Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cultural Awareness

The five boroughs of New York City are vast, and if one is unfamiliar with the various subways, buses, gypsy cabs, it would be easy to get lost in what might feel like a strange land. The double-edge sword of living in New York is that we can become desensitized to other ethnicities. An inherent danger of a perceived melting pot is living in cultural enclaves due to fear, ignorance, and intolerance.

I've always been aware of myself as an African American having been born and raised in the southwest, but it wasn't until I relocated to the East Coast did I understand that my view had to change.

America attracts people from around the globe, and nowhere is this more apparent than in New York. While I don't think there's a danger in living in such close proximity to our neighbors, but the evening tells a different story with regular cultural clashes, police brutality, and hate crimes against minorities and immigrants. 

Morning commutes to work, school, or job interviews, the subway car is filled with a cacophony of accents, dialects, and laughter. We're stuffed inside like sardines, breathing on each other as we grab hold of the safety pole as the express train bolts underground. 

What do our parents teach us about people who are different? What can our parents teach us if we've never encountered someone from a remote region of the world?

My mother didn't raise me to be racist or intolerant. Life in Texas isn't representative of life in New York, but things were simpler back then. Houston is so big that conceivably a group of people could isolate themselves and never encounter a different ethnic group. I grew up in a predominantly African American community: church, grade school, civic organizations. It wasn't until junior high that I had Mexican classmates who were bussed in from the surrounding areas. 

It wasn't until high school that I'd had Asian, white, or international classmates. Imagine my surprise and or naiveté when I encountered non-black students who weren't as intelligent or more intelligent. Black students were taught that we had to be 150% better than our white counterparts on the other side of town. 

It took a few weeks to make friends in the more culturally-diverse high school I transferred into. There were mornings I didn't want to wake before the crack of dawn and wait for the big yellow bus, but I know now that there was something better in store for me in the tony River Oaks location.

I learned, slowly, to embrace people and situations previously unfamiliar. Some of those lessons have remained with me, while others are still hard to grasp. Cultural acceptance is an individual choice, and can't be taught, legislated, or mandated. 

We sometimes have to remind ourselves that an overhead racial slur, a veiled or obvious slight at work, or an in your face attack, too, is an individual choice. 

1 comment:

Min. Diane L. Harris said...

I have always been acutely aware of the cultures of others because that's all I grew up with--the cultures of others. Which you'd think might make these other cultures my comfort zone, but you might be as surprised as I was-- when I finally became more aware of me and mine--that others are always others no matter how much we identify with or love them. This is not necessarily negative, we all need a certain self awareness that includes recognizing the differences between you and he and they and me.

I am black. I met my first black classmate in the second grade. I had no black friends beside him until college, at least not outside school. My parents drove me to the homes of other black children (who attended other schools) so I could play with them.

This may sound like the work-up to "woe is me" tale, but it isn't; it's just the facts. With a white Jewish father, and a black Christian mother (who later converted to Judaism), who filled our home with both black and white friends, and a smattering of guests from many nations and tongues, I'm sure I had the best cultural awareness and acceptance training available in a small decidedly non-diverse northern town.

When I arrived in New York City to begin my college education, it was like a dirty, smelly/shiny, wonderful shadow of heaven for me. Everyone was represented.

Moving from New York to Nashville in 1987 (before the late 1990's influx of New Yorkers, Californians, Eastern Europeans, North Africans, and Mexicans hit town)_was quite a culture shock. There I was again surrounded by nothing but plain old American white and black people. Not a sushi joint, falafel, or cannoli in sight either.

In Nashville, though, I finally became a "sister". Maybe because I was in my 30's and 40's then and the women I met at work and church were also maturing, at last I found a whole collection of black "sisters" who were not intimidated by my light skin or grade of hair or height or whatever(at least not for long) and cared about me beneath the surface. The fact that these women were all Christians and were there when I surrendered to the faith probably informed this dynamic more than anything else.

Two years ago I moved to Richmond, Virginia, a place that has it's own historic and current racial issues, although it seems that other people notice this a great deal more than I do.

Now I look back on my life and thank God for having had every experience I've had--good and bad--and having known every person I've known--friend or foe--and relish the way my life has been enriched by interacting with so many different kinds of people and I feel sorry for folks who cut themselves off from this richness and opportunity.

There's a Bible story about God destroying a tower because the builders were united to try and reach heaven in order to take it over. Because of this supposedly He scattered us and caused us to speak different languages. I think He wants us to figure out how to unite again--but this time UNDER Him and not trying to be above Him. Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to the mission.

Diane L. Harris