I can name lots of classes that I have taken over the years that had a profound effect on my life. At Freed-Hardeman it was Dr. Lipe’s Ethics, Dr. Gilmore’s Value’s, and Dr. Cravens’ Marriage and the Family. However, there is one class that I took at Western Kentucky University that changed me more than any single class ever did. Multicultural Counseling with Dr. Karen Westbrooks met me head on before I even knew it.
Throughout the class we were talking about things like cultural competence, mystification, and speaking to a person’s deep culture. At the beginning I was very confused by some of these concepts. Was I not sensitive to the needs of other races? Could I not speak to someone who looked different than me and not insult them? After all, there was an African-American girl in my elementary school class, and I had an African-American roommate for two years. We got along great. These were my thought processes at the time, and after a few weeks with Dr. Westbrooks I soon found out how narrow-minded they were. Well, that’s why we go to class: to be taught. Learning how little you know is the first step in gaining knowledge. Maybe you are like I was. If so, continue reading because the purpose of this article is to bring to light the ways we interact with one another in regards to culture and race. If we can understand the principles of deep culture and what it means to be culturally competent then maybe more harmony will grow in our pluralistic society.
I learned from Dr. Westbrooks that my thoughts and feelings (deep culture) on things are not the end no matter how strongly I might believe them. There are other people in this world with other opinions just as valid as mine. Understanding our differences is the first step in joining at our similarities. When I meet people with polar values from mine I try to learn from them rather than cut them off intellectually. This principle has led me to open up and speak in groups of people about controversial subjects that most would try to avoid. I don’t want to be a blow-hard, so before I speak I consider the make-up of the group and ask, “will this lead to intelligent conversation or an argument.” If it is the former I will discuss politics, religion, and even sex if the goal is to learn. So, if you disagree with this article, let’s learn from one another.
Deep culture is something that most people don’t think about. We commonly think of culture as being race alone, but let me tell you that it is much much more. Deep culture makes you who you are at the core. When Dr. Westbrooks asked what it meant to be me, I had no idea. “I’m a white male from Carthage, TN,” I contemplated. “I play football, I like to draw, and I get along with my parents. What more is there?” Well, deep culture answers the “why” to these statements.
Think about things you and your spouse fought about in the early days of your marriage. The arguments were probably over things that were rooted within you and that you never thought about. One that comes to my mind was how Malita (my wife) always stacked the dishes on the counter. This drove me bananas and I did not understand why she did it because she is actually a very tidy person. I tried every passive-aggressive tactic I knew to change her ways so as to avoid an argument, but to no avail. She continued stacking. One day I finally discussed it with her. I discovered that she had always put the dirty dishes on the counter so that when it was time for them to be washed all she had to do was run the water and put the dishes in to soak. I couldn’t stop laughing after she told me this. I wasn’t laughing at her but at myself because I had not considered that stacking the dishes beside the sink made sense to her. This was what I was learning about in my counseling classes. We are the sum total of all of our life experiences. To see this illustrated further, watch the parent scene in the movie “The Story of Us” starring Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer. Also, consider the following example.
The first morning of your marriage maybe you and your spouse looked at one another and said, “aren’t you going to make breakfast?” If the wife grew up in a house where her dad did this she would expect her man to do the same, but what if the man’s mother always made the breakfast? He would expect the woman to do it. This is just one thing that is deeply rooted into who we are and it is a small part of our deep culture. You don’t know why you do it, you just do. Now, put this on a grander scale. If people who are very similar have extreme differences, how are we to get along with those who come from different backgrounds and have different values? Your ability to accept people for who they are, no matter how different, is how you can develop cultural competence.
In Carthage and nearby Hartsville there is a sizable African-American population. Several were in my graduating class so we tended to get along better than the differing races did in other neighboring counties. There was often name calling and bickering but nothing major; no “race wars.” Those who were involved in these altercations would have fought with a fence post if given the chance. One instance that turned out good happened as follows. Four of my buddies (3 Caucasian and 1 African-American) were in my 1986 Ford Tempo listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Curtis Lowe.” David Gist, an African-American fellow who was heavily into hip-hop, listened as the lyrics began, “Oh Curt was a black man with white curly hair.” David immediately sat up and said, “black man??!” My other buddies and I assured him that it was a good song. After listening to it, he agreed. He didn’t become a southern rock connoisseur nor did he run out and buy a rebel flag, but a bridge was built among friends who had different tastes. I was proud that I had shared my culture in an effective way. We didn’t want to offend David so we helped him understand what the song was about and he appreciated it. Now, had the tables been turned and you or I were in David’s car listening to his music, how respectful would we have been of him?
Most people would deny they are racists, but many people have prejudices. Racism happens when we act on our prejudices. It is a fine line that is crossed more often than most would like to admit. Believing that your neighborhood is going down hill because an African-American family moves in is racism in its simplest form. You are judging someone because of their skin color. Let’s look at this from your new neighbor’s point of view. Without getting to know you he might wish that you would move because your 1982 Trans Am sitting on blocks in the back yard isn’t doing wonders for his property value either.
As we try to live among one another yet retain our own individuality (deep culture) we must not think that we are going to mesh with everyone we meet. Part of getting along with people is appreciating their differences. Keep in mind that appreciating just means we accept the person for who she or he is, so we might not fully accept their way of life as our own. One movie that illustrates this very well is “Remember the Titans.” It is a true story about a small town high school football team in the 1960’s and their struggle with desegregation including the hiring of a new head coach who is African-American. Over the course of the movie the team members learn tolerance and respect for one another. The movie could give the impression that everyone is different and should get along no matter what, but the message balances thanks to the comic relief offered by the daughters of the two coaches (one white and one African-American). The first is a tomboy and the other acts prim and proper like a little lady. They interact throughout the movie and never really mesh, but despite their extreme differences they learn to get along.
Most have never heard the word mystification. It happens when person A says/does something to person B that makes his feelings seem obscure and appear to carry no real meaning. Seinfeld illustrates this very well in an episode where Jerry is infatuated with a woman named Wynona. Unbeknownst to him she is Native American. Jerry wants to impress her so he takes Elaine a gift after a fight they had. Jerry gets her a cigar store Indian and Wynona is at Elaine‘s house when it is delivered. Elaine reads the card, immediately notices his faux pas, and begs him not to read it aloud. Very proud of his clever essay on Native American culture he reads, “Let’s burry the hatchet. We smoke ‘em peace pipe.” He then rocks the Indian and chants, “hiya, howa, hiya, howa” like he’s leading a war dance. Wynona, obviously offended, leaves. Jerry had no idea but made her extremely uncomfortable with his insensitive remarks. Freudian Slips continue throughout the episode with Jerry calling Wynona an “Indian giver” and saying he bought some tickets from a “scalper.” Drawing attention to his Native American references probably did more harm than good, but it was hilarious to see him try to recover. If you take out the sitcom humor the dialogue is a fine example of mystification. Jerry was insensitive to Wynona’s feelings about her culture.
A video I saw in Dr. Westbrooks class showed me clearly how one can mystify the beliefs of another. I can’t remember the title, but it is powerful. It involves a group of men discussing race and how it affects their lives. This conglomerate was made up of varying cultures but at least one Caucasian (Man A) and one African-American/Native American (Man B). Man A talked about how he was sensitive to other cultures. He goes on to say, “Sure, I’m sensitive. On my trips to the mid-west I often spend time looking for Native-American artifacts in the river beds.” After Man A’s monologue, Man B was emotional as he said, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE WITH THIS SKIN OR THIS HAIR!!” Man B had discussed hardships he had faced because of his race and Man A thought he understood them just because he was interested in certain aspects of the culture. This is like saying I know what the Titanic survivors experienced because I fell out of my raft on the Ocoee River. Man B was absolutely offended and rightfully so. Man A’s comments showed just how little he knew about what it meant to be part of a minority group. Man B’s thoughts and feelings were mystified (made to look obscure and carry no real meaning).
I’m not perfect at this cultural competence stuff, but I believe that I’ve come a long way from where I was ten years ago. I try not to look down on people because of their race, sex, or values and I especially try not to judge them. I’ll never know what it is to be African-American or another minority, but I can be sensitive to the fact that these segments of our society face undue hardships simply because of their culture.