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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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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Ingroups and Outgroups

In my last post, I used the words majority and minority. As we examine different dimensions of culture, there are also different majority and minority groups. These terms refer to the number of people who fit into a certain demographic group, but these terms may not always be accurate. For example, although men are considered the majority gender group in the United States, women slightly outnumber men (51% to 49%). Another example is Christians; while they are the religious majority in our country, they are a minority religion across the globe.

Rather than use the terms majority and minority, I prefer the terms ingroup and outgroup. Outgroups are cultural groups that are disenfranchised, exploited, and victimized in a variety of ways by the social structure. Ingroups are dominant cultural groups that are privileged by birth or acquisition, who knowingly or unknowingly, reap an unfair advantage over members of the outgroup.

To put this in an apolitical context, we can look at handedness. If you are right handed, you can go day to day without ever considering your dominant hand. It’s something that you probably don’t think about often, if at all. However, people who are left handed are forced to think about it more than you may realize.

For example, most public computer stations are set up for people to mouse with their right hand. Many pens and scissors work better if you are right handed. Sports equipment such as ball gloves and golf clubs are usually designed with right handers in mind. In large college lecture halls, the flip up desks are made for right handed students. Cameras and some power tools are easier to use if you are right handed.

As a right handed person, I was unaware of the challenges that left handed people faced. Simply put, left handed people are put at a disadvantage and right handed people have no idea. If you are right handed, you are part of the numerical majority (90%) and the ingroup.

Exploited and victimized? These are strong words to describe an outgroup and they might make you cringe. While being left handed carries little social stigma today, historically it did. I know someone who was born left handed and she told many stories of being smacked on the hands and even having her left hand tied behind her back while she was in public school during the 1950s. All of this was due to the social stigma attached to being left handed. Today, the idea of punishing a child for being left handed seems pretty ridiculous.

The change in attitude about handedness reiterates a point from an earlier post: culture is fluid and it can change. We cannot imagine such things happening today simply for being left handed. I wonder what other aspects of culture will also change with time. Have you noticed certain cultural dimensions becoming more accepted in your lifetime? What changes have you observed? Do you think these changes are for the better? Why or why not?

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