A New Approach

Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard, part 3

It’s been 20 years since I attended my first UU week-end workshop on anti-racism in our congregations. It was part of UUA’s "Journey Toward Wholeness" initiative. It seemed to me that about a third of the white people in attendance were ticked off by the claims toward which they perceived the facilitators were nudging us. Nobody likes to be a called racist – and a goodly number of my fellow Unitarian Universalists thought that’s what they were being called.

Since that first experience with an anti-racism workshop, I’ve been to some others through the years. Some of them were workshops just for ministers. Even among my dear colleague Unitarian Universalist ministers, attempts to seriously engage in discussions of white privilege and the ways privileged white people act to protect and defend their privilege tend to tick off about a third of the white people in the room. A few of them would -- as it is their accustomed white privilege to be able to do -- express their annoyance and thus redirect the attention of the gathering to the frustrations or hurt feelings of the aggrieved white folks. These workshops seemed to end up going nowhere.

I would listen to angry, reactive words from fellow Unitarians trying to understand and empathize but ultimately unable to make sense of what was bothering them. It’s clear to me that I am the beneficiary of white privilege in thousands of ways large and small, many of which I rarely notice. It’s clear to me that I am largely tacitly complicit in the perpetuation of this privilege. I would like to be part of a mass movement to dismantle that privilege, but from what I was seeing at anti-racism workshops, that movement was not getting off the ground. It was all very discouraging.

In Fall 2010, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association initiated a series of collegial conversations – through workshops at local chapter gatherings of UU ministers – called “Whose Are We?” It didn’t, at first, have anything in particular to do with anti-racism and multi-culturalism. After a couple years, the Ministers Association then launched a follow-up initiative called, “Who Are Our Neighbors?” I attended a gathering of Florida chapter of the Minister’s Association in October 2012 and participated in a “Who Are Our Neighbors?” workshop at which I was introduced to the DMIS: Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. It still ticked off a few of my colleagues – but only a couple, and the issues seemed to be minor presentational ones that could be easily fixed.

I was given a new hope for the possibility of congregational anti-racism work. Here was an approach that doesn’t call anyone a racist. It’s not really about unconscious prejudices so much. It deftly bypasses any temptation to detour into pointless squabbles about such things as whether members of oppressed minorities can be racist themselves or whether “racism” only applies to certain members of the privileged majority. It gives us a way to talk about important issues of cultural difference without bringing up the word “racism” at all. I think we do need to confront actual racism, recognize it and call it what it is, but we can work our way to that point more effectively with a stronger foundation – which it seems to me the DMIS provides.

It’s a developmental model – that is, it says that people develop through stages – like Piaget’s stages of cognitive development of children, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, or James Fowler’s stages of faith development. The model was created by Milton Bennet and Mitch Hammer – who had been going to anti-racism trainings and noticing just what I had been noticing: that about a third of the white people were annoyed rather than enlightened. They began to wonder why. Why do some people react this way and other people react a different way? Perhaps they’re at different stages in their development! Perhaps every stage is an important, helpful, and adaptive response to certain conditions – it has values which we can recognize.

It’s true that whatever is identified as a later stage of development will unavoidably seem to be judged “better,” but Unitarian Universalists with our third principle ought to be able to handle this. Our third principle says we affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Notice the two aspects at work here: Acceptance of one another – exactly where they are and who they are -- while at the same time encouragement to growth, encouragement to grow into something other than what they are now.

Is this a contradiction? Can we truly be accepting people just the way they are if we’re also encouraging them to change, to grow? If you’ve ever been a parent – or ever had a moderately loving and effective parent – then you know this is no contradiction. We love our children for just what they are – while also encouraging their growth and development because a growing, changing being IS what they are, and that process of development benefits from guidance.

Many of us carry that same approach into our relationships with peers, with friends. We accept them for what they are, while also, when the time is right, call them on their stuff, offer them guidance, encourage their growth, as they do for us. So I’m hopeful about the prospects for UUs to work together to guide ourselves to greater levels of intercultural sensitivity. It won't be easy, but it can be done.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Intercultural Sensitivity is Hard!"
See also
Part 1: Juneteenth
Part 2: Unknown Freedom
Part 4: Denial, Polarization, Minimization
Part 5: Go 90

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