Principles of Capability

The students at CDU have reflected on a selection of cultural capabilities as they applied to their lived experiences and observations, then developed their own principles.

The following work is a selection of their critical reflections.

Priscilla Jones and Hannah Singer

Principle 1:  ways to recognize and manage bias in your professional and academic relationships 

I am aware that my strongest bias is age related, though I’ve never critically analysed it before confirmation from the Implicit Association Tests (IAT), (Harvard,2011). Upon reflective practice, I understand my ageism in relation to power in a professional context. I hold negative expectations of interacting with elderly people because I expect xenophobic, sexist attitudes or antiquated worldviews from communicating with people markedly older than myself. Examining my biases has brought awareness of a strong pattern for ‘out-grouping’, wherein I see individuals as representatives of a group that I do not belong to. Accordingly, Binna Kandola (2013), aligns this to an ‘out-group’ representation of bias, in which one perceives others as group members rather than individuals, associating them as homogenous and holding negative views of this societal group. As such, I consciously prioritise professional relationships with younger persons in my work as a community carer, as I expect unsatisfactory dealings with elderly people.

However, it is my working purpose as an advocate to appeal for empowering outcomes for all persons, regardless of my personal opinions or beliefs. By assessing power relations to bias, conscious adjustments of judgements can be made, which can alter interpersonal communications. As such, coercive power can be considered as operating from unchecked bias, whereas a collaborative approach fosters a collective structure of power, through applications of respect and equity (Cummins, 2013). As Cummins (2009) alludes, examining power relations and social interaction is required for forming equitable outcomes. Thinking towards my future in humanitarian services, I will be more critical of systemic power relations and professional biases related to elderly people, as well as differences depending on cultural context.


Bias can be defined as “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived ” (Dictionary online, 2020). We are faced with situations in our daily life where we hold bias, weather this is conscious or not and this can impact both our professional and academic life. Working in the disability sector, I see first-hand how bias can impact the well-being of individuals. Looking at the disability focused Harvard IAT test (‘Disabled-Abled’ IAT, 2011)  I was interested that my result was ‘no automatic preference’ to disabled or abled individuals. Having worked in this field for many years upon reflection, when I first started in this industry I held a bias towards disabled people as I had little understanding or experience surrounding their way of life. When entering my current role as a disability planner I held a coercive relation of power (Cummins, 2009) towards the individuals I worked with as I saw them as my “clients” and held the bias that because I had education and training, I knew what support they needed. As Kandola (2013) explores, in the three main ways in which individuals hold bias, I was stereotyping and holding a negative disposition towards people with a disability, viewing them as an “out-group”. It was through critical self-reflection and working in a government organisation that follows strict policies and procedures to ensure no bias I was able to change my view and my understanding of power. I now come from a more collaborative relation of power approach (Cummins. 2009) by which I empower the individual to communicate their needs. As bias is an individual problem, it takes a conscious effort to self-reflect and ask, “Am I, are we, being fair?” (Kandola, 2013). It is imperative that I continue to self-reflect so that I am professional with the individuals I work with and manage my bias towards others so that I can work collaboratively with them.

Principle #2 : How do you create better power relations in shared learning and cultural border crossings; what adjustment is needed

Personal relations to power are commonly predetermined by the role definitions we enact  throughout various cultural contexts, depending on the cultural norms we become acclimatised to. A cultural border crossing I make, shifting from business director to student presents an example of the dichotomy in role definitions between professional and educational cultures. Aikenhead (1996), describes cultural border crossings metaphorically as subliminal behavioural adaptations made when moving between different subcultures and how one conducts themselves between various roles and cultures. Adjusting to digital culture indicates another cultural border crossing between class based learning to external study. The way in which I communicate with peers and teaching staff online is decidedly more professional and formal than how I present myself more casually in face to face classroom settings. Analysing power relations in transition from an employer to an undergraduate student illustrates contrast between coercive and collaborative power constructs. I Identify more coercive aspects of power by being a dominant authority over a group of others in comparison to experiencing more flexible experiences of power in academic learning. Feeling supported and enabled to gain knowledge is an inclusive and collective experience, demonstrating an imbalance of power between the two forms. Considering how power may either strengthen or weaken interactions between others creates opportunities for engagement in more equitable and inclusive relationships with power (Cummins, 2009). From this perspective, coercive power can also be considered as operating from unchecked bias, whereas a collaborative approach fosters a mutable power structure through applications of respect, collaboration and empowerment. A cultural border crossing is a metaphorical journey that a person makes from one culture or subculture to another (Aikenhead, 1996). As a society we experience cultural boarder crossing’s through our daily life experience. We need to recognize and be aware of these inherent border crossings and subcultures in order to understand and adapt to different cultural perspectives (Aikenhead, 1996).

In my role as a disability coordinator I step through these cultural borders from the office environment, which often presents with a dictator style leadership or coercive relation of power (Cummins, 2009), between staff members and management. This then transitions to a client’s home environment which requires a more collaborative power approach (Cummins, 2009), where I interact with parents to empower them to seek support for their child. When I cross this border, it can be difficult as I have to quickly adjust to the family’s cultural ideas, beliefs and expectations when I enter their home. I need to use my previous experience to adapt my communication style to engage effectively with families, keeping in mind how different cultures prefer to engage. This could mean that I need to modify my language, body language or even personal presentation to be more relatable to the family. Each family I meet with has subcultures in which they exist that can be identified by race, language, religion, gender and occupation. These subcultures can differ from my own so I need to be conscious of my own bias as it is imperative that I am respectful and professional to families irrespective of these subcultures. In order to successfully transition between these cultural borders I need to continue to self-reflect on my relation of power to make sure I am working with families collaboratively and have awareness of not only the cultural border crossings but also the families subcultures so that I alter my behaviours accordingly.

Principle #3: how do you build learning relationships across cultures by developing equity and acknowledging privilege

Establishing culturally respectful frameworks involves acknowledgement of privilege systems by conscious assessment of personal relationships to both advantage and disadvantage. Likewise, cross cultural communication requires skilled empathic practice, self- reflection and awareness of the influence of one’s own cultural realities. I have come to understand denial of privilege as complimentary to a hegemonic belief that equal opportunities exist for anyone that works hard enough to earn them, resulting to mixed messages about privilege and inequality. McIntosh (1988) resonates cultural conditioning I have received, being raised with awareness of disadvantages of others, though without any recognition of personal advantages. This alludes to disavowed birth rights synonymous with white, middle class descendance, as well as unresolved blame and guilt defenses associated with racialized responsibility. McIntosh’s (1998) invaluable insight to drawing compassion and empathy from privilege resolves that unearned advantages, once acknowledged, can be channeled positively to raise up others who experience unearned disadvantages. Taken literally, cultural competency can be considered an essential prerequisite of intercultural communication, with other concepts able to foster higher levels of cultural respect and empathy. Engagement in deeper aspects of inclusivity, equity literacy develops equitable outcomes by emphasising on advocacy with tailored approaches, and a commitment to dialogue and education. Gorski (2014) suggests that cultural knowledge is expanded to create personalisation through cultural proficiency, then progressed again by equity literacy, which promotes diversity and equitable social conditions. Disrupting oppressive ideologies of political, cultural and economic domination reduces the superiority of a privileged group and leads to greater capabilities for a more just society. Therefore, awareness of privilege systems and knowledge sharing through culturally respectful communication can lead to promising developments.


Without understanding and acknowledging our own cultural privilege and cultural bias we are unable to practice cultural respect and empathy to others. In my current employment it is important that I have a level of cultural competence and proficiency (Gorski, 2014), before and during meetings with clients and their families. In order for this to be achieved I research the cultural background of the client to learn about their culture diversity, identities and rituals. I also take the time to listen to their stories and concerns in order to gain understanding on their home life and being able to communicate and engage with them in a respectful way. Growing up, I did not see myself as an unfairly advantaged person or a participant of a damaged culture (McIntosh, 1988). Upon reflection I can see that, being from a white middle-class family, I was provided with opportunities that others did not have such as access to health care, food, education, career opportunities and safety. Although my parents taught me to be accepting of all cultures, I did not see my “whiteness” as a racial identity (McIntosh, 1988), and therefore was unable to acknowledge my privilege. Without truly acknowledging my privilege I was unable to practice cultural empathy towards others. When working with a family I need to be free of judgment and recognise the perspective of the family as their truth in order to show empathy and cultural respect to connect with the client (Brene Brown, 2013).

Principle #4: what does ‘diverse’ mean to you, about how you understand and respect diversity

Working in disability services, I interpret mainstream concepts of inclusivity and diversity as superficial sentiments. I see recipients placated by accountability practises, marketed as empowerment strategies which favour corporate compliance over endorsements for people of diverse abilities. Bali (2016) exemplifies disingenuous empowerment that dominant groups personify through rhetoric to pacify popular social responsibilities instead of deconstructing presiding authorities to represent minorities equitably. Through this lens, diversity is evident when fringe voices no longer experience cultural oppression by dominant forces. Coercive power inhibits narratives of diversity and inclusivity, demonstrating benefits of adopting collaborative power relations for socially equitable outcomes. Reflecting current trends in disability support, traditional, institutionalised treatment is shifting to self-directed management. Through developments to empower disabled people in their own decision making, a change in power relations was instrumental. Contemplating obstacles associated with diversity advocation, Bali (2016) calls for strength in numbers and diligent opposition required to succeed cultural equity. In context of disability, changes initiated by advocacy organisations have driven social awareness and held government accountable to systemic reforms, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Considering the divisive polarisation in society, perhaps cultural exposure has been mistaken for cultural inclusivity. Inclusion seems like a token of acculturation by majority cultures, instead of respectful and mutually beneficial cultural exchanges. Incorporating alternative knowledges alongside dominant ideologies, critical thinking skills can enable deeper understanding of different perspectives, not with intent to homogenise, but to create inclusive cultural communication. Endorsing impartiality, Bali (2016) emphasises education’s capacity for improving intercultural communications that are underrepresented in dominant culture. Critical assessment affirms multiple worldviews to increase cultural intelligence to support generative interactions for mutually beneficial and respectful cultural exchanges.

Diversity to me means engaging with people from a range of backgrounds and making an intentional effort to understand and acknowledge peoples differences in the workplace in order to work collaboratively. Diversity shows up in my workplace in many different forms, from a person’s past work experience, culture, gender, age and knowledge. As Bali (2016) states to gain a better view of different perspectives we need to be exposed to diversity through engaging in a collaborative power of relations (Cummins, 2009). By openly discussing our diversity we are able to learn from and challenge each other in critical thinking and self reflection. Although there are frameworks and systems within my workplace that are needed to be followed, providing opportunities for all staff to discuss openly about their approach to work provides a sense of empowerment and inclusion. By celebrating each others diversity in the workplace through sharing different cultural ideas, beliefs, foods and values while also celebrating different traditions we are developing a sense of inclusivity which in turn makes for a positive working environment. As Bali (2016), states it is important to have understanding around terminology we are using and how we can generate conversation that removes the dominant voice to create an environment where alternative perspectives are heard, this prevents there being a coercive power of relations (Cummins, 2009) in the classroom and office.    By realising that not all views are represented equally and making an effort to change the discussions to represent them we are able to build a more inclusive and empowering learning and work environment.






Reference list

Aikenhead, G. (1996) Science Education: Border Crossing into the Subculture of Science.

Bali, M (2016) Unpacking Terms around equity, power and privilege.

Cummins, J. (2009). Pedagogies of choice: Challenging coercive relations of power in classrooms and communities. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 12(3), 261-271

Cummins, J. (2013). Multilingual Education for Social Justice: From Coercive to Collaborative Relations of Power  [Paper presentation]. 4th International Conference on Language and Education: Multilingual Education for All in Asia and the Pacific – Policies, Practises and processes. (2020).  Retrieved August 10th, 2020 from

Gorski, P. (2014) Imagining equity literacy

Harvard University – Project Implicit. (2011). Implicit Association Test (IAT).

Kandola, B (2013). Reimagining Self and Other: Diffusing bias, presentation

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.




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