The Importance of Seeing Yourself

Early on, I wrote about the need to balance windows and mirrors in our lives. An important anti-bias framework suggests the importance of “mirrors” and the need for people to see themselves reflected in the world around them. Equally important is the need for “windows” and opportunities for people to gaze outside their own world, to see and learn about other people’s realities.

Minority groups are less likely to see mirrors and more likely to see windows. The windows they see are often focused on the majority group and this imbalance can hurt one’s sense of self-worth and confidence. It’s easy to feel invisible if you don’t have mirrors around you, whether you are a person of color, a woman, someone who identifies as GLBTQ, or a person with a disability.

For the past 20 years, the White House has hosted an iftar dinner to commemorate the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. But this year, there was no iftar dinner at the White House. Despite the fact that Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama hosted this celebratory dinner over the years, it didn’t happen this year. The holiday and the religious tradition were ignored. Invisible. Not seen. Imagine how that would feel if you were Muslim. No mirror for you this year.

Now, compare that to a couple of news stories that caught my attention in late May of 2017. There was a heart-warming story about a high school that included a picture of a student and his service dog in the school yearbook. Andrew “AJ” Schalk has Type 1 diabetes and he goes to school every day with his service dog, Alpha. Rather than ignore AJ’s unique health condition, the school decided to recognize and honor his important life-saving partnership by including an adorable school photo of Alpha. (Click here to read more.)

The same week, a photo appeared with the spouses of political leaders during the NATO summit in Brussels. The photo included 9 women and 1 man. The man is married to the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, who is gay. Although heterosexual men have been included in this group of spouses before, this picture was unique because it featured a gay spouse. (Click here to read more.)

These last two examples feature people who are often invisible. Imagine what it would feel like if you were a young person who is gay or who has a service dog. These stories are mirrors. They provide connections. They provide a message that you matter. Your story matters. You are not alone. We see you.

These two stories also serve as windows. They remind us that some people rely on service animals to make it through their day. They remind us that not everyone is straight. They remind us that we all have differences and that’s perfectly okay. It’s normal. These are equally important messages.

So once again, I urge you to reflect on the messages your children receive. Are there enough mirrors? Too many? What about windows? Can there ever be enough?

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Are We There Yet?

If you have children or have been around children, you know that every road trip involves the dreaded question: “Are we there yet?” Adults often moan and may eventually shout a response to the question depending on how frequently it is asked and how much more time it will take to reach the final destination.

I think the journey to become more culturally competent is somewhat similar. You might wonder if you are there yet. You’ve read some blogs, you have read some children’s books, and you think it’s important to talk about differences. Are you done? Are you there yet?

The answer is no. I’ve been on my journey for over 25 years and while I feel comfortable with cultural differences and am knowledgeable about issues like bias, privilege, and most of the -isms, I still have room for improvement. We all have room for improvement.

I want to give you an example of a recent stumble I made. About a month ago, I observed two men working on the telephone pole in our yard. One was white and one was black. I had a quick question so I went outside and approached the men. Without thinking, I found myself asking the white man my question. As the conversation started, I quickly realized my bias in addressing the white man and assuming he was in charge. Despite my commitment to cultural awareness and equality, I found myself perpetuating a common and subtle form of racism.

After this experience, I reflected on what I had done. We have talked about the need to be self-aware. That means being aware of your own culture and the biases and the blind spots that come with it. It means reflecting on your actions and attitudes and taking responsibility when you mess up. And you will.  It’s important to own your mistakes, learn from them, and continue on.

So am I there yet? Nope. But I know what I need to do to keep moving forward on my journey. If you have the desire to become more aware of cultural diversity and to feel more comfortable around differences, the research suggests that there are three distinct actions that you need to take. To begin your journey, you must:

  1. Practice cultural self-awareness.
  2. Gain knowledge and information about other cultures.
  3. Learn skills that enable successful interaction and communication.

Over time, we will look at all three of these actions in great depth and detail. So far, we have done a bit of self-reflection, but there is much more to do. We have also discussed the importance of windows in gaining knowledge and information about other cultures.

The journey towards cultural competence is on-going and never-ending. There is no finish line. There is not a final destination. This is a trip that is best done in fellowship with others and even better when done as a family. Are you ready for the trip of a lifetime? Are you ready to see where the journey takes you?

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Planting the Seeds

Since 1990, Search Institute has been conducting research to better understand what kids need to be successful and contributing adult members of society. They have identified 40 developmental assets that are based on skills, experiences, relationships, and behaviors. The research indicates that the more developmental assets children and youth have, the more likely they are to succeed in life.

The developmental assets data is based on more than 5 million children and youth across the United States. The power of these assets is evident across all cultural and socioeconomic groups. Research suggests that developmental assets protect young people from many different problems, such as alcohol use, illicit drug use, sexual activity, and violence. In addition, the assets promote positive attitudes and behaviors, such as succeeding in school, maintaining good health, and valuing diversity.

Cultural competence is one of the 40 developmental assets identified by Search Institute. Their definition of cultural competence is “having knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.” I believe this definition can also be used to describe someone who is culturally proficient and you may notice that I use both phrases interchangeably.

Based on the most recent survey results, only 43% of young people (ages 11-18) in the U.S. possess the cultural competence asset. What about the other 57% of young people? Louise Derman-Sparks, a noted pioneer and leader in the area of early childhood education, stated:

“Children in the 21st century will not be able to function if they are psychologically bound by outdated and narrow assumptions about their neighbors. To thrive, even to survive, in this complicated world, we need to learn how to function in many different cultural contexts, to recognize and respect different histories and perspectives, and to know how to work together to create a more just world that can take care of all its people, its living creatures, and its land.”

If you think it’s important to pass developmental assets on to your children and you want your children to thrive in our culturally diverse world, then you must make a commitment to raising culturally competent children. Being culturally aware isn’t just a nice personality trait, it is actually an important life skill.

Although my goal is to help children become more culturally competent, I realize in order to do this, I need to first help parents become more culturally proficient. This means parents need to spend time reflecting on what culture means, learning about different dimensions of culture, and understanding the importance of windows and mirrors. So while the focus is on planting the seeds of cultural competence with our children, the truth is that we will also be planting seeds of our own.

In the end, I hope to help children, parents, and families embrace cultural competence. I hope you agree that it is a necessary life skill for all children. Are you committed to planting the seeds of cultural competence and doing what is necessary to help the seeds grow, take root, and flourish in your family?

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Finding Your Way

Writing about skin color reminded me of an experience I had many years ago. Not surprisingly, it involves making a mistake. As a result, I learned two great lessons. One, words can cause harm even without intending to do so. Two, it is important to have teachers and mentors on your personal journey. (Trigger warning: racial slur)

During my junior year at Cornell, I was walking back to my dorm with a group of friends. I was the only white person in the group and we were all leaving an African American history class. During the conversation, I used the word mulatto to describe a fellow classmate. It was a word I had heard to describe someone who was a mix of white and black skin colors. As soon as that word left my mouth, everyone stopped walking, all eyes were on me, and it got real quiet.

Someone finally said, “I can’t believe you used that word. Do you know what it means?” I shook my head no. “The word mulatto is based on the word mule. And you know what a mule is, right?” Again I was quiet. Another friend stated, “A mule is born when a horse and a donkey reproduce. But mules cannot reproduce. They are sterile. So calling someone mulatto is like calling them a mule. It’s really offensive and you should never use that word. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”

I sincerely apologized and explained that I didn’t know the word was derogatory. It wasn’t a very good excuse but I was being honest. My friends knew me well enough to know I didn’t mean any harm and no one stayed angry, although I can imagine they were disappointed in me. We eventually resumed our walk and the incident was forgotten by everyone except me. I will never forget what I learned that day and I never again used that word.

When I look back, I am extremely grateful for moments like this, and especially grateful for all the people who have guided me on my journey. Sometimes it takes just one voice (The First Ripple) and sometimes it takes a group of voices. Over the years, I have learned from friends, strangers, teachers, and students. I never know when the next lesson will happen or who my teacher will be. But I always try to be a willing student.

To be clear, becoming culturally competent is your own responsibility. However, your chance of success will increase if you surround yourself with a nurturing support system. Luckily, there are amazing people out there willing to help if they know your heart is in the right place. I am certainly willing to help you, but that’s not enough. So now is a good time to think and reflect: Who has already helped you on your journey? Who else can guide you? Who can help you find your way, tell you when you are lost, and teach you when you make mistakes?

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The Human Race

In a past blog post, I discussed different dimensions of culture. You may have noticed that race was not included in my list of cultural dimensions. This usually surprises people because race is often the first thing people focus on when we talk about cultural diversity. However, not including race wasn’t a mistake. It was a very deliberate decision. Why? The answer is pretty simple. There is no such thing as race.

By definition, race is a divisive term created to classify people into categories based on their skin color, hair texture, facial features, and body size. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a statement in 1950 asserting that all humans belong to the same species and that race is not a biological reality. The idea of different races is a myth. In fact, studies have found that the genes of Caucasians, Africans, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans are 99.9% identical!

Because I do not want to perpetuate the idea that there are different races, I stopped using the word. I think it is more accurate to talk about ethnic background which takes into account skin color, as well as other physical and cultural characteristics. I also use terms like ethnicity, cultural group, and skin color to help identify different groups of people.

I realize that not using the word isn’t a perfect solution. And I am certainly not advocating a “colorblind” approach that ignores our differences. Quite the opposite. But when we talk about our differences, it is important to make sure we are not using a word that has no scientific merit and is simply a social construct.

Part of becoming culturally competent is changing our behavior. One easy step is to stop using this word. Let’s not perpetuate a myth! To practice, I encourage you to read the books I mentioned in my last blog. As you do, challenge yourself to talk about differences without saying the word race.

What can you do instead? Try describing people in terms of their skin color. No bias. No prejudice. No labels. Just an observation about the color of a person’s skin. Observations about skin color can be communicated in the same way you would describe someone’s hair or eye color. This is how we should see skin color as well. It’s a physical attribute and nothing more. While the labels white, black, and brown might not be very accurate, they serve all of us better than race. An even better option is using more realistic and accurate descriptions, like the ones you’ll find in the packs of Crayola Multicultural Crayons and Crayola Multicultural Markers.

Crayola Multicultural Crayon pack of 8

Crayola Multicultural Markers pack of 8

In the future, I will share more ideas for talking to your children about skin color. There are a lot of great ways to bring up this topic without perpetuating the myth of race. It just takes some practice and commitment to change. Are you ready to make the change and stop using this divisive word?

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Happy Loving Day

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that state bans on interracial marriages were unconstitutional. The landmark decision was based on the case Loving vs. Virginia, named after Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving. The two fell in love and got married but since he was white and she was part Native American and part black, their marriage was illegal in their home state of Virginia. In fact, they were both arrested and jailed for breaking the law.

In 1967, the Lovings won the right to be legally married and the Supreme Court decision overturned the law in the 16 states that had banned interracial marriage. Since then, June 12th has become known as Loving Day, an annual celebration to honor this historic ruling.

Fast forward to today and statistics show that mixed marriages have increased dramatically. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 out of every 6 newlyweds today marries someone from a different ethnic group or with different skin color. If you also include families who have adopted internationally and/or across ethnic and color lines, you see great diversity not only between families but also within families.

I have mentioned both family of origin and family structure as two important dimensions of culture. In honor of Loving Day, I encourage you to focus on increasing the number of mirrors around your home if your family is mixed. If your family is similar in terms of ethnic background and skin color, then I encourage you to increase the number of windows your children have to discover and learn about mixed families.

How can you get started? First, visit your local library and request books that describe families that have different ethnic backgrounds and different skin colors. I recommend:

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko

black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff

My Two Grannies by Floella Benjamin

Black, White, Just Right! by Marguerite W. Davol

How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman

Two Mrs. Gibsons by Toyomi Igus

I Am Tan by Michele Rose

Before you share these books with your children, read them yourself and make sure you’re comfortable with each book. When you’re ready, sit down and read them together. As you start conversations about families that are mixed, remember these important tips:

  • Don’t make any assumptions. Don’t assume that two people who look alike are family members and don’t assume that two people who look different are not family members.
  • Talk to your children about the mixed families you know. Identifying and talking about differences is a great starting point and it’s a healthy thing to do as long as there is no judgement. There is no right or wrong way to be a family.

I hope this information is helpful and encourages you to think about different families. Now that you know about Loving Day, what will you and your family do to celebrate this special day?

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The First Ripple

As I mentioned in my first post, I grew up in a homogeneous suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Most people looked like me, worshipped like me, and lived like me. I was surrounded by mirrors.

My slow journey towards cultural competence started when I was an undergraduate student. Although I am ashamed to share my experiences, I feel the need to put a stake in the ground so you can understand how far I have traveled. The event I want to share with you took place in 1989 at Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I refer to this experience as “the first ripple.” I apologize in advance for being offensive and insensitive. (Trigger warning: homophobic slur)

Like all the freshman students, I was taking a mandatory writing seminar and we were reading books from different cultural perspectives. One of the books was On Being Gay: Thoughts on Family, Faith, and Love by Brian McNaught. The author was visiting campus and we were required to attend his presentation. I can vividly remember complaining and saying, “I can’t believe we have to go listen to this fag.” I said the f-word without any thought or embarrassment, although there was certainly malice. It was a word I knew not to use at home, but had heard a million times in high school and had said more times than I care to remember. It was a put down and unquestionably derogatory.

But something incredibly important happened. For the first time in my life, my good friend boldly responded, “I can’t believe you just said that. What is wrong with you?” I was shocked to say the least. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. She totally called me out for being homophobic and to this day I applaud her for doing the right thing. She courageously stood up to me and told me I was wrong.

I listened that evening and was captivated. Brian was a very interesting and engaging speaker. He shared that he had attempted suicide and been fired from a job because he was gay. I left thinking that he had been through a lot and had been treated unjustly. Somewhere deep inside, I felt like I was a better person just for listening to his story.

I wish I could tell you I became a straight ally overnight, but I didn’t. I still had a lot of work to do. But three important things happened that night. First, someone corrected my disrespectful language. Second, I learned about a person’s life experience that was different than my own (I peered through a window). Third, the f-word was no longer just a generic derogatory word. There was now a personal connection that hadn’t been there before.

Donna Brazile said, “It takes but one person, one moment, one conviction, to start a ripple of change.” This was my first ripple. Can you remember yours? Can you remember a moment in time when you realized you were wrong and that you needed to change?

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Additional Cultural Dimensions

As I mentioned in my last post, there is an endless list of things that help determine how we see the world around us. I have been fortunate enough to discuss this topic with a diverse group of people and with their help, I have added these additional dimensions of culture:

  • Geographic Region: If you were raised in the U.S., what part of the country do you call home?
  • Military Experience: Have you been actively involved in the military?
  • Time Orientation: Do you place more value on the past, present, or future?
  • Personality: Are you an introvert, extrovert, or a combination of both?
  • Community Type: Is home in a rural, suburban, or urban community?
  • Body Shape and Size: Does your body fall within the cultural “norms” of society or do you find yourself not fitting in?
  • Incarceration: Have you ever been incarcerated?
  • Tragedy: Have you ever experienced a personal tragedy, such as an accident, unexpected illness, or death?
  • Birth Order: Where do you fall in terms of birth order and how has that impacted you?
  • Food: What do you consider comfort food? What role does food play in your life?

I still don’t believe my list is all-inclusive. I’m waiting to hear from you. What do you want to add to the list? Remember, there are no wrong answers. We all experience life in a deeply personal and unique way. Yet, we are also greatly impacted by our families and the important people around us. Amazingly, these dimensions of culture don’t have to directly impact your life. Your culture can be impacted indirectly through relationships.

I want to share a personal story to help illustrate this point. I have never been incarcerated and have little knowledge of the criminal justice system. However, for the past 13 years, I have been a pen pal with someone who is incarcerated. He has taught me many things about life behind bars and all the challenges that come with it. I have learned what daily life is like, how parole works, and what kind of things you can and can’t send to someone who is incarcerated. Once, I sent him a care package that included gum. It turns out that gum can be used to ruin locks, so it is a big no-no in prison. I had no idea. Without stepping foot inside a prison, I have learned a lot about the prison system and its culture.

Another important and tricky aspect of culture is related to time. Culture can change! For example, I was raised Catholic. Many of my favorite childhood memories revolved around the religious rituals and traditions that I shared with my siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. However, as an adult, I drifted away from the church and no longer identify as Catholic. Did my culture change as a result? You bet.

Now it’s your turn. What dimensions of your cultural identity have changed over time and how has that impacted your worldview?

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Dimensions of Culture

Let’s continue exploring the question: What is culture? I hope you have spent time thinking about this important question and writing down those cultural dimensions of your life that have shaped and guided your worldview.

You’ll find that there are many different ways to teach about culture. One popular approach is to think of culture like an iceberg. The main idea is to remind people that the visible aspects of culture (food, clothing, language, skin color, etc.) often make up a small part of a person’s culture. There are also invisible aspects of culture that are below the surface and invisible to an observer. These dimensions of culture are more numerous and contain more depth. The key is to remember that people are more complex and complicated than we often realize. Assumptions based on the visible dimensions of culture often end up missing the depth and richness that culture bestows upon all of us. The iceberg may not be a perfect model, but it is another helpful way to think about culture.

Years ago, I developed a graphic to help illustrate 14 different dimensions of culture. Over the course of time and through many enlightening conversations, my list has grown and it continues to grow. I am aware that this old graphic is not all-inclusive. It does, however, provide a good starting point for our discussion about the dimensions of culture. Let’s start at the top and continue clockwise. As you consider each of these dimensions, be sure to ask yourself these questions:

Graphic with dimensions of culture

  • Ability: Do you have any physical, mental, developmental, or psychological limitations or disabilities?
  • Sexual Orientation: Do you identify as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender or questioning?
  • Time of Arrival in the U.S.: How long have you and/or your family lived in the U.S.?
  • Age/Cohort: How old are you? What world events have occurred in your lifetime that help define the way you view the world?
  • Education: How much formal and/or informal education do you have?
  • Religiosity/Spirituality: Do you have any religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical beliefs?
  • Family of Origin: What roles and rules did you learn from your family while you were growing up?
  • Skin Color: How would you describe your skin color?
  • Gender: Do you identify as female, male, transgender, non-conforming, or something else?
  • Social Class: How would you define your socioeconomic background?
  • Migration Experience: Did you or your family migrate to the U.S.? Why? Was it forced or was it a choice?
  • Language: What language or languages do you speak?
  • Family Structure: Who is in your family?
  • Ethnicity: What ethnic group(s) do you identify with?

I wonder how this compares to the list you wrote down. I learn something new each time I do this exercise and am truly interested in your answers. Remember, you can’t be wrong. We’ll continue to talk about the dimensions of culture in the next post. Until then, here is my question: did you write anything down that isn’t included in this graphic?

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What is Culture?

If a stranger came up to you and asked about your culture, what would you say? If you don’t have an immediate response, think about this academic (i.e., long) definition of culture, “the behavior, values, beliefs, language, traits, and products shared by and associated with a group of people, which are passed from one generation to the next.”[1] A simpler definition of culture is a “framework that guides and binds your life practices.”[2]

I like to think of culture as a pair of glasses. These glasses influence the way you see the world but they don’t come off. They frame your perspective, impact the way you interact with others, and they were given to you from your parents and possibly your grandparents.

Depending on your cultural background, this may be the first time you have thought about your culture. Congratulations! Thinking about and becoming aware of your own culture is a very important first step in developing cultural awareness and cultural competence. It is often an overlooked and ignored step, but it is important not to rush it.

In my experience, when I ask people to describe their culture, I often see a lot of blank stares. I recognize that the question makes some people feel uncomfortable. Some people are confused. Eventually, a brave soul will say, “I don’t think I have any culture.”

Is this what you are thinking? This is a pretty common response, especially if you are white, male, straight, and/or middle class. It tends to be more difficult for people to see their culture if they are part of the majority culture. It’s like asking a fish to describe water. It’s perfectly okay if you have trouble identifying your culture. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have culture.

To help get you started, I will share five cultural factors that shape the way I see the world: my skin color, social class, gender, sexual orientation, and age. There are many other cultural factors and I challenge you to think beyond the obvious ones I listed. This is only a starting point.

Take a moment and jot down the cultural dimensions or experiences that come to mind. Ask yourself how other people might describe your culture. Take time to reflect and eventually come back to your list. There are no wrong answers. Remember, we are talking about the things that have influenced the way you see the world; those factors that have helped direct and guide your life choices.

In my next post, I will share a list of different dimensions of culture that people have identified over the years. I would love to see your list. Until then, keep asking yourself, what is your culture?


[1] York, S. (2016). Roots and wings. Affirming culture in early childhood programs. St. Paul: Redleaf Press.

[2] Lynch, E.W., & Hanson, M.J. (2011). Developing cross-cultural competence: A guide for working with young children and their families, Fourth Edition. Baltimore, MD: P.H. Brookes.

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