Theory Teacher's Blog

K’Naan: Beyond Intercultural Competence, Learning from Our Students

Last night I went to K’Naan’s concert at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis, and it totally rocked. Seriously, it was so much fun. If you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple years and don’t know who K’Naan is, he’s the Somali-Canadian rapper from Toronto whose song “Wavin’ Flag” became one of the official FIFA theme songs for the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament. The rather tame World Cup version of the song has been peformed by artists around the world in 22 different languages, but of course fans prefer the more edgy and politically significant original. K’Naan himself has performed concerts in 67 countries, including his homeland Somalia. When I was travelling in Ethiopia this summer, I noticed that some people’s cell phone ringers were the “Wavin’ Flag” song.  At the concert last night, I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd, including African immigrants not just from Somalia but from a variety of countries, African-Americans, Euro-Americans, Asian Americans, etc. A couple of white men standing near me in the audience (age mid-20s, I’d guess) seemed to have memorized all the lyrics and were vigorously singing along the entire show. The overall vibe in the room was intensely positive, and several people had brought their own flags, heralding a variety of countries, so during the “Wavin’ Flag” song, people actually waved flags, dramatizing the internationalism of the event.

An amazing coincidence is that even before I knew he would be performing in Minneapolis, I had actually assigned K’Naan to my first-year seminar for last week’s lesson. I was inspired to create a new unit for my class on the Hmong and Somali in Minnesota after several incidents of racism against Somalis close to where I live last year (and which I blogged about [here].) I decided to assign K’Naan to show a different side of Somali culture as it manifests itself in Diaspora than what they will get from the history book we’re reading together — a side of Somali culture that the students can better relate to. The past couple years, I’ve noticed that in almost all my classes, there is at least one student who is a K’Naan fan, and because of the World Cup almost everyone is familiar with the “Wavin’ Flag” song even if they don’t know who its author is. During a brief discussion in class last week, my students observed that we often think of the American flag as a symbol for freedom, which reflects our bias as Americans, but that K’Naan’s song wisely makes the case that any flag, from anywhere, can be a symbol of freedom.

So, do I have a theoretical point to make here? Not really, but I’ll try to make a few simple gestures. First, recently colleges across the country have become interested in teaching “intercultural competence.” Usually, these programs, such as the “Intercultural Competence Assessment“, have emphasized the recognition of cultural difference. But I have some serious disagreements with such programs, as I’ve blogged about before [here], but before I explain my disagreements, I want to reveal why most students also will never be convinced by that model. When I brought up the question of diversity and cultural difference in my “race and ethnicity in U.S. literatures” class last year, several of my students told me about an episode of The Office entitled “Diversity Day.” Most of our students watch this show and seem to know this particular episode which actually makes fun of precisely the model of intercultural competence being promoted on college campuses today — a model that I call the “business school model” since that’s where it originated.

And the TV show makes fun of it for good reason. By emphasizing arbitrary differences such as clothing, handshakes, and marriage ceremonies, “diversity day” ignores the political and economic issues that really affect people’s lives and interests. In other words, as my students easily recognized, it gives you cultural difference without the possibility of real difference — without the possibility of having a different opinion that might conflict with policy or with a general business model. (By the way, a great novel recently published on this theme is Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, in which Hamid surprisingly reveals in the middle of the novel that the fundamentalism he’s referring to is not Islamic fundamentalism at all, but the economic fundamentalism of Wall Street.)

As theorist Slavoj Zizek wrote a couple weeks ago for The Guardian [here], the kind of vapid multiculturalism promoted by the intercultural competency assesors and satirized by The Office gives you difference without real difference, like decaffeinated coffee or sugar-free drinks. Interestingly, the World Cup version of K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” is kind of like decaffeinated coffee — the controversial lyrics removed in order to celebrate a global unity. Fortunately, none of my students or the fans in the audience are fooled by the Coca-Cola-ized World Cup version of the song and prefer the original which rather explicitly debunks the false promises of global unity (see the lyrics [here] for yourself.)

Moreover, what K’Naan’s global popularity suggests is that the arbitrary cultural differences that the administrators and assessors of intercultural competency wrongly believe are so important aren’t quite so important after all. Focusing on such arbitrary differences misses the point entirely. No matter where you are in the world, people like to have fun, want to be free, want security, fall in love, etc., as K’Naan says explicitly in his song “Dreamer” — a tribute to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What we have in common is our struggle in an imperfect world rife with poverty, economic exploitation, and violence.

So, what’s the upshot here? Reflecting on the K’Naan concert and all the various things my students have told me (such as when they recommended I watch the movie “Good Hair” that I blogged about a few weeks ago [here]), I think our students are already pretty smart about intercultural competence, and we as teachers can learn a lot from them. The problem as I see it is when administrators and assessors don ‘t recognize the skills and knowledge our students already have and instead impose a rather simplistic (and rather silly) model of “intercultural competence” upon them. In other words, intercultural competence isn’t all that hard and doesn’t require a lot of theoretical sophistication so long as we begin with some rather obvious facts about the world we live in — the fact of the K’Naan concert, for instance. What I mean by “fact” here is that it happened. In contrast, notions of “difference” are not facts; they are notions and conceptualizations. So we can ignore the model imposed upon us by the “assessors” not only because it actually does more to obscure reality than it does to explain it, but also, more importantly, because it doesn’t recognize what our students already know, and what they already know might actually be smarter and more in touch with reality than what the assessors are advocating.


October 17, 2010 - Posted by | race, teaching


  1. What’s this? I’ve actually read something Steve advocates reading? Whoa. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a great book, both for the message and the way the story was told.

    Comment by Megan G. | October 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. Love that K’naan song. I had never read the lyrics though…now I love it more.

    I agree completely with your thoughts on the Intercultural Assessment. I had to do something similar my junior year (with I-LEAD, oddly enough), called IDI–Intercultural Development Inventory. I can proudly say that I learned a lot more in your R&E class and through my good ole’ life experiences than I learned from a 2 hour session “assessing” the ways I can be more interculturally competent based on a 30 minute survey. 🙂

    Comment by ashley | October 21, 2010 | Reply

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