Review of “Structural Competency: A Framework for Racial Justice Intervention in Student Affairs Preparation and Practice”
Overview of the article
Whitman and Jayakumar (2023) introduces Structural Competency as a framework for student affairs practitioners to approach racial oppression in higher education. The competency encourages student affairs professionals to reflect on how the policies, practices, training, and norms of the profession contribute to structural violence and often ignore students of colors’ structural vulnerability through a CRT lens. They compare this to cultural competency as a means for filling the gaps in that framework that address more “surface level” issues of race and diversity.
The competency is adapted from Metzl and Hansen’s (2014) structural competency combating inequality in the medical field. With this they add an additional tenet that addresses intersectionality of race and structural vulnerabilities. Jayakumar and Whitman posit themselves as student affairs professionals of color hoping to present a framework for student affairs practitioners to utilize that adequately accounts for the systems of oppression that hinder & harm students of color’s personal and academic success. They affirm that structural competency addresses more systemic issues that students of color face on a daily basis from the very systems that student affairs and institutional agents explicitly and implicitly uphold regularly.
As a Black woman, first generation college student, currently pursuing a masters degree in higher education student affairs at a Predominately White Institution and pursuing a career in Higher Education Student Affairs, I am interested in exploring ways to further incorporate CRT and a framework for addressing systemic issues that impact students of color. I utilize a CRT lens and in my work endeavor to advocate for students of color through institutional policy reform and development and praxis.
The proposed competency consists of five structural competency tenets from the health field adapted for student affairs and one added tenet:
“(1) recognizing how racialized structures shape student-practitioner relations and interactions, (2) to name racist structures on postsecondary campuses and greater communities, and to develop a language for naming structural racism in the training and onboarding of student affairs professionals, (3) rearticulating “cultural” presentations aligned with deficit assumptions, in structural terms, (4) observing and re-imagining structural interventions that resist white normativity, (5) developing structural humility toward an ongoing critical race praxis, (6) taking a structural intersectionality approach.” (Whitman & Jayakumar, 2023).
I want to acknowledge my appreciation for the tenets and proposed competency. There is a lot of value in the work presented and a need for student affairs practitioners and institution agents to notice systemic barriers and oppressive systems that affect and negatively impact students of color when exploring policy, interactions, etc. With this, I will focus on key tenets that can benefit from being further developed and critiqued to successfully implement structural competency.
Tenet two of Structural Competency notes the importance to name racist structures on post secondary campuses and the greater community. Additionally, the need to develop a language for naming structural racism for training and onboardings of student affairs professionals. Using the CRT tenet curing silence through storytelling and language, once it is named it can be combated (Delgado, 2017). However they never go on to introduce a proposed language. Granted this is something that can be explored further among crits and practitioners, for this to be a defined tenet of the competency there is not enough foundation here for this. What would this language be in relation to structural competency? The proposed competency is adapted from the health field where language would likely be different, how does the adaption of this connect to student affairs? The authors would do well to further develop an idea of the proposed language and add that as a foundation to this tenet. As seen in Flores (2018) reconstructing language from “achievement “ to “opportunity” gap. The Flores article not only brings up the need for a change in language but also offers alternatives that allow the idea to not only be effectively implemented but expanded upon.
Tenet three introduces the understanding that cultural presentations have been aligned with deficit assumptions and a need to rearticulate this through structural terms. Providing the example of a student of color with their head down in class appearing to be disengaged, rather than making that assumption through the structural competency the instructor would note the potential of the student having a hard time focusing due to missing meals and/or sleep for several days. Affirming the structurally competent approach would help us understand what policies and infrastructures are contributing to the student’s lack of focus, which for this example may be food insecurity.
This approach is similarly noted in Sullivan et al. (2010) adding the need for institution agents to “know” the world students inhabit and be aware of cultural barriers some may encounter. As well as the permanence of racism and oppressive systems that affect people of color everyday experiences. While I see the purpose in the approach I am cautious of its implementation by practitioners that have not done the necessary reflection for when to make these inquiries and the assumptions. The tenet intends to combat deficit assumptions while this in itself contributes to deficit assumptions if implemented improperly. A framework designed to have student affairs practitioners assume systemic structure is the root of each issue is in itself a deficit assumption that is being challenged. I propose a slight challenge and alternative approach of unpacking with students what may be the issue but first not assuming there is one. Noticing instead what we consider to be the standards of behavior and how something outside of this normativity is not in itself an issue alone. I agree this in many instances may be the case, but the assumption alone is another slippery slope that has its own negative implications for students of color and the perception of a constant need of a savior. I encourage the authors to explore this more and how it can be better framed through the CRT tenet of racial realism, with automatic thoughts and other ways that deficit assumptions appear in mind.
The sixth tenet is one that was added to the original competency that is being adapted for the student affairs field. This tenet adds to the discourse the notion of intersectionality within structural violence and vulnerabilities. “Structural intersectionality, especially when viewed through a critical race theory lens, calls for a focus on oppressive structures, for centering race/racism while adding other forms of oppression-informed identity formations” (Whitman & Jayakumar, 2023, p. 11). This brings me to my overarching question of structural competency and when it is intended to be implemented. For the bulk of the article every example provided centered on the sole premise race of students and systems/structures that negatively impact students of color. They also share a case study that centered a Black student facing food insecurity on campus and centered the structural issue of how food insecurity affects students of color in particular. To now add into this intersectionality, leaves me with the question is race a requirement for structural competency utilization. What does this look like in practice for white students with other marginalized identities, is it intended for them?
While I agree with structural competency as a concept and believe in its potential as a framework for racial injustice intervention. To be properly implemented and successful to their goal of it being added as the 11th competency for ACPA & NASPA Standards for the Profession it needs to be more comprehensive and clearly defined.
Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (third edition). New York University Press.
Flores, O. J. (2018). (Re)constructing the language of the achievement gap to an opportunity gap. Journal of School Leadership, 28(3), 344-373.
Sullivan , E., Larke, P. J., & Webb-Hasan, G. (2010). Using critical policy and critical race theory to examine Texas’ school disciplinary policies. Race, Gender, & Class, 17(1-2), 72-87.
- Afzaal, A. (Feb, 2023). “The Violence Triangle.” Ahmed Afzaal, Word Press, https://ahmedafzaal.com/2012/02/20/the-violence-triangle/.
- Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical race theory: An introduction (third edition). New York University Press.
- “Disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline.” Discriminology, Discriminology, 21 Aug. 2016, https://discriminology.org/news-1/the-school-to-prison-pipeline.
- Flores, O. J. (2018). (Re)constructing the language of the achievement gap to an opportunity gap. Journal of School Leadership, 28(3), 344-373.
- Harper, S. R. (2009). Niggers no more: A critical race counternarrative on Black male student achievement at predominantly white colleges and universities. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22(6), 697–712.
- Sullivan , E., Larke, P. J., & Webb-Hasan, G. (2010). Using critical policy and critical race theory to examine Texas’ school disciplinary policies . Race, Gender, & Class, 17(1-2), 72-87.
- How can a redress of minoritized and underrepresented students’ experiences be achieved without the use of deficit assumptions? How do automatic assumptions impact our work, is it always negative?
- What role do student affairs professionals play in accounting for systems of oppression that are not directly related to higher education and the implications they have on marginalized students?
- How can/is policy used to both create and challenge systems of oppression and structural violence?