in Navajo Nation (New Mexico). My own student and disability activist, Angela Evanich, whom you better remember her name because she will be doing amazing things in this field. This list is nowhere near exhaustive on those who’ve impacted my practices. Who’ve helped to make me “me”.
These are giants. These are giants that deserve to be platformed. Deserve to be the ones leading conversations, not only due to their expertise from years of work, but actual lived experience. So why do we continue to platform the wrong people? People who dares to tell us to be culturally responsive and not prejudiced against neo-Nazis? People who’ve been given platforms for expertise in cultural competency? People who aren’t culturally competent themselves?
What is wrong with our field? I know the answer. Do you?