On the Corner
The challenge of finding a new “you”
by Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief –
A vital part of thoroughly knowing one’s self requires the conceptualization of one’s own culture. The product of the effort becomes a cultural identity. Without the effort to achieve this, people cannot completely understand who they are and, consequently, they live an incomplete life—a life without integrity.
Such insight is not easily accomplished, but such an understanding is essential if we are to be successful in helping others make progress in life’s journey.
One reason it’s difficult is that this society is becoming increasingly diverse. The age spread seems wider. The income spread seems to find the wealthy having more and the poor having less. Most of the poor are visible minorities representing different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Some have lived in this nation for generations and others are recent arrivals. Approximately three-fourths of those entering this nation’s labor force are people of color. Minority populations make up about half the nation’s public school enrollment. Belief systems vary widely, and the manner in which believers practice their belief systems vary even more. This variance brings different value structures, different ways of worship, different attitudes toward principal institutions of society.
We both value this diversity and fear it.
For instance—how do you feel when you find yourself a lone minority in the presence of members of a different cultural group? How much effort have you made in understanding cultures different from your own? Are the people with whom you usually choose to associate members of a different cultural group? Do you perceive your own culture to be the “best?”
American society is multicultural. No single, consistent system of values, attitudes or beliefs drives behavior. There is, however, a general acceptance of some basic principles that guide the conduct of this nation. Such concepts as equal protection, equal rights, a rule of law, individualism over community and freedom limited by personal responsibility are generally accepted. The differences reveal themselves in externals like dress, and in internals like judgmentalism.
We have a hard time dealing with differences. We seem to choose to be around people who are similar to us. Somehow, people who are different from us frighten us. If people who are different from us in appearance, beliefs and values move into our neighborhoods, some of us choose to move. We flee—acting from the fear. This flight denies us the opportunities to experience otherness, the notion that the world is populated by people who are different from us.
In this rapidly shrinking globe—where people telephoning from the other side of the world call and try to interest us in refinancing mortgages —we are required to admit the absolute reality of “differentness.” In a free society with widely advertised opportunities we can’t deny difference. We are a new culture—a culture of differentness, and our world is multicultural. This fact demands that we confront the level of our acceptance of this idea of otherness. Refusing to do so leads only to alienation.
When we accept otherness as a reality and confront our feelings and thoughts that push us to isolation we learn quickly that there are many more differences within a group of people from a common culture than there are between their culture and ours. This helps us engage our massive tendencies toward overgeneralization. It seems to inhabit all of us. We take a little information about one or two people and draw conclusions about an entire group. This is stereotyping and leads to racism.
Embracing otherness by confronting our fears, challenging our tendencies toward stereotyping, and learning about other cultures allows us to develop cultural empathy.
The development of this ability to “feel with” those from another culture allows us to be sensitive to them. We are “real”—genuine with them. We’re able to respect them as fellow humans, individuals, just like that person who has lived next door for the past decade and who, often, is a genuine pain.
Feeling uneasy with people who are different is not in itself wrong. You are not a bad person for feeling that way. After all, feelings are neither plus or minus—neither good or bad—neither right or wrong. They are simply feelings. Problems arise with our behavior following a feeling. Making the wrong choice can reinforce stereotyping by the other person and destroy relationships.
The challenge of Christianity is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love others as if they were our neighbor. Now, I recognize that we even have some considerable difficulties in achieving this goal with people born and raised in the same culture as ours. Understandable. We are human. Therefore, the true test of the depth of our commitment to Christ comes in the way we treat those different from us.
Sometimes this difference is cultural. Sometimes it’s a “class” difference. Failing that test leads to serious tears in the eyes of Christ and a failure experience in our love for others.
Somehow, I believe this rejection of others disappoints God more than any other behavior we choose. It’s no fun to disappoint those who love us.
Therefore, let’s work diligently to achieve second culture acquisition— embracing fully our own culture and equally embracing the reality of being multicultural.
There’s a growth challenge for us all.