Cultural literacy (cultural competence)

In some disciplines, cultural literacy is equated to being well versed in current events and historical and pop culture. But in the context of this discussion, cultural literacy is synonymous with cultural competence. Cultural competence is defined as ‘a highly developed ability to understand and respect cultural differences and to address issues of disparity among diverse populations competently’ (Overall 2009, p. 176). Cultural competence is an ongoing and dynamic cyclical process that celebrates and incorporates the differences that exist within various populations and communities (Cooke 2016, chapter 2). Cultural competence came out of the applied health sciences and is also discussed in the education, nursing, psychology, counseling, and business management literatures (also known as cultural intelligence).

With this background in mind, cultural literacy can be thought of as information that is reflective of and centred on diverse and marginalised communities and their cultural backgrounds (Ladson-Billings 1995). A strong understanding of cultural literacy is particularly useful when battling misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation as they pertain to cultural messages and the perpetuation of stereotypes, racism, and implicit biases. Cultural literacy facilitates the understanding of why cultural messages are particularly prone to misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.

Critical cultural literacy

In order to fully understand the aforementioned why; to clearly recognise how misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation are so frequently racialised; and to really see how information devoid of context perpetuates that same racialised information and media, critical cultural literacy is required. Combining the foundational characteristics and purpose of traditional information and media literacies and reinforcing them with the best components of critical literacy and cultural literacy gives us critical cultural literacy. Critical cultural literacy is a strengthened literacy that best lives up to an idealised concept of populism. This is how media and information literacies do better, go deeper, and become more current, candid, and contextual.

Critical cultural literacy recentres marginalised and oppressed groups or content, allowing the information/media consumer to view what’s relevant and useful from another and more robust vantage point. Critical cultural literacy situates information and media in such a way that diverse messages are purposefully incorporated, highlighted, and valued and not relegated to an afterthought or ignored all together.

As previously mentioned, there is no shortage of misinformation, disinformation, or malinformation on the internet. And despite their swift dissemination and staying power, critical cultural literacy can aid in verifying and refuting false, misleading, and harmful media and information. In order to be critical consumers of media and information, users should, of course, question the currency of the information (or lack thereof), consider where its been published (or not published), consider the plausibility of the information, and consider the reputation and biases of the platform providing the information. But they should also be questioning and investigating the larger and cultural contexts of the information being presented and consider the bigger picture of what the message is trying to accomplish. Critical information consumption is not automatic, and information and media consumers need to be taught to evaluate, sort, and effectively use the overabundance of information available online, and they need to be versed in multiple forms of literacy (Daniels 2009, pp. 192—194).

Concluding critical cultural thoughts

Critical cultural literacy is not all that radical; rather, it requires thought and recognition that are decolonised and culturally competent. Put simply, decoloninsation asks that ideas and communities outside the heteronormative norm be sought out and accepted (i.e. accepting more than just what is white, wealthy, Christian, heterosexual, thin, male, etc.); cultural competence asks that these differences be valued and incorporated into a new normative schema.

For example, please consider these examples of topics that might be addressed by media and information literacy education and notice the changes between ‘regular’ literacy, critical literacy, and critical cultural literacy.

Topic 1: African Americans and COVID-19

Traditional literacy: after refuting the misinformation that African Americans cannot contract the coronavirus that results in COVID-19, it is further revealed that African Americans and other minority communities are actually suffering disproportionately from the virus.

Critical literacy: Minority communities routinely suffer more severely from illnesses, so it stands to reason that the same would be the case with COVID-19.

Critical cultural literacy: Minority communities have long been predisposed to underlying conditions such as hypertension and diabetes that make them more susceptible to illnesses like COVID-19. Also, minority groups, especially African Americans, have long-term trust issues with traditional medicine because of a systemic lack of access to treatment, medical biases that preclude them from getting the same treatment as nonminorities (e.g. the maternal death rate is significantly higher for African American women), and the legacy of experimentation by and maltreatment from the medical establishment (e.g. the Tuskegee experiments).

Topic 2: Remote learning and COVID-19

Traditional literacy: Remote learning is the solution during crises like COVID-19. With instruction, students can use their computers to complete coursework.

Critical literacy: Not all communities/families are able to work at home because they lack the infrastructure and hardware to do so (i.e. the digital divide).

Critical cultural literacy: Not all communities/families are able to work at home because, in addition to a lack of infrastructure and hardware, they are facing job loss, a lack of income, a lack of child care, and even a lack of technological capabilities from prior inadequate educational experiences.

Critical cultural literacy breaks open the vacuum that often contains information and media people consume and provides additional worlds of context that facilitate new perspectives and increased understanding. It takes a little extra legwork and openness to being uncomfortable with said context, but the rewards of amplified insight far surpass that discomfort.

Scholar Arundhati Roy provides another example of how to view a current event (COVID-19) through a critical cultural lens. She writes:

The virus has moved freely along the pathways of trade and international capital, and the terrible illness it has brought in its wake has locked humans down in their countries, their cities and their homes. But unlike the flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.

(Roy 2020, para. 4—5)

Critical cultural (populist) literacy enables information and media consumers to look beyond the problem at hand and instead incorporate context and new perspectives in order to seek community-empowered solutions and change.

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