I had a conversation the other day with a someone who’s an active parent member of her 3rd grade kid’s school and cares quite deeply about the performance of her kids. She was receiving calls from her kid’s teacher about the fact that her child wasn’t being compliant in class and was resisting authority. She inquired as to what had happened, and the teacher explained:

“I asked her ‘Would you like to clean the blackboard?’ on five different occasions and she always told me no.

“Did you ever give her a directive like ‘Please clean the blackboard?’”

“Well, no…”

“That’s why. In my culture, you give people directives.”

I grew up in a culture where “Would you like to clean the blackboard?” in fact means “you better say you’d love to clean the blackboard or you will be punished.” It would actually be quite rude in my family to give someone a directive like “Clean the black board” or “Please clean the black board,” because both essentially come across as mean or too demanding.

But I’ve never given much thought to the kinds of messages and rules that are communicated just with that one question. By asking that question in my culture, you are giving a directive. You are literally giving the child a choice to offer whether or not they would like to clean the chalkboard, but the cultural meaning associated with that question is that you should know to offer your help otherwise you could be judged for being disobedient.

Just imagine how a question like this can be shaped and modified to create all sorts of complicated trouble. This situation originally came up as a cultural issue between racial/ethnic groups (white and Latino), but you can easily see it happening in multiple scenarios:

- Within a cultural group but across generations
- Within a cultural group but between genders
- Across socioeconomic class
- Anything, really

It’s just really striking to me to think about because when you imagine how schools are organized or run, lots of people just assume that if you have a commitment to equity in schools on paper that there’s going to be an equal playing field – it’d just come down to the individual, to the individual commitment to working hard to succeed. When in fact…it’s not. There are structural inequalities, like cultural traditions of communicating demands in class that result in how you are assessed.

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