Adrift From My Culture Vanessa White

Previously I have blogged about the paradox of us and them, and how this skews perspectives, often resulting in a lack of understanding and inclusion of our gifted learners. Today I would like to extend on this further, delving more deeply into the notion of identity and culture, offering a way to overcome the persistent viewpoint of division which is so obvious through the prevalent myths surrounding the concept of giftedness, and by association, gifted education - and not just here in New Zealand.

I propose, in line with Call’s (n.d.) notion of gifted identity, that we broaden our conception of cultures within our learning spaces, explicitly exploring with our young people, the concept of identity; what it is and how this ties into the notion of culture, and how giftedness is one possible identity with which to relate. It is, I am vehemently adamant, our place to nurture identity development in an overt and affirming way which is inclusive of cultural groups in the broadest sense - this means gifted culture too. As Arnett emphasises (as cited in Gobbo and Shmulsky, 2016, p. 1), “identity, one's definition of the self, is a cornerstone of wellness”, making this a critical feature of ethical care in education (and within the health sector).

Further to this, I submit that we need to support learners with a gifted identity to recognise that they are part of a wider culture. While some may argue otherwise, it stands to reason that “groups that are marginalized in society share distinctive features of identity development as they define themselves amidst a broader culture” (Mio, Barker & Tumambing, as cited in Gobbo and Shmulsky, 2016, p. 1). It is therefore, also our responsibility as ethical practitioners to support learners “to recognize why they are members of the gifted culture and what they are going to* experience as members of this cultural group ... to allow students to retain the attributes of their ... diversity while helping them to see the commonalities of the potential they share with other students” (Kaplan, 2011, p. 65). There are great examples of this being done in practice already, for example the personal development content strand within the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education’s curriculm.

However, there is an important caveat to this. Armstrong-Willcocks (M. Armstrong-Willcocks, personal communication, July 16, 2019) brings to our attention the role of insider and outsider perspectives as it relates to identity development in the gifted, drawing parallels with varied viewpoints in relation to those on the Autism spectrum. This aligns with Call’s (n.d.) invitation to recognise that it is only the learner’s themselves that can decide whether they deem their giftedness to be an aspect of self which is congruent with their developing sense of identity (see Table 1). It is really important that we do not lay identities on our young people and their families and whānau, but rather facilitate a self-determining process of relatedness through shared dialogue, expressed values, and role-modeling.

* or may

Table 1: Gifted Label vs Gifted Identity (Call, n.d.)

We strive - and let’s be honest - with varying degrees of success, to incorporate this approach in relation to other more prominent cultural groups within the context of New Zealand society, and so we should try, especially when it comes to our individual and collective obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi. But we need to go even further than this, and consider giftedness in the mix as another possible aspect of identity. We need to think about what this means in terms of being additional to other layers of culture in which our learners and their families are embedded, and the impact this has on a young person’s learning and wellbeing, and culturally appropriate and valued measures of these.

But ... before we can begin to do any of this, as educators we need to better equipped. Would you agree? Don’t panic.This doesn’t have to be arduous. Just hang fire and give me a moment to explain my thinking.

“Gifted kids' intensity, sensitivity, and unique quirks aren't just 'different'; they're part of a perfectly normal, albeit uncommon, way of being and behaving in the world.”

- Anamaria Call

Firstly, we need to truly believe within ourselves that “ the simultaneous membership of students in more than one culture does not obliterate the value of any one culture” (Kaplan, 2011, p.65). That is to say that being gifted is not the totality of a person, and nor is it better than any other culture, rather, it is a different way of being that adds another layer of diversity and complexity - and interest, I say.

Secondly, we need to be well versed in the idea of intercultural communication, as a means of working with young people walking in two (and often many more) worlds. What do I mean by this? Kelly, Fant and Lars (2001) recognise that “culture, seen as systems of values, worldviews, behavioural norms and practices, is essential for the formation of identities. Intercultural communication is to do with building bridges between communities, so as to enable people to develop more flexible and multi-faceted identities”.

Not only do we need this skill, we need to impart it to our young people, empowering them to be successful citizens not just within our learning communities, but beyond, out in the rich intercultural vastness that is the global village - even more so for those who want to lead social change. A useful framework is the Intercultural Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). As Dye (n.d.) suggests, “teachers can use the DMIS to facilitate learning by recognizing the cognitive stage a student is at and helping the student progress into the next stage”. The stages are denial, defense, minimisation, acceptance, adaptation and integration.

“Acquiring the knowledge, awareness and skill to manage intercultural contacts, that is, to make communication successful between people from various cultural backgrounds, is becoming an essential component in what is now generally called citizenship.”

- Kelly, Fant & Lars, 2001

Cultural Diffusion

We are continually negotiating cultural boundaries with our learners, their families and whānau, our colleagues and others who have a sphere of influence on our practice. We use our professional judgement, drawing on available evidence to draw conclusions about what we deem to be “useful and/or compatible”. As Spencer-Oatey (2012, p. 14) depicts “... cultural diffusion is a selective process. Whenever two cultures come into contact, each does not accept everything indiscriminately from the other”. Fair enough too!

However, if we are to do our jobs well (and I know that we all want to do that!), we need to remain cognizant of barriers we ourselves can unwittingly put up, resulting in missed opportunities for all involved, particularly in this instance, if we ourselves do not share in the gifted identity or culture. (For some, “yet” may need to be added to this statement as many an adult has begun to recognise characteristics of gifted within themselves in the process of trying to better understand the young people in their care!)

“If one decides to cross a society boundary, he/she gets familiarized with interactions with people belonging to different cultures and such interactions become highly significant for their growth and moral success.”

- Anastasia

Of course, as with all things, we need to be mindful of potential pitfalls. McKeiver (2013) highlights the propensity for ethnocentrism (as it pertains to the cultures we ourselves each identify), with high levels of this resulting in negative attitudes, hostility even, stemming from suspicion and resultingly, high levels of defensiveness. And yes, this can go two ways.

Closely associated, is apprehension that comes from what McKeiver expresses as “the fear and anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with people from different groups”. Couple that with the tensions which can arise from being defensive of our professional capabilities and need to feel competent and it’s not hard to see how (hidden and implicit) barriers can have a tendency to pop up like mushrooms.

The most critical antidote to this (or perhaps I should stick with the analogy and say fungiside - lols), is awareness; awareness of our level of ethnocentricity, of how to become increasingly more adept with intercultural communication, and of the critical need to appreciate that effectiveness can only “be determined by the individual while the appropriateness can only be determined by the other person – with appropriateness being directly related to cultural sensitivity and the adherence to cultural norms of that person” (Deardorff as cited in Oldham, 2017). This links back to Call’s (n.d.) notion of label versus identity.

The Equality Academy (as cited in Oldham, 2017) sets out seven specific principles for effective intercultural communication. These include: sustaining respect, openness, and curiosity; respecting that you are not the centre of everyone’s universe; the inextricably entwined role of culture, power and status; the need to learn from others; the importance of developing core communication skills; and the preparedness to reap both inner and outer dividends, from being enriched through experience.

Cultural Fatigue

Surprise, surprise! This all this takes energy, particularly when investing ourselves in the process of change. We all know how limited energy is!! For real!! But let’s step back for a moment and recogise this as an investment which will reap rewards - for us and our students, and their families and whānau - and for very little input. It really isn’t extra, just a matter of making tweaks to our approach. If you don’t believe me, just keep reading.

This brings us to the point of needing to be aware of the potential for cultural fatigue (May, n.d.), and far more importantly, how to mitigate it. While May discusses this in light of travelling and immersing oneself in another country’s culture, I feel that this is equally relevant in more nuanced contexts. Indeed I believe it to be extremely relevant to us in our profession as we attempt to balance learner needs and administration requirements against our own wellbeing. We can be vested in learning more about giftedness, gifted identity and culture, and how we can support our gifted kids to feel a strong sense of citizenship within our learning communities, but knowing how we can maintain our own levels of curiosity and motivation is essential.

May identifies four key stages involved with cultural fatigue: attraction; ambivalence; alienation, or, with appropriate support; adaptation. The initial stage is the strong desire to learn more, to develop our professional competence as a means of improving student outcomes. However, and yes, here’s the ‘but’, uncertainty and challenges will certainly be in the mix, and depending on whether or not support is accessible to enable an adaptive response, to maintain energy and enthusiasm, we risk alienation and a disinclination to continue engaging, i.e., cultural fatigue.

“Third Space Solutions” are recommended as a way to address this potential roadblock, promoting “outcomes which preserve the core values of both groups, whilst achieving win-win outcomes for both [parties]”. A quick google and some reflective time later, I deem third space to be a reference to “connecting” in neutral space so as to be able to meet at the interface of each other’s culture in a safe way. This is where I see the role of the likes of Gifted Aotearoa, a national network of expertise, which provides an easily accessible place of safety in which to share, stay afloat (you’ll have to check out their website to truly get that reference) and gain professional strength together as an intercultural group who share a passion for, and expertise in, bettering outcomes for our learners.

He waka eke noa; we are all in this boat together, with no exceptions.

- Māori whakataukī (proverb)

Let’s come together, so that we as educators are empowered to not only recognise giftedness, but also be equipped to support the development of healthy, positive gifted identity: to be open, prepared and curious to communicate and work with those within the gifted culture; ready to stretch our professional wings to develop our practice, and; help bust the prevailing myths that often knock our kids (and their future selves) around so badly.

Don’t leave our kids adrift in their gifted culture. Teach, nurture and empower them to know who they are, where they come from, that they do belong and are indeed a valuable part of their school and broader community.

Posted as part of the 2019 New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, run by the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education.

Click here to read the other 2019 blog posts.

Author, Vanessa White, is a specialist educator with a Masters in Specialist Teaching endorsed in gifted and talented education. She is a current member of the Ministry of Education Advisory Group for Gifted Learners, senior tutor at Massey University, blogger for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education, advisor for the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, and home-schooling Mum. Vanessa’s area of particular professional interest resides at the intersection of giftedness and chronic stress, and in particular educational trauma.


  1. Anastasia. (2017). Cleverism: Cultural diffusion.
  2. Call, A. (n.d.). Gifted culture kids: Gifted kids sense and experience the world differently.
  3. Dye, M. (n.d.). Developmental model of intercultural sensitivity: Stages of DMIS.
  4. Educational Council New Zealand. (2017). Our code, our standards.
  5. Gobbo, K. & Shmulsky, S. (2016). Autistic identity development and postsecondary education. Disability Studies Quarterly, 36(3),1-1.
  6. Kaplan, S. (2011). Developing membership in the gifted culture for gifted students in urban schools. Gifted Child Today, 34(1), 63-65.
  7. Kelly, M., & Elliott, I., & Fant, L. (2001). Third level, third space: Intercultural communication and language in European higher education.
  8. May, T. (n.d.). Diversitas: When difference becomes exhausting – cultural fatigue and its impacts in today’s workplace.
  9. McKeiver, K. (2013). Identifying barriers to effective intercultural communication.
  10. Oldham, N. (2017). The-Centre: 7 principles of intercultural communication by the Equality Academy.
  11. Spencer-Oatey, H. (2012). GlobalPAD core concepts: What is culture? A compilation of quotations.


Created with images by Milo Milk - untitled image • Ben White - untitled image • Caroline Hernandez - untitled image • Monica Melton - untitled image • Abbie Bernet - untitled image • Helena Lopes - untitled image • Charlein Gracia - untitled image