Becoming Culturally Responsive

August 24, 2023, Feature, by Tracee Hall, MPA

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How parks and recreation can cultivate cultural responsiveness by addressing implicit bias and microaggressions

Discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are commonplace now. Organizations and industries, such as NRPA, outline research and best practices to provide services and amenities in a manner that is fair and welcoming to all residents and visitors.

Often, DEI efforts consist of performative measures, such as diversity statements and celebratory cultural events, which are important. However, to instill DEI practices throughout an agency, transformative actions must take place. Instilling culturally responsive values and actions is a way to begin transformative DEI initiatives.

Cultural responsiveness begins with seeking to understand identities, experiences and values from various cultures and groups. Child Welfare Information Gateway states that cultural responsiveness “enables individuals and organizations to respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values their worth. Being culturally responsive requires having the ability to understand cultural differences, recognize potential biases, and look beyond differences to work productively with children, families, and communities whose cultural contexts are different from one’s own.” 

Organizations can begin their culturally responsive journey by helping employees understand and address implicit biases and microaggressions.

Implicit Bias

Implicit biases are preconscious thoughts — and often snap judgements — that fire off in our brains faster than we can suppress them. Our brains process more unconscious and sensory information than our conscious mind. Thus, our brains look for shortcuts and automatically categorize our unconscious thoughts in such areas as physical ability, race, gender assignment or identification, age, and religion. These thoughts affect our judgements, actions and decisions. If they are rooted in any type of bias, even unintentionally, a preconscious thought will impact how we treat others. In matters requiring rational evaluation, our brain’s implicit bias often is wrong. The impetus for our bias(es) may be based on experiences, generational family values or images portrayed in the media, but usually are contrary to our expressed beliefs.

An implicit bias may stem from a real-life experience, but it is not definitive or accurate for all similar situations. Consider this: A person in a purple shirt was rude to you, and it made you very upset. Does that mean that everyone in purple shirts will be rude? No. However, your brain may see a purple shirt, revert to the feeling you felt during that experience, and automatically form a bias about people in purple shirts. But you probably never would tell your friends that you don’t like people in purple shirts, because that would sound absurd.

It also is important to understand why a bias may seem confirmed to you and assess if systemic issues and discrimination have played a factor. In Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” she states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Implicit bias can serve as a foundation for stereotypes, discrimination and racism. Park and recreation organizations committed to transformative DEI work must self-analyze, determine and remediate how bias impacts their work environments, customer service and programming.

Examples of Implicit Bias in Parks and Recreation

Location of sports amenities – Have you ever heard statements similar to, “People in that area will never use tennis courts” or “Those people will only play basketball”? If so, implicit bias and incomplete information were involved, and possibly were used in future development decisions. This often happens because an individual or an organization predetermines and/or assumes that certain sports won’t be played in a particular area, thus an amenity won’t be built based on demographics, such as legal status, income, location or race. A culturally responsive organization will ask the questions, “What is this belief founded in?” “Is this my opinion or a proven fact?” and “What can we do to change that, if true?” Consider how historical issues — such as racism — created systemic, discriminatory impacts. Often, the reason certain groups do not have large representation in a sport or activity is because of historical lack of access due to race and income disparities. Thus, many outdoor activities and sports have historically been underrepresented by marginalized demographics.

Summer camps/Afterschool programs – Although summer camps and afterschool programs do not exactly mirror school and classroom environments, they do have similar structures in that there are instructors, participants and behavior policies. As a practice, agencies should evaluate their conduct codes and behavior policies for these programs and how discipline and redirection are disseminated amongst participants. This is important because research has shown that children from non-dominant groups, particularly African American boys, are targeted when instructors and administrators are looking for deviant and defiant behavior over children from dominant groups.

Such policies are written to be facially neutral and provide clear instruction on rules for all participants. However, those rules often are applied biasedly because of implicit biases. Multiple studies have concluded that Black and Latino students are punished more severely than white students in school for the same infractions and more harshly than students from dominant groups in the criminal justice system for the same offenses. In 2016, NPR released the article, “Bias Isn’t Just a Police Problem, It’s a Preschool Problem.” The article included Walter Gilliam’s research from the Yale Child Study Center, noting that implicit bias caused preschool teachers to look for disruptive behaviors in African American boys at higher rates than other preschool children.

With this research in mind, it is imperative that departments train park and recreation staff to be consistent in the application of rules and progressive discipline. Organizations can follow up by auditing and evaluating discipline statistics compared to participant demographics. This practice also is beneficial for workplace personnel reviews. What’s more, implicit bias can factor into performance evaluations, wage increases and discipline determinations if the practices are not done in an objective and consistent manner.


Implicit bias is evidenced through microaggressive words and behaviors. Microaggressions are defined as subtle words or actions about a member of a marginalized group that are not intended to be offensive, but nonetheless, have a negative impact. It is important to note that impact determines the effect, not intent. Microaggressions often are said regarding, or done to people related to, protected categories, such as race, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, religion, ability and socioeconomic class.

Microaggressions can impact our work environments and the provided customer service negatively. With microaggressions, what might seem as a singular, innocuous comment is received as insensitive, racist, and often is another incident compounding other similar experiences. They create uncomfortable situations and take a mental toll on the recipients. Research has shown that experiencing microaggressions repeatedly causes psychological impacts over time. Breaking the Prejudice Habit has an online video that compares microaggressions to mosquito bites. While small in nature, they can leave a stinging and sometimes lasting impact, especially when received often.

You may have heard common microaggressive statements, but do you understand why they are offensive?

  • Do you speak English? An assumption often based on appearance only
  • You speak good English for an immigrant. The stereotype that people do not immigrate from English-speaking countries and/or the assumption that someone is an immigrant because they are a minority
  • How many times has Johnny been in trouble? A presumptive statement that Johnny has been in trouble previously
  • Some of my best friends are (insert the non-dominant group). Comes across as a justification someone is not racist, but it does not alleviate a person from exhibiting bias, discrimination or racism; also, often the term “friend” is conflated with an “acquaintance” whose life experiences are not understood by the other party
  • You’re so articulate. Comes across as though the speaker is surprised that the person is articulate for a (insert the non-dominant group)
  • I don’t see color. Completely dismisses someone’s experience, physical features and culture
  • I don’t really think of you as (insert the non-dominant group). Denotes there is a specific perception of how that group acts, looks, etc.
  • You’re pretty/handsome for a (insert the protected category). The “for a” insinuates an expectation people in that category are not typically pretty nor handsome
  • Anything including “you people …” or “those people …”  Assuming all in a group do or say anything unanimously is embracing stereotypes, and the phrases largely are thought of as racist
  • “If you can’t afford the program, we have scholarships.” An assumption about what someone can afford based on race or appearance
  • “Just calm down.” It is important to distinguish between someone who is expressive or uses a louder tone versus someone who is disruptive or threatening
  • “I couldn’t tell you have a disability.” An assumption that all disabilities are physical and visible
  • “I am pleasantly surprised by your success in this role.” Infers there was an expectation for the person to not be successful

DEI Solutions

There are also some general actions individuals and organizations can do to aid in acknowledging our biases and preventing microaggressions.

  • Slow down decision making. Stop. Think. What made you come to this decision about something or someone? Could you be wrong?
  • Identify and acknowledge your biases. Be honest with yourself about your biases and how they factor into your interactions with others and your decision making.
  • Question your stereotypes. If you have general beliefs about a group, ask yourself where they come from. Is it based on what you’ve seen in the media or in entertainment? Is it based on one experience? And remember, no group is without exceptions.
  • Ask questions about assumptions. Why did you say/think that? How did you come to that determination? Tell me what you meant by that statement? Questions such as these can help people evaluate what is said or done.
  • Distinguish instinct versus analysis. Some scenarios require quick thinking to address a concern, or at times, you may have a “gut feeling” about something or someone. That is instinct. However, there are times when decisions should be made after analyzing information.
  • Use objective measures. Create evaluation tools that are not solely based on subjectivity.
  • Consider installation versus application. Implement a tool or process to help discern if policies are applied fairly and equitably.
  • Survey. Create and implement internal surveys that ask questions about being a culturally responsive work environment and ensure your participant and community surveys ask questions from a culturally responsive lens.
  • “DEI” every project and goal. In areas such as programming, park design, master planning, events and amenities, consider if the organization is being diverse, inclusive and equitable.

Individual and collective efforts to understand and address our implicit biases and microaggressions help us to work and serve our communities effectively and create better work conditions. Addressing implicit biases and microaggressions will aid the park and recreation field in transformative efforts to ensure welcoming and equitable environments.

Tracee Hall, MPA, is Assistant Director of City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.