When the pandemic became a worldwide issue in 2020, online spaces became a necessary tool for continuing personal and professional intercultural competence journeys. Over the course of four weeks (12 hours overall) in January/February 2021, four researchers from around the world came together online to explicate 20+ readings. These conversations engaged us in defining interculturality, reading through and discussing a range of research studies. They also led us to regularly consider our own identities as intercultural researchers studying the field of interculturality and education. Living and working in various parts of the world (New York, Massachusetts, Tokyo, and Sydney) meant that technology was a vital part of our ability to connect and relate to one another.
For each meeting, we took turns choosing articles relevant to our practice(s) as intercultural educators. The readings ranged from theoretical articles to empirical articles. These included: a review of history and development of intercultural communication (Martin, Nakayama & Carbough, 2020), assessment of intercultural competence (Avgousti, 2018; Deardorff, 2009; Fantini, 2009), trans-spatial and trans-perspectives (Hawkins & Mori, 2018; Kramsch, 2018), interculturality in language education (Byram & Wagner, 2018; Knutson, 2006; Sykes, 2018), geomedia (Atteneder & Herdin, 2020), symbolic power (Hua & Kramsch, 2016; Kramsch, 2016), native-speakerism (Derivry-Plard, 2016), reflexivity and criticality (Bourdieu, 2003; Clark, 2020, Russell, 2020; Takacs, 2002), and intercultural citizenship (MacDonald & O’Regan, 2012; Porto, Houghton & Byram, 2018) case studies of study abroad programs (Mori & Sanuth, 2018), intercultural training for therapists (Rogers-Sirin, 2015) and online teacher training (Hajisoteriou, Karousiou & Angelides, 2018).
Through our meetings, I discovered how the very concepts of interculturality we had been discussing were realized in our online space. Our space was socially constructed through our discursive practices of sharing our reflections and critiques of the readings, transcending national borders and physical space. As we each learned about one another’s unique perspectives, we came to understand the multiple contexts in which we were placed. For example, the term “native speaker” may be inferred differently in a Chinese language class in Boston or in an English language class in Tokyo. Encountering such differences in a trans-spatial place forced each of us to reflect on our own perspectives and contexts. I experienced firsthand how such a constructivist understanding of place might help us to break away from the idealization of “one culture = one place and one language” and focus more on the fundamental questions related to the purpose and aim of intercultural communication. Our discussions kept circling back to several questions: Interculturality in service of what? What model of interculturality/intercultural identity are we holding up for students? Where is the power/Center in intercultural communication? In responding to these questions, we inevitably shared our thoughts on social justice, power and (in)equality/(in)equity, citizenship, self-awareness, criticality, and the inherent discomfort in intercultural encounters.
“At its essence, cultural competence is about relationships, trust and dialogue: dialogue with yourself and with others. As we get to know and understand ourselves better, we are better able to know and understand others,” (Russell, 2020, pg. 32). This quote highlights the importance of engaging in a critically self-reflective praxis not only on our own, but with others. Engaging with three other women scholars who are culturally different from me around the readings we chose gave me the opportunity to think more critically about the ways in which I perceive intercultural competence, as well as the chance to critically self-reflect on my identity as a white settler living on stolen Dharug land. I also identify as cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle class, university educated, American upstate New Yorker, and an expat. Critically self-reflecting on how those identities position me in the world and in relation to those I engage with is a vital component for being on the lifelong journey towards intercultural competence (Russell, 2020). It is something which must be constantly attended to and engaged with, especially as someone who works to facilitate that journey with others (as an academic facilitator at the National Centre for Cultural Competence).
Those of us engaged in this work as a means to promote social justice and to interrogate and upset the systems of oppression which have been operating for far too long must engage in a regular praxis of critical self-reflection and multicultural discourse to ensure our own biases and worldviews’ are being disrupted and challenged. As COVID-19 required us to isolate in our homes, it became clear that opportunities to engage with others in-person would be limited, and in turn would limit our ability to continue the fundamental practice of critical self-reflection. The opportunity to engage with others in the co-created online space during a portion of this time helps us continue critical self-reflection and pushes us further along our intercultural competence journeys. It requires us to form “relationships, trust and dialogue: dialogue with yourself and with others,” (Russell, 2020, pg. 32).
In light of this, we encourage those who work in this area to utilise technology to keep connected with others’ with the aim to engage in multicultural dialogue and push yourself to continue to critically self-reflect. We advocate setting up a small group that meets regularly, gives each person the opportunity to select readings to discuss at those meetings, and engages in critical self-reflection after each meeting.
Some questions you might consider after each meeting could include:
- What resonated for me?
- Why/how is some of this material triggering?
- What about my life in relation to my race/class/gender might make it easy/difficult for me to see or validate a new perspective??
- How does considering another’s viewpoint challenge or expand the way I see the world??
- How can I further develop my intercultural competence?
- How can I better align my beliefs about social justice with my overt actions?
(Questions adapted from Breunig, 2019, and Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012)
Breunig, M. (2019). Beings who are becoming: Enhancing social justice literacy. The Journal of Experiential Education, 42(1), 7–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825918820694
Russell, G. (2020). Reflecting on a way of being: Anchor principles of cultural competence. In: Frawley J., Russell G., Sherwood J. (eds) Cultural Competence and the Higher Education Sector. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-5362-2_3
Sensoy, Ö., and DiAngelo, R. (2012). Is everyone really equal? An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.