Sunday, January 5, 2014

Is Intercultural Competence Privilege As Problematic As White Privilege?

Now this article might sound strange coming from a white girl, so let me explain my background a bit: 

I grew up in Hawaii and loved growing up in such a diverse environment. Every May we would highlight our diversity through our May Day celebration, featuring songs and dance from each culture. We learned to value and respect the many different cultures that make up Hawaii. 

However, on a couple occasions, I experienced something that most Caucasians do not- I was picked on because I was white. For example, I had gum spit in my hair and was pushed against a wall while a girl yelled "f-ing Haole" (a derogatory term for white people) when I was in Junior High. 

In spite of the hurt that comes with being picked on because of your ethnicity (none of the people who picked on me knew me- they just knew I was white), I also had a good understanding as to why there was hostility towards white people by some locals. Missionaries taking over their beautiful land and culture, real estate investors building monstrosities of hotels on the beautiful and serene beaches and the loss of native land to name a few. 

I knew all of this because I had the privilege of growing up in Hawaii and knew how to interact with a diverse group of people as a result. The negative incidents were few and far between, partly because I knew the situation (and got along with all the other non-Caucasians who knew me) and partly because there are only a small number of hostile people. A white kid who had just moved from the mainland would usually be picked on a lot more than a white kid who lived there their whole life. 

In addition to this, I saw the racial caste system in Hawaii. Tongans and Filipinos were often made fun of or treated as less than by other racial groups. Those who had more Hawaiian blood were on the top of the system (and often made it known by writing "100% Hawaiian" on their backpacks and folders). 

I grew up with 4 of my teachers being Japanese, and as a result, I learned a lot more about the horrific treatment of that culture during WWII than a lot of my friends who didn't grow up in Hawaii. 

It is partially because of this, that I realized some minorities have less of a platform than others and some of our horrific incidents in history as a nation have been essentially brushed under a rug. 

I loved my upbringing. I would never change where I grew up. Hawaii is a beautiful place, and 90% of the time is a benchmark for diversity and other cultures coming together to form a wonderful culture of their own. Living there has caused me to constantly desire and appreciate a diverse environment. But it's wrong to say everything is perfect... If we deny that, we can never move forward in terms of race relations. 

As a result of my upbringing, I have a very diverse group of friends, from all different ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds. My husband is Hispanic (which really confuses people when they see my last name and then meet me). Throughout our relationship I have seen my husband encounter a lot because of his race... Things I would have never imagined possible in this day and age. As an interracial couple we have experienced a handful of racist incidents too- cops harassing us, a restaurant in southern Missouri refusing to serve us and people giving us dirty looks.

I present my background merely as a foundation- I am not a white girl who feels like she can talk about different races because "my best friend is black" (though incidentally one if my best friends is). I am a white girl who has experienced a lot when it comes to diversity and race relations. And I am thankful for that, as I know it is a privilege.  However, I also acknowledge I will never fully understand the life of a black man who has been beaten because of his skin color, the life of a homosexual who has been sexually harassed by bullies or what it is like to be an undocumented immigrant who is constantly harassed by ICE. We each have different experiences and our different experiences shouldn't be used as a way to compete with one another as to "who has it worse." Rather these experiences should be used to learn from one another and grow as people. 

Though some of us have experienced varying degrees of racism and hurt, those of us who come from diverse backgrounds have the privilege of having a good foundational understanding of diversity. 

So here are 5 things that those of us with intercultural competence must note:

1. Intercultural competence is a privilege 

My husband and I were shocked when we moved to Missouri. People were so "white" (both skin tone and culturally). Many of them really only knew white people (which made sense it rural Missouri). The move was tough for many reasons, but the worst part about it was the lack of diversity (especially in the food). ;) 

One time, there was woman who we worked with who saw my husband at the store and wished him "Merry Christmas." Then she said "oh I am sorry, do you celebrate Christmas?" My husband was holding stockings and a popcorn can with Santa's face on it.

We had a good laugh about it at her expense, but in hindsight that was wrong. She has lived in an area with only white people her whole life. And tv and the internet can only do so much when you have never experienced living in a diverse environment.

When people say "stupid things" we shouldn't jump at the opportunity to demonize them... We should instead learn more about their background. Yes some people are just bigoted- even if they come from a diverse background. But we shouldn't assume that all people who don't say interculturally competent things are racist- they just haven't had the privilege of living in a diverse environment. Those of us who did, have learned many lessons they have not- we hold knowledge, which is a privilege  This isn't to say that they don't have privilege in many other ways, we should just note this is an area where they do not have the privilege we do. 

2. We often forget about the other minorities 

SNL was in the news for months after Lorne Michaels was confronted for the lack of black female actors on the show. He made a controversial statement saying that they would hire a black female actor when a talented one was available. This statement upset many people, from many different races because there are many talented black female comedians around. The public outcry eventually led to SNL hiring a black female actor in January. 

Though I am glad that SNL responded to the public outcry that there is a major diversity problem, people are acting like SNL is diverse now... It is not. There have been 4 black female actors in SNL's history, but only two Hispanic (males) and no Asians. This is not ok- we should all be continuing with the momentum and outcry for the lack of racial diversity on this show, yet we all seem satisfied that just one group's demands were met. When we only come along one group and forget others who are being marginalized, we are just lying to ourselves. We must not forget other minorities. 

3. We think we are exempt from being racist or bigoted

I love the movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." This movie was so ahead if it's time for many reasons, but namely because Spencer Tracey's character was a progressive man. He stood up for civil rights and believed everyone should be treated equally. But when his daughter brought home a black man, it brought all his true feelings to the surface... and he was conflicted with what he felt. 

I think we all have feelings that are racially motivated whether we realize it it not. Sometimes an incident can bring these ugly feelings to the surface and we are forced to confront them. 

One of my best friends and I were talking once about how we notice we will either think or say something with racist undertones about other drivers while driving through Garden Grove (a predominantly Asian area). We know that we don't really believe a people group can be categorized as bad drivers, nor would we, two seemingly progressive people, want to ever admit we think these things if we are in a bad place. Yet, if we don't acknowledge these feelings when they come up, we will keep pushing them down, and we will never be able to work on our issues and move forward. We must admit that we all have feelings and thoughts we are not proud of, but should acknowledge them and strive to move towards understanding and respect.

4. As a result of #3, we treat all people who are privileged as others

Socioeconomic status, mixed with race is doing more harm than good in academia. It's actually quite offensive. 

Affirmative action in its present state assumes that all minorities come from a lower socioeconomic class and thus will often provide countless scholarship opportunities based off of this logic. This is problematic for two reasons. First; we are mixing socioeconomic status and race. While they are not always mutually exclusive, it's racist to assume and blend them into one category. When we do that, we are placing preconceived labels on people. Secondly, those who are from a lower socioeconomic class, but are not minorities feel as if they are not being offered a fair chance. This builds up feelings of resentment and will cause more racial strife between groups down the road. Those who are white are not always privileged across the board... In some cases they have even less privilege.  We must realize that privilege is categorized (yes you have some privilege as a white male in some areas, but it doesn't always mean you have it across the board- finances, religion, education etc also all play a role in privilege). 

Look at socioeconomic status and race- don't just assume the two are combined. If we do that, we inadvertently treat those we deem privileged (whether correctly or incorrectly) as others.  

5. We need to show more compassion to others 

Since many of us from a diverse environment know what is right and wrong from an intercultural standpoint, we also know what we can and cannot say. And we must acknowledge that this is a privilege  Not every person who says something that is interculturally incompetent is bigoted, some just have not had the privilege that we have had in knowing what is and is not racist (and more importantly why). Yes, books can teach us a lot, but real life experiences give us the ever coveted street smarts, which proves to be much more valuable. 

When I first moved to Missouri, I was taken aback by the ignorant things I would hear. But after two years there, and many heart to heart conversations, I realized there were very few bigoted people, just some who were uninformed. But once they became informed, they changed the way they acted and spoke. Sometimes it takes those of us with privilege to come alongside those who don't have privilege to progress together. 

So there it is... Based off of my looks alone, one would never think I would have the right to talk about such things. Judging someone by their looks is wrong- we need to accept that all of us have a unique background which forms us into the people we are. We need to respect one another and show compassion to those who were not privileged enough to grow up in diverse environments. That is the only way ALL of us will progress and the only way we will make our world a better place for our children.