Cultural sensitivity means critically assessing how other people’s backgrounds and our assumptions about these affect the way we behave when we are with them. The assumptions are not always conscious, and for that reason it is a good idea to take time to reflect on them.
In youth work, the concept of cultural sensitivity is often linked to gender sensitivity. Sometimes we refer to multicultural youth work. However, a culture-sensitive approach not only focuses on groups classified as “multicultural” but on how assumptions about culture and background are made about everyone. The changing nature of meanings associated with expressions such as “culture” or “multiculturalism” is also taken into account.
Gender sensitivity recognises the impact of gender and other characteristics on a person’s growth, development and well-being. A gender-sensitive approach pays attention to how people are treated from a gender perspective.
According to Airin Bahmani and Veronika Honkasalo, the development of anti-racist working practices should be an integral part of the multicultural approach. This is also what young people wish to see in youth work. A sensitive approach in youth work does not only mean that the aim is to take into account the different backgrounds of and other differences between young people. What is equally important is for adults who work with young people to try to be aware of their own values and attitudes, and to make sure they do not impose them on young people.
Cultural sensitivity is an actively anti-racist orientation. None of us live outside the surrounding norms and power structures. Work to promote diversity, however, will never be done, but tackling phenomena such as racism will require constant efforts made by us, others and society as a whole. Researcher Veronika Honkasalo writes that “anti-racism should be seen more as the starting point for multicultural work, whereby multiculturalism is understood as a continuous movement and process for which there are no ready-made models or tools”.
In practical terms, cultural and gender sensitivity can be reflected in the choices made in both open activities and closed group activities. Depending on the circumstances and the group, the best solution may be open activities for everyone, while sometimes it is best to offer activities aimed exclusively at girls or young people from refugee backgrounds. The ‘From their media to our media’ project, for example, has had mixed groups open to all genders as well as activities aimed exclusively at girls and young women. The mixed groups turned out to consist mainly of participants who were boys or men, so there was a good reason to take participants’ gender into account in the activities. It is also important to take into account gender diversity in targeted activities and to avoid making any assumptions about anyone’s gender.
The culturally and gender-sensitive approach does not seek to create new differences but to identify existing differences between people so that it is possible to minimise the resulting negative phenomena and to aspire to equality. The things that affect young people in a negative way can be diverse: differences in language skills, understanding of the Finnish media environment and Finnish culture in general or access to resources such as computers and software, for example. The purpose of cultural sensitivity is not to divide people into new groups, but to identify barriers in the environment and activities the removal of which would strengthen the inclusion and agency of people from different backgrounds.