Cultural Awareness Class Creates Questions, Provides Answers

Bias is a hot-button word in today’s cultural climate. Few other words will grab as much attention or spark such a physical, emotional or legal reaction.

In a cultural awareness class, Kendall Kerew, assistant clinical professor, and Kinda Abdus-Saboor, lecturer, examine implicit biases by prompting students to evaluate the lens through which they see the world. That lens, Kerew explained, will determine how students approach their clients, colleagues and the courtroom.

Kendall Kerew

Kendall Kerew

As cross-cultural interactions are inevitable in the practice of law, students should be prepared to navigate those interactions successfully, Kerew said.

The class is part of a required seminar for second- and third-year students participating in externships. Kerew, director of the Externship Program, developed the seminar to focus on professional identity formation.

“The goal is to shift focus from law student to lawyer,” she said. “We want students to focus on the way they want to conduct themselves as professionals. That requires self-awareness and self-reflection.”

The cultural awareness class is the sixth of seven classes. “The idea is to get students to think deeply about the role of cultural awareness and what they need to do to become more culturally aware,” Abdus-Saboor said. Through assignments and exercises, students first think about their own cultural identity and then explore how it impacts their cultural lens.

Kinda Abdus-Saboor

Kinda Abdus-Saboor

Before the class on cultural awareness, students are required to take the Implicit Association Test, which was formed from a Harvard research study. The online assessment has a menu of tests to choose from, with options such as age, race, disability, gender-career, weight, skin tone and so on.

“The test measures your reaction time to different images and words,” explained Abdus-Saboor. “It gives you an analysis of your level of implicit bias and perceptions.”

The test is not about determining if you are racist or prejudiced, Kerew explained. “It’s about determining if you have an implicit bias of any kind — and everyone does.”

Kerew and Abdus-Saboor noticed when they gave students a choice to take any three of the tests, most avoided the one on race. Now they require students take the race and age tests, and the third is their choice.

And students are seeing the value in the results. “I’ve always put a premium on neutrality,” said Max Perwich (J.D. ’17). “The test was very informative. It gave me a good perspective on what neutrality really means.”

After taking the tests, students must write about whether the results aligned with what they expected and identify their strengths and weaknesses in dealing with cultural differences.

In class, Kerew and Abdus-Saboor discuss how implicit bias happens and how it can be based on a number of things, like geography or personal identity.

“Culture is so much more than just race,” Kerew said. “Your cultural identity is multifaceted.”

In a class exercise, students write three cultural attributes with which they strongly identify that are then read aloud by Kerew and Abdus-Saboor. Through attempting to dissect their own cultural identities, students recognize the complicated intersection of culture and identity.

Students often note that they never really thought about themselves as the individual character traits, Kerew said, which leads to a conversation about why we view others so narrowly, when we consider ourselves to be such complex cultural beings.

Kerew had some initial concerns about the class. “I was worried about pushback because it would raise questions that were uncomfortable,” she said. Additionally, she explained that millennial students tend to have a “colorblind” perspective, believing that they do not and should not see color. Such a perspective could make it difficult to have meaningful discourse on the topic of cultural awareness.

But, instead of limiting dialogue, that “colorblind perspective” becomes a springboard to generate discussion. Abdus-Saboor and Kerew encourage students to discuss the danger in ignoring cultural differences and suggest ways to approach them.

Specifically, students read and unpack The Five Habits of Cross-Cultural Lawyering by Sue Bryant and Jean Koh Peters. The book directs lawyers (and law students) to identify the similarities and differences between themselves and their client, opposing counsel and the decision-maker, and to develop a legal strategy that takes those differences into consideration. It also encourages lawyers to think about potential cultural barriers and to prepare for them.

“We end the class by giving the students sort of a toolbox,” Abdus-Saboor said. “We did not want to present the challenge of cross-cultural lawyering without providing concrete ways to tackle it,” she said.

Professors Abdus-Saboor and Kerew say this class is just a start in preparing students for cross-cultural lawyering and are happy with the dialogue it has created thus far.


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