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Everyday People*

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The New York City Police Department has a melting pot guide for its officers. This guide offers tips for understanding the ingredients that make up our multicultural stew. At first blush it would seem a little quaint in the 21st century to need such a guide (in New York City). Unless the police recruits are coming from a small town (in the 1950s!) it’s a pretty sure bet that they’ve met or seen people of other backgrounds. But more than a cursory familiarity is needed on the front lines.

What is striking about this 21st century guide is the assumptions it makes. The reports of its content would suggest that it is written for the white, Christian, heterosexual police officer. Unfortunately there’s nothing unique about this approach. “Diversity” manuals are almost always written from that perspective (and without irony!) Social worker guidelines, medical manuals, public and private sector human resource documents are almost always written from the perspective of the white Christian heterosexual. Anyone doubting this need only flip through the tomes in pursuit of the chapter: Understanding White Christian Heterosexuals. Good luck with that.

Beside the obvious bias that this perspective has, there is a larger efficacy issue at hand. Police officers, social workers, et al. who are not white, Christian and heterosexual experience a gap in their training. A social worker, let’s say from an observant Jewish urban background, working in a rural white Christian area is not well served by this type of training. It is assumed that she will know the customs and culture of white rural Christians. The assumption that NYPD officers are white, Christian and heterosexual is (mercifully) outdated. A first-generation Chinese-American police officer may be well versed in the customs of Chinese-Americans but not know the customs and culture of white Christians. It is true that people who are outside of the power-base of a society know some of the ways of that power group. It is an integral key to survival to know of the holidays and some customs of Christians, whites and heterosexuals if you are not of that background. But the more subtle cultural cues (the type which are always addressed in these manuals and training) need to be spelled out clearly for all people of all backgrounds. Creating diversity manuals, which only have the potential of being 100% effective for white Christian heterosexuals transcends irony.

By not viewing whites, Christians and heterosexual people as a “group” we are asserting that these people are the norm and everyone else is a minority or special interest. This perspective is not helpful and is on the verge of being utterly false. If nothing else it is woefully old-fashioned. When it comes to the topic of cultural awareness we must be ahead of the curve not behind it.

*I am no better and neither are you
We are the same whatever we do – Sly Stone (1968)

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Posted by on June 11, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Seeing Differences

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I’m a profiler. Why pretend otherwise? Without any effort whatsoever; the appearance, and speech of a stranger is rapidly calculated and a (metaphorical) card pops out that reads; “tourist” “nanny” “poser”. We all do this to one extent or another. People who can not assess people by visual and verbal cues are often taken to a specialist. There is an actual biological origin and motivation for this ability. Our senses exist to take in information and to assess danger. We may not know everything about the tiger say, its hobbies or dreams, but we know it’s a tiger and it’s headed straight toward us.

Most everyone can make certain generalizations about people very quickly. This comes in handy when looking for directions; would you ask a tourist how to get somewhere or would you ask a local? Of course you’d have to be able to identify a tourist and a local. And, this is where people may get themselves into trouble. “Appearance” is not a question of skin tone or pant waist. The way in which someone carries him or herself is an integral part of their appearance and often speaks volumes about who they are. What a person says and not just how they say it is also key. Grammar, syntax and accent are fascinating but may tell you less about someone’s intentions than what it is they’re actually saying. What people say (and don’t say) is probably the best (and perhaps only) reliable indicator of who a person is.

A 20-something in a stuck elevator wailing how ‘this is the single worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life’ has led a charmed life, no? The same could be said about a supervisor who without a word, routinely hands you his empty coffee cups. The stranger, who worlessly pushes you to the ground at the sound of an explosion, knows a thing or two about survival. Our past and our sense of our place in the world are continuously communicated. We tell our stories (laced with varying degrees of fiction) literally and figuratively. For those who engage in the literal, it’s always fascinating to see what they include and choose to omit. In their editing, they often tell us more about themselves than they ever intended. Case in point: a woman wrote the story of her small child’s dog attack (just to be clear; the dog attacked the child.) It’s a traumatizing and bloody story that quite frankly is entirely her doing. She has remorse for the trauma and the facial scar but seems to have zero understanding of her role in the mauling. She knowingly created an extremely dangerous situation, not just for her own child but for anyone in proximity. That her children were not removed from the home, she was not imprisoned and was paid to write about her sorrow can only lead me to come to this conclusion; she is privileged. Had she lived in public housing the authorities would be aware of her behavior. If she had been to a public hospital the authorities would know. If she had looked a certain way or talked a certain way, the authorities would know.

It causes me no pleasure that I have engaged in the same act of profiling that perpetuates such inequity. But how do we ever fight for justice if we cannot detect the injustices? The only way to see that people are treated differently is to see the differences. There is nothing immoral or politically incorrect about acknowledging that people are diverse. What is morally reprehensible is to engage in separate and unequal justice.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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