A Skill, Not an Attitude

Learning to Love Diversity, part 3

A few weeks ago I was introduced to a woman. She was wearing the style of head covering that I associate with Muslim women. When I was told her name, it sounded to my ear like a middle Eastern name. I bowed and said I was please to meet her, and I asked if she shook hands. I asked because I know that many versions of Islam include a practice of not touching members of the opposite sex. I would say that in that interaction, I had one foot in stage 4 and one foot in stage 5. I was like a person who has just picked up a clarinet, without being able to play any other musical instrument, and has had a couple clarinet lessons. Such a person has moved beyond having a respectful interest about clarinets to actually trying to practice it, but after two lessons the best she can do is a halting, uneven rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

My relationship to middle Eastern Islamic culture is analogous. Next time I’m introduced to a Muslim woman, I’ll probably do the same thing because that’s the best I can do given my current level of skill with Middle Eastern Islamic culture. With a greater level of skill, I’d be able to exchange respectful greetings in Arabic, I’d be able to gesture in ways that signaled the respect and regard that I wanted to signal – I’d be able to detect the cues that signal whether the people I was meeting probably were or weren’t in a more liberalized Islam that allows intersex hand-shaking in social settings. I’d be as comfortable and competent with their assumptions and expectations of their culture as I am with the assumptions and expectations of the pulpit.

But I don’t have those skills. I have the right attitude (I think -- though I recognize that everyone thinks their own attitude is the right one) but intercultural competence isn’t a matter of attitude. It’s a matter of skills – which take time to practice and learn.

LoraKim, my spouse, speaks Spanish and spends a lot of time in Central and South America where she hangs out almost exclusively with people who live there. She got an intercultural competence that I don’t have.

In some versions of the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity there is a 6th stage, "integration." Integration is a matter of increasing skill and fluency at adapting to other cultures. The difference between stage 5 and 6 is like the difference between having learned a foreign language, but still thinking in English, so when you speak, you are translating in your head from English into the other language – versus simply thinking in the other language.

Much of the discrimination I mentioned (in Part 1) is based in unconscious reactions. Changes in conscious attitude can mitigate some of the discrimination, but attitude changes don’t get at the roots that are unconscious. Learning the skills of adapting to African American culture, and Hispanic culture in its main forms helps us be comfortable with those cultures – helps us know we can work productively and communicate effectively – and that’s what allows the unconscious to begin to let go of its biases against those other culture.

At what stage do you think you are? Most people identify themselves at a stage higher than they actually are. People at stage 2, "defense," will tend to self-report as being at stage 3, "minimization." People at "minimization" will tend to self-report as being at stage 4, "acceptance." I think this reveals, at least, that we do want to be more interculturally sensitive. There is an online survey you can take to clarify what stage you are probably at. Most Unitarian Universalists are in the middle – at the stage 3, minimization stage. We love to say people are basically the same.

The Golden Rule itself – "do onto others as you would have them do unto you" – is a minimization because, in reality, what you would have done unto you might not be what someone of a different culture would want or need. After the Golden Rule comes the Platinum Rule: do unto others as they would be done unto. Doing that requires learning a lot about their culture so you can see what will work for the other person.

You might want to ask – or you might have one little voice inside that wants to ask – why should I have to adapt to them. Why don’t they adapt to me? In the book Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry – a book that was one of the two Common Reads for all Unitarians last year -- the Rev. Adam Robersmith expresses this voice:
“We always talk about meeting people where they are. How about meeting them where we are? When is there ministry to ask people to meet me where I am as a person of color? To ask you to see me for what I am and meet me there?”
Anyone from the nondominant culture has HAD to put a lot of energy into adapting to the dominant culture. So I understand that they can get worn out and long for the ease of other people adapting to them instead of them always having to adapt.

For those of us who are of the dominant culture, the answer is: do what you can. If you can adapt to others, then do. Give them, to the best of your ability, the gift of ease.

And be aware of the brain’s natural self-centered bias: when you think you’re doing all the adapting, you might, in fact, be doing barely more than half of it -- just doing half the adapting is liable to give us the impression we’re doing 90 percent of it.

As for me, I think I’m usually pretty good about being open and curious about differences, but under stress I fall back into assumptions that there is such a thing as universal reasoning and that I can recognize universal needs. I spend most of my time in a cultural bubble of NPR, the New York Times, and my fellow Unitarian Universalists. On the plus side, this culture I'm in does tend to be a culture that's interested in learning, including learning about how different other cultures are and how to get along with them better.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Learning to Love Diversity"
See also: Part 1: Reaction to Cultural Difference: First Stages
Part 2: We Aren't All the Same

No comments:

Post a Comment