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?

1+
1+

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?

2+
2+

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?

1+

1+

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?

1+
1+

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?

1+
1+