It would seem impossible for anyone to deny the close, interconnectedness of all peoples around the globe, given the immediate domino effect of crashing economies around the world that continues, following the initial crises in the US. For me, it was Iceland going bankrupt just three days into the crisis that hit this message home. Iceland?
Yet Margee Ensign, Dean of the School of International Studies (SIS), and Associate Provost for International Initiatives at the University of the Pacific said that “in a survey of first-year University students at universities and colleges across the US…only about one-third said it was essential for them to learn about other countries and cultures.
Unfortunately, stereotypes and prejudice easily fill the void where active learning and first-hand, empathic experience are missing. While Ensign was referring to international experience and understanding cultures from around the globe, the same can be said for learning about other cultures here in the US. And, if you don’t believe that people form very strong ideas and opinions about people of different cultures and countries, even while actively avoiding it, talk to your children, or talk to anyone’s children.
I still recall my conversation over 10 years ago with a colleague’s son, an African American boy who was three at the time, who asked me “are you black?”, and then decided, “no, I think you’re white,” before I answered. If we think we can wait until our children are older to talk about race we are wrong. At three, this child was being taught the concepts of black and white, seemingly not just based on skin color alone (I am white).
My own child constantly asks revealing questions or says things that get at the completely ridiculous nature of prejudice or the extent of injustice, from asking “what if people with teeth didn’t like people without teeth,” to thinking that Harriett Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were contemporaries, working side-by-side to end slavery. My son is only 7. He also has this deep desire to travel to Egypt and to try Egyptian food, which makes me need to check my own unconscious biases, based, possibly, on 35 year old Hebrew school studies.
While I hope I guide him well, his questions are really a gift for me, forcing me to do something that is a critical in the road to building intercultural appreciation and understanding, and to actively build positive world images based on fact, experience and empathy. Perhaps this is the start of my own AAA plan: Articulate, Align, Act.
- Articulate a position. Articulate what makes you uneasy so that you can break it down and get rid of the underlying assumptions. Articulate what you believe in, and speak up when someone espouses stereotypes or prejudice.
- Align your position with your life’s goals. Look at how to integrate your commitment to being anti-prejudice into your work, your social activities, your life.
- Act in alliance with your position and goals. Host an international student in your home, or plan ways to learn together with your child, or on your own.
I like to say to my son, “Sweetie, if you are going to win the Nobel Peace Prize one day, you have to start now.” It may sound crazy, but a picture of a world where everyone, everyday, gauged their decisions based on preparing for the Nobel Peace Prize, doesn’t sound so bad.