The Danger of Cultural In-competence

Every generation has its own way of expressing itself through slang, dress and music. Things that are “cool” for one generation become “hot” for another. Fashion that is popular during one decade is reversed by the next. Clothing styles move from baggy to fitted; long to short. That’s the way it’s always been and yet such changing trends these days can have serious implications, especially for youth of color.

In the spring of 1989 teenagers from New York City were hanging out in the park. Someone (not them) committed a serious crime against a young woman who had been out jogging, and before they knew it, several of the kids were pulled into a police station for questioning. When asked what they were doing they said they were “wildin’.” The use of this term was spun to infer that they were admitting to running around engaged in criminal activity, when in reality it was just young person’s vernacular for having fun together or in other words just socializing. “Wildin’” was slang, not a confession. Tragically, these young men were intimidated into making false admissions, prosecuted and incarcerated for many years. The Central Park Five were ultimately exonerated in 2002, but only after spending years in prison, being cheated out of an education, as well as their youth.

Trayvon Martin was walking in his father’s neighborhood in Sanford, Florida talking on his cell phone and wearing a hoody. Despite the fact that a hoody is commonly worn by youth from all backgrounds (on some level a fashion statement) George Zimmerman thought he looked out of place. Zimmerman, as well as many others across the country, stereotyped this attire and assumed that it meant that Trayvon was up to no good. The result was dire as Trayvon was killed in part due to this misinterpretation.

In 2012, Jordan Davis was in his car at a gas station with his friends in Jacksonville, Florida listening to loud music as is typical for teenagers to do. A complete stranger who also was getting gas took it upon himself to challenge the youth about their music. He then claimed that he feared for his life and ended up shooting at them and killing Jordan. It’s hard not to wonder whether his trepidations would have been the same if he and the youth were of the same culture?

Why is it that some youth can express themselves freely whether through rainbow colored hair, black “Goth” clothing and make-up, or other provocative representation with little more than a raised eyebrow, and yet others are presumed dangerous or otherwise worthy of suspicion and confrontation? Is there a cultural disconnect that can explain this? And if so, what are our obligations to address it?

At a minimum, it should be imperative that someone in a position of authority be held to a higher standard. Perhaps cultural competency training might help familiarize such individuals to common colloquial phrases and behavior – to keep them up to date with the rapidly changing youth culture.

Teachers, law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers and judges are among those who play critical roles in the lives of youth. Their decisions can mean the difference between kids staying in school or being expelled; remaining with their families or being sent to confinement; being killed or staying alive. We have a responsibility to the youth of each generation to allow them all to express themselves. We don’t have to like their style, but we must do what is necessary to ensure that decisions that impact them are unbiased, just and fair.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at

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