I’ve been very intentionally active in anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multicultural (ARAOMC) programs, groups, ministry, and actions over the last 15 years. Much of my involvement has been as a white person working with other white people to learn more about systems of power and privilege, and to explore white culture and what it means to be white in the United States in these times. Lately, this has led me to explore intercultural development and increase my own intercultural competency.
In many ARAOMC programs, participants are asked to tell the story of their awakening to whiteness, racism and systems of oppression. During my most recent experience with this exercise, I tried to think of my awakening as one long thread of stories, but as I listened to others share their stories around the circle I kept discovering new stories. I realized this is not a linear set of stories rolled into chapters in the book of my life. I realized this aspect of my life (our lives?) is more like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle is an event, an incident, a book, a movie, a conversation, or some new experience that shapes my understanding of the complex world of culture, identity, and oppression. There’s no big picture to guide the placement of the pieces of the puzzle, and it seems the puzzle is constantly growing and morphing into something new.
Here’s one segment of the puzzle of my cultural development. I grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. I didn’t know that I lived in white world … it was just my world. There was one street connected to our subdivision where Black families lived. I was curious as I ventured through there on my bicycle, but I don’t recall any interactions with the people who lived there. My memory of elementary school is that all the students were white, but we did have one teacher who was Black. There may have been students of color in my middle school, but I don’t remember. There were Black students in high school, but I had very limited interactions. My world was white…very white…and I had no idea this was so.
I overheard family conversations in support of civil rights and I understood the faith I grew up in, Unitarian Universalism, to be involved and supportive of these efforts as well. I remember when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered; I was 7 years old. We were in D.C. either on that day or a day or so after…I’m not sure. We heard that riots were breaking out and my father rushed to get us out of the city. I remember being scared, but not sure what it was I was supposed to be scared of.
I was raised to be color blind … to see all people as “the same” or equally human. I was raised with the idea that all people either do, could, or should, live the life I lived. I did not comprehend there were significant cultural differences, even in my own neighborhood, until years later.
My father would often travel to Japan in the course of his profession, and he would bring back souvenirs for us kids … kimonos, chopsticks, dolls. He went to other places as well. I considered these all as exotic; places I read about in books or studied in school that were different and exciting. I knew that people in other countries spoke different languages, perhaps (probably) dressed differently, and ate different foods. But, I had no thoughts about other ways of being a family, or other ways of seeing the world.
We were normal and I thought everyone else was normal too (my normal) … even if they lived in a different country or had different shades of skin. As far as I knew the values I learned through “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver,” and “My Three Sons” were the values everyone across the globe shared. Certainly everyone everywhere wanted to be just like us, right?
In my recent trip to Japan I noticed many cultural differences. It’s hard not to compare … I would hear these phrases in my head over and over: “Oh, I wish WE were more like that!” or “WE do that better.” But those were false statements popping up in my mind. First of all, WE is a misnomer. Defining American cultural ways of being is not possible. It certainly seems that the Japanese people, based on my limited experience, value politeness and cleanliness far more than I have experienced here in the United States in general, but not specifically. If I make any statements about American culture, these would be gross generalizations; this is probably true for Japan as well.
On the plane ride to Japan, I watched a video that offered visitors to Japan a few guidelines for how to adapt to Japanese culture. This made me wonder what a video for people traveling to the United States might offer? What advice would you give to someone visiting the United States for the first time? How would it be different if they were visiting Atlanta, New York, Houston, or Miami? Or if they were visiting Iowa, Colorado, Vermont, or New Mexico? If they were here on business or for pleasure? If they were older or younger, traveling with young children or on their honeymoon? If they were Asian, Black, Hispanic, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, or living with a disability?