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Cultural confrontations

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Kids say the darnedest things. Working at a camp with high-schoolers last summer, I gained a new perspective on a younger generation. “Younger” by only a few years, sure – but contrary to popular belief, college really does expand your mind and help you mature.

In observing the dynamics of an age I myself so recently outgrew, my insights were not entirely positive. For instance, the campers would toss around racial stereotypes that could be playful or border on brutal insensitivity. To them, things like big Mexicans or golf-playing African-Americans were anomalies to be pointed out.

Before you stop reading, my misanthropic reader, know that I too was once in your position. Sure, thought I, this whole race issue is important. But we’re light-years beyond that now, aren’t we? Racism may exist in some parts of the world, but here in our little community we are surely too egalitarian to waste time worrying about dead issues of the past. Racial conflicts have been resolved, the world has learned its lesson, and our new generation will usher in an era of humanitarian peace once we claim our place in society and brush aside the dying embers of our less-tolerant progenitors.

I held this mindset for my first two years on campus. If a column had nothing shocking to say about race or ethnicity in the first paragraph, I would probably skip over it. What more could be said? At my most close-minded, I even thought that if we all just left this supposed “issue” alone, it would eventually become moot and we would all come to a glorious understanding of our harmonious multiculturalism.

Wrong. In the months since my experiences last summer, I am rethinking the way in which we learn about other cultures. Because there most definitely are still things that need to be said. I’m not taking an overly cynical stand on the matter – MLK and others have not toiled in vain, and we are leagues beyond the segregation of fifty years ago. But in our age, as America blinks the dust out of her eyes and realizes she is not alone (for example, we are just now confronting the Arab world for the first meaningful time), compassionate minds are needed. Minds that won’t see generalities.

Back to the camp situation. The playful comments didn’t bother me, but the arrogant presumptions of cultural awareness did. Campers assumed they knew all about a race or culture, when in some cases they were obviously encountering such a person for the first time. The source of their behavior lies in a careless ignorance, something many of us can identify with. We assume what we’ve “heard” about an ethnicity applies to individuals, when we actually have no personal experience to guide our behavior.

An ignorant mind, in terms of race, probably means you’re trying to comprehend generalities, when you should be focusing on particulars. The problem many people experience when trying to break out of their bigotry stems from not being able to see past the entrenched praxis that urges us to see things in broad strokes. When accused of using stereotypes, one’s compensatory and superficial reaction often clings to the same kind of textbook totalities, only with an aim of compassion. Example: Don’t know anything about black people? Just watch Dave Chappelle and take notes. No personal interaction necessary.

We are all guilty of this culture co-opting. Cultures are valuable, incredibly dense and dynamic organisms. Understanding one takes time, and we cannot honestly consider ourselves multicultural if we do not invest the time to learn. You cannot understand a race or a culture through the incomplete lens of fashion or television or holidays, thank God (think St. Patrick’s Day). Those important elements help broaden your horizons, but they are secondary to the integral demand of understanding individuals. The real cure is to try to learn about a culture from a person, not to learn about a person from a culture.

Don’t view individuals as tools to help you gather knowledge, but when the opportunity arises; do try to meet diverse people and get to know them. Don’t approach them assuming the article on Wikipedia about their culture will help you understand their actions; instead, learn about their background by inter-acting with them. I delineate the prefix to stress that understanding is a two-way street: it requires dialogue, not monologue. To work against the cultural ignorance that breeds hate, meet people. And please avoid stereotypes and generalizations, even ones said casually or “in good fun.” I know at least a few of the campers matured in this manner after actually talking to new people.

Primarily, try to open your mind and don’t assume the struggle to end bigotry and stereotyping has ended. Many people still use stereotypes, learning about “the wholly other” from television rather than from a person. Try to change that – because after all, there is hope. You’ve got to admit, it’s getting better … a little better all the time.

James Dechant is a junior studying abroad in Rome this semester. Questions, complaints and rude remarks can be sent to [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.