Starting the Conversation

In my last post, I encouraged parents to break their silence and be proactive in the teaching of tolerance and respect. I use the word “tolerance” with reservation because I am looking for more than tolerance. I think we tolerate tooth aches and tolerate loud music. To me, being tolerant means you are just barely able to deal with something unpleasant. I want to push you to move way beyond tolerance. I want to push you to embrace and respect differences. Don’t just tolerate them. Value the differences and teach your children to value them too.

How do you do this? Many people, especially those who find themselves in the majority or ingroup, have very little experience talking about these issues. It’s one of the advantages you may have if you were born with light skin, straight, male, cisgender, or are part of a majority cultural or religious group.

When I first started learning about cultural differences, I was working in an international preschool on the campus of Cornell University. We had children in our program from across the globe. It was a fascinating and deeply enriching experience. I was working with children and their parents across language barriers, cultural differences, and religious beliefs. How do you make everyone in such a diverse environment feel respected and honored?

What I have learned over the years is that being respectful of differences involves the ability to adopt a worldview that is comprised of three separate, yet related, elements. These three elements include the ability to:

  1. Acknowledge cultural differences.
  2. Find similarities in spite of these differences.
  3. Respect the differences, without judgment.

These elements also need to be an integral part of the conversations you have with your children about diversity. For example, let’s imagine your child notices that the eyes of her Asian friend are a different shape than her eyes. She asks you, “Why does Shuji have funny-looking eyes?”

A culturally competent response needs to include all three elements described above. For example, your response may be:

“I don’t think Shuji has funny-looking eyes. He has eyes that are a different shape than yours (Element 1). Shuji’s eyes are almond-shaped just like his parents’ eyes. Your eyes are round, just like your parents’ eyes (Element 2). Both you and Shuji have beautiful eyes, even though they are different shapes (Element 3).”

Preparing your children to understand and respect differences is one of the best gifts you can give them as they enter a world that is increasingly diverse. It starts with the ability to talk about cultural differences in a healthy and respectful way. As long as you include all three elements in your conversations, you will send a healthy message about differences to your child. In doing so, you will help your children develop cultural competence, a beneficial and necessary asset to have in today’s world.

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After Darkness, There Will Be Light

“Harmony will prevail. After darkness, there will be light. The light cannot come without the darkness. Better days are bound to come now.”  – Sook Nyul Choi

Terrible things happened in our country today. It’s all over the news and people way smarter than me have already written down their thoughts and reflections about today’s events. I am not a news reporter and I am not interested in the details about what happened. All I know is that a group of white people, who embrace hate and believe that their skin color makes them superior, caused terrible things to happen in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lives have been lost and many of us are shocked and angered that such a blatant demonstration of white supremacy, hate, and violence could happen in this country.

The events of the day have caused me to pause and reflect on those things that moved me from not seeing racism when I started college to being able to see and understand the role racism plays in our country. In addition to understanding racism, I also think it’s incredibly important to identify and be aware of white privilege. The two go hand and hand and are basically two sides of the same coin.

When I reflect on the things in my life that helped me better understand racism and white privilege, I think about (in no particular order):

  • Developing close personal friendships with people of color over a long period of time.
  • Reading Roots: The Sage of an American Family by Alex Haley.
  • Watching the entire 14-episode Eyes on the Prize series. It’s long but incredibly important. Every American should be required to watch this award-winning documentary.
  • Being in situations where I was the only white person in a group.
  • Re-learning American history with a balanced and multicultural lens, such as A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
  • Watching a Frontline documentary called A Class Divided that helps demonstrate the effect of prejudice and bias, especially on children.
  • Reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
  • Working to understand my own upbringing and the limited way I was taught to see the world.
  • Reading White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.
  • Learning from wise and open-minded teachers and mentors, both white and people of color, who were willing to guide my journey and share their experiences.

Some of these videos and books are older, but many have been revised and are still relevant today. If you are interested in increasing your knowledge and awareness about racism, each of these is a great starting point. I would humbly suggest devoting the time and energy to try all of them. You will have no regrets!

I am also interested and curious to hear your thoughts and experiences. What would you recommend reading, watching, or doing to help white people broaden their awareness of racism? What do you feel compelled to share after witnessing the hate and violence in Charlottesville?

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The Second Ripple

After my freshman year at Gettysburg College, I transferred to Cornell University. On the first day of classes at Cornell, I experienced my second ripple of change. I walked into a small classroom and saw “Does racism exist in America?” written in big letters on the chalk board. As we filed into the classroom, our professor, Don Barr, asked us to divide into small groups and discuss our responses to the question.

I didn’t take much time to think about my answer because I had an immediate response. Based on my personal experience, I planned to share my answer without any hesitation or thought. My answer was a simple “no”.

How could I answer “no” to this question? Well, it’s important to remember where I was coming from. I came from a community that had very little cultural diversity. In my personal experience, I did not see many people of color, let alone witness racism. Like many white people, I had been taught to think of racism on an individual level. Here is what I remember thinking:

  • Was I in the KKK?
  • Did I use racial epithets?
  • Was I disrespectful towards people of color?

Since I answered “no” to these questions, I figured I personally wasn’t racist. In fact, I was proud to admit that I would sometimes go out of my way to be extra nice to people of color, just to show I wasn’t racist. I would hold the door open maybe longer than usual or just be extra helpful, just to make sure I didn’t appear racist.

Like many white people, I also thought of racism as a historical issue. It was 1990. Were African-Americans drinking out of separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus? No. Did they have the right to vote? Yes. So, again, my simple conclusion was that racism was something that had been in the past and simply didn’t exist anymore.

As I gathered in a circle with my small group, what I vividly remember is that I was the only one who answered “no” to the question. Fortunately, no one laughed at me. Out of a class of 30 people, maybe 3 of us answered no. Although I don’t remember much about the class dialogue that day, what I remember is feeling a ripple. There was a sense that things were happening around me that I was totally unaware of. At the same time, I had a feeling that my world was about to change.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I lived in such a bubble. But I remind myself that people today still live in bubbles. Many communities are just as segregated today as they were in the early 1960s, if not more so. Being uninformed is easy if you are a member of the ingroup. Like me, you have the privilege of not needing to know about these things.

Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing this question: “Does racism exist in America?” How would you respond and why?

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In loving memory of Professor Donald Barr, 1935-2008. He was an inspiring teacher and a passionate social activist. Little did I know, that this first day of class with him was just the beginning of a long and influential relationship. Rest in peace.

Picture of Don Barr

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Describing the Water

When you are part of the ingroup or the majority, it can be difficult to answer the question, what is culture? I recently talked about right handed people not having to think about being right handed. It is like asking a fish to describe water. When the water is all around you and it’s all you see and all you know, it can be difficult to even notice the water. Let alone describe it.

The times I have been most aware of the water around me is when I have experienced what it is like to be in the outgroup or part of the minority. These moments have brought a range of emotions; from discomfort, frustration, confusion, disbelief, and anger. They have been unforgettable teaching moments that have stayed with me for decades. For now, I will highlight a few of the times that I became very aware of the water based on three different dimensions of culture:

  • I can remember a wonderful night spent with a bunch of friends. All of them were native Spanish-speakers. Even though I knew some Spanish, I was not fully engaged and involved. It was a super fun evening with lots of laughter and everyone did their best to make sure I felt included. Although I enjoyed the people, the music, and the food, I still felt just the slightest bit detached and isolated. I wasn’t part of something that I wanted to be a part of. It made me think about people who are constantly surrounded by people who don’t share their native language and what that must feel like day after day.
  • I’ll never forget a rainy day that I spent with a friend who uses a motorized wheelchair. I drove her accessible van to a music concert that was held in a historic building that was not accessible. To get to our seats, we had to enter the concert hall from the back of the building and go through the kitchen. After the concert, someone parked too close to the van and we couldn’t use the ramps. After that experience, I try to remember the challenges that my friend faces every day when she leaves her home and I also watch the lines when I park near an accessible space.
  • I vividly recall a meal shared with an African-American friend at Cornell. After going through the cafeteria line together, I could tell he was upset about something. When I asked, he shared his frustration with the racist cashier. We talked and I told him the cashier was always super disrespectful to me too. We eventually came to the conclusion that she was just a nasty person. But I suddenly realized that my friend interpreted negative interactions based on his skin color and the possibility of racism, while I had never once had that thought occur to me.

Have there been times in your life that you noticed the water? How did it make you feel? Did it have a lasting impact?

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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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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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