Module 7: Exploring Culture

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Module 6: Indigeneity and Colonialism
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Module 7: Exploring Culture
Module 8: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain the concept of culture and its complexities.
  • Describe the dominant (white) cultural ethos and its alternatives.
  • Articulate how culture manifests in your library.


Up to this point, we have focused almost exclusively on race and racism. To move forward with our work, we need to add an understanding of the concept of culture. In future modules, we will explore what it means to be culturally competent and culturally humble, as well as what it looks like when we implement culturally relevant and culturally sustaining pedagogies. Before we can engage with any of these ideas, however, we must have a foundational understanding of what culture is and how it works.


If possible, find a colleague and answer the following questions as a way of getting to know each other better:

  1. What was your favorite song in your senior year of high school?
  2. What is your favorite holiday or celebration, and why?
  3. How do you usually greet new people?
  4. How do you usually greet people from your family of origin?

If you can’t share these with a colleague, then just make notes of your answers.
Now think about each of these questions as they relate to culture. What aspect of culture is each addressing?
Click here to see our answers.

  1. Music
  2. Holidays
  3. Greetings
  4. Family relationships

Make a list of other aspects of culture. Try to go beyond just food and festivals.
Click here to see our list.

  • Technology
  • Music
  • Foods
  • Art
  • Games
  • Social roles (gender, parenting)
  • Language (which language we speak, connotations with specific words in a language)
  • Rituals
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Values
  • Beliefs
  • Definitions of key concepts such as family

Each of the aspects of culture identified here is not a fixed trait of a person, but rather something that arises from how that person participates in the activities, or practices, of the communities they are a part of (Gutierrez and Rogoff, 2003).  Each person has a dynamic repertoire of these practices, which “is developed, refined, and transformed through an individuals’ prolonged participation in cultural communities” (Parsons, Travis, and Simpson, 2005, p. 186). These practices may be explicit, like playing games, or implicit, like sharing values. The iceberg model of culture, explained below, explores this distinction between explicit and implicit cultural practices.


Watch this video to learn about the iceberg model of culture.


In her book chapter, “Multicultural Teacher Introspection,” Nitza Hidalgo (1993) goes beyond the iceberg model’s distinction between explicit and implicit culture to identify three levels of culture: concrete, behavioral, and symbolic.

  1. Concrete: Visible, tangible, material, cultural products and artifacts
  2. Behavioral: Reflects values; social roles, language, non-verbal communication, political affiliation
  3. Symbolic: Implicit, abstract, values, beliefs, spirituality, religion

In this activity, sort the aspects from our list above into these three levels. If you identified aspects that we didn’t, think about how you would assign those to one of these levels as well.

You may feel that some aspects fit on more than one level. That may be the case; the boundaries between these levels are not rigid.


Think about your own culture. What is most important to how you think about yourself? At which level of culture do those aspects of your culture operate?

Now think about your library’s or school’s culture. Generate a list of how different aspects of culture manifest in your library or school.
Stumped? Click here to see a few example ideas.

  • Noise level
  • Greetings between staff and young people
  • Procedures for handling materials
  • Expectations regarding technology use
  • Bell schedules
  • Assessments
  • Lunchtime expectations

Now sort these aspects of culture according to whether they are symbolic, behavioral, or concrete. Is one level represented more than the others?

Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede has spent decades mapping the dimensions of national culture. With his colleagues, he has identified “six basic issues that society needs to come to term with in order to organize itself.” He calls this the 6-D model of National Culture. The six dimensions are:

  • Individualism
  • Power distance
  • Masculinity
  • Uncertainty avoidance
  • Long-term orientation
  • Indulgence

Read this web page for descriptions of each dimension as well as view videos of Hofstede explaining each dimension.

If we consider these six dimensions individually and collectively, we can arrive at a description of “American culture.”

Read this archived web page for Hofstede’s analysis of culture in the United States.

Pediatrics educator Marcia Carteret adds the following dimensions in her consideration of the dominant culture in the United States:

  • Time and its control
  • Task-orientation vs. relationship-orientation
  • Comfort with change
  • Personal control over destiny
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Status
  • Language

Libraries and schools tend to express much of their culture through behavioral aspects. Many people, however, define themselves more by their symbolic culture: their values and beliefs. Remember, though, that behavioral aspects of culture often reflect more symbolic aspects of culture.

As Hidalgo points out, “When asked to define themselves ethnically and culturally, some educators have a very difficult time… The difficulty often stems from previous schooling and socialization since the Anglo-European perspective in schools defines the average ‘American’ as one who is White” (1993, p. 102). Dominant culture can be difficult for white people to discern, but “when one examines the ‘common culture,’ the core is primarily Anglo-European values, beliefs, and achievements” (Hidalgo 1993, p. 103). “White culture” is, in fact, a culture.

Who is…

Dr. Nitza M. Hidalgo

Dr. Nitza HidalgoDr. Nitza M. Hidalgo is a Professor of Education at Westfield State University. Her past research focused on multicultural education. Her current research focuses on Latino feminism.


Respond to the following prompt in your journal:

Libraries, like households, have culture – unspoken “rules” and norms that determine how people act and relate to one another. In many organizations in the United States, including libraries, workplace and organizational cultures reflect whiteness in ways that can be harmful for BIPOC and BIYOC. Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun call this “white supremacy culture.” Examples include individualism, objectivity, either/or thinking, and an emphasis on quantity over quality. Read the full article for additional indicators of white supremacy culture along with examples and antidotes.

After reading the article, reflect on the following questions in your journal:

  • Which of these characteristics are evident in your library?
  • How do they negatively impact BIYOC?
  • What can you and your colleagues do to shift the belief(s) and behavior(s) to ones that support racial justice?

Nitza Hidalgo offers the following additional questions as examples of things you might consider when reflecting on your library culture:

  • How are our values expressed in [library] dynamics with children [and teens]?
  • How do we perceive authority? Does authority come with an ascribed role?
  • What do we consider appropriate behavior for children [and teens] when interacting with adults?
  • What kinds of verbal and nonverbal interactions would we consider appropriate between children [or teens] and the [librarian]? (Hidalgo 1993, p. 105-106)


Take a moment to consider the characteristics of dominant or white culture shared above. Can you generate any alternatives to these ways of operating in the world?
Click here for examples.

A research-based alternative to white culture is the Black Cultural Ethos, originally described by Dr. A. Wade Boykin. Dr. Boykin identifies “nine dimensions that characterize how African Americans perceive, interpret, and interact with the world, particularly those who live in low-income communities” (Bracy, Hughes-Hassell, & Rawson, 2017, p. 32). These nine dimensions include:

  1. Spirituality: approaching life as essentially vitalistic and conducting one’s life as though supreme forces govern it
  2. Affect: placing a premium on emotions/feelings
  3. Harmony: viewing one’s fate as being interrelated with other elements of life
  4. Oral Tradition: emphasizing oral and aural modes of communication and cultivating oral virtuosity
  5. Social perspective of time: an orientation of time as passing through a social space; time is seen as recurring, personal, and phenomenological
  6. Expressive individualism: the cultivation of a distinct personality and a proclivity for spontaneous, genuine personal expression
  7. Verve: preferring intense stimulation, variability, and action that is energetic, alive, and colorful
  8. Communalism: a commitment to social connectedness; being sensitive to the interdependence of people and committing to social connectedness over individual privileges
  9. Movement: interweaving of the ideas of rhythm and percussiveness often associated with music and dance into daily life (Bracy & Hughes Hassell 2017, citing Boykin 1983, 1986)
Who is…

Dr. A. Wade Boykin

Dr. Wade Boykin

Dr. A. Wade Boykin is a Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in the Department of Psychology at Howard University. He is also the Executive Director of Capstone Institute at Howard University, formally known as the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk (CRESPAR). Dr. Boykin’s work focuses on research methodology, the interface of culture, context, motivation and cognition, Black child development, and academic achievement in the American social context. He is the co-author of the book Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap with Dr. Pedro Noguera.

At first glance, this model might seem to conflate race and culture. Race and culture are two separate concepts, and it is never safe to assume a person’s culture based on their race, or vice versa. While culture is neither race-dependent nor race-determined, however, it can be associated with race in the United States because of the U.S.’s history of physical segregation of ethnic and racial groups. Culture “includes practices that emerge from prolonged participation in particular communities” (Parsons, Travis, and Simpson, 2005). Because physically-bounded, geographic communities in the U.S. have historically been organized based on race and ethnicity, there will be some association between race and culture in spite of the lack of a dependent or deterministic relationship between them.


Now that you have explored alternatives to white supremacy culture, think about:

  • What existing examples of alternatives to white supremacy culture are evident in your library?
  • How might you change current practices to challenge and disrupt white supremacy culture in your library?

But Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

I want to learn more about other cultures and celebrate them, but how can I do that without being guilty of cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is a hot-button issue right now, and you may have heard everything from feather earrings to certain Halloween costumes  described using this phrase. But what is “cultural appropriation,” and how is it different from appreciating or celebrating different cultures?

Cultural appropriation is usully defined as “taking or using something from a culture that is not your own,” especially if you do so in a way that shows that you don’t understand or respect its cultural origins. But it’s more complicated than that. Dr. Shameem Black, a professor of gender, media, and cultural studies, clarifies:

“When I try to think about how to define it, the way I’ve come to now think of it is not necessarily so much about cross cultural engagement as it is an indication of a strong split…. between how enthusiastically a cultural product or process from a part of the world is received and how enthusiastically the people from that region are received.”

In other words, when cultural products like Native headdresses are celebrated at fashion shows and music festivals, but actual Native people are oppressed, that is cultural appropriation. Dr. Janna Thompson, an associate professor at La Trobe University, adds that consent of the original culture for their cultural items or processes to be used is also critical. For an expanded discussion of these ideas, read What Exactly Is Cultural Appropriation? Here’s What You Need To Know by Emily Blatchford and watch the video below. Both of these resources unpack the concept of cultural appropriation and explore how people can appreciate and celebrate other cultures in respectful ways.



Boykin, A.W. (1983). The academic performance of Afro-American children. In J.T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motives psychological and sociological approaches. (pp. 324-371). New York: W.H. Freeman.

Boykin, A.W. (1986). The triple quandary and the schooling of Afro-American children. In U. Neisser (Ed.), The school achievement of minority children: New perspectives. (pp. 57-92). Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Bracy, P. B., Hughes-Hassell, S., & Rawson, C. H. (2017). Culturally relevant pedagogy and the Black Cultural Ethos. In S. Hughes-Hassell, P. B. Bracy, & C. H. Rawson (Eds.), Libraries, Literacy, and AFrican American Male Youth: Research and Practice (pp. 31-48). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Bracy, P.B. and Hughes-Hassell, S. Libraries, literacy, and African American youth [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from

Gutiérrez, K. D., & Rogoff, B. (2003). Cultural ways of learning: Individual traits or repertoires of practice. Educational Researcher, 32(5), 19–25.

Hidalgo, N. M. (1993). Multicultural teacher introspection. In T. Perry & J. W. Fraser (Eds.), Freedom’s Plow: Teaching in the Multicultural Classroom (pp. 99-106). New York, NY: Routledge.

Parsons, E.C., Travis, C., & Simpson, J. S. (2005). The Black Cultural Ethos, students’ instructional context preferences, and student achievement: An examination of culturally congruent science instruction in the eighth grade classes of one African American and one Euro-American teacher. The Negro Educational Review, 56(2-3), p.183-204.

Go Back:
Module 6: Indigeneity and Colonialism
You Are Here:
Module 7: Exploring Culture
Module 8: Cultural Competence and Cultural Humility