Tag Archives: stereotypes

Word Choice | The Power to Shape Attitudes and Entrench Stereotypes

Coffee shops are somewhat like water troughs.  People come in parched and desperate for the black, sometimes sweet, yet always caffeinated rush, but also to shoulder up alongside the regulars, say “howdy,” and postulate on the problems of the local community and the world.

My remaining-at-home kids and I are habitual, four to six visits per week Starbuckers. It helps, of course, that my middle daughter is a recently hired Starbucks barista, but even before she took on her newfound responsibilities and identity (yes, she wears the logo with pride and a smile), we were regulars.

starbucks

If you frequent a place long enough, its staff and customers become a surrogate-like family. Driving up, we can determine before stepping foot in the store whether certain “family members” are there, in particular, a local construction contractor, whose presence is noted in the parking lot by his company’s logo, painted large and long on his dual rear wheel truck.

In Texas, clergy, aka religious professionals, seem to be regular Starbucks fixtures. Several weeks back I was sitting in one of four leather chairs located in our store’s entrance cove, a much vied for place from which to sit, sip, survey incomings and outgoings, and surmise about life. Three gentlemen who obviously knew each other, at least at a “Starbucks level,” were talking about a microbotic wonder. One of the men got up and left for a scheduled business meeting, accompanied by an attractive looking woman, whom I had not seen before. After they left, one of the remaining two men–a minister at a nearby church–remarked to the other, “That’s a pretty girl! That’s about the best work he ever did.”

Was he merely talking “Texan” or did his reference to the woman as “work” reflect and reveal something deeper, less respectful? For example, almost every driver has “worked” to own a vehicle, particularly a first car. The purchased item then becomes one’s “property,” to drive or (mis)treat as one determines or feels like. True of any material object, the allure and luster–e.g., new car smell–diminishes over time, and with it, too, one’s affection for, commitment to care, to maintain, and to fidelity.

If my academic studies benefited my life in no other way, than this one, I would still be exceedingly grateful.  In my face-to-face, experiential studies of other cultures and religions, I learned that our choice of words and our repetitive use of them shape and maintain images, stereotypes, attitudes and perceptions of others–especially those who have not been on the victor’s side of history’s narratives, which, to date, probably includes most anyone who is not male and WASP!

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, David K. Shipler, observes in his book A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, that with contentious topics like race, words have the power to label and circumscribe people, particularly those, historically, who have been bereft of privilege and power.

strangers

Despite the widespread popularity of “tolerance” messages, which on the surface positively advocate for recognizing and respecting people different from oneself in matters racial, religious, cultural, socioeconomic or sexual, such words have become tainted over time by their secondary definitions of “variation from a standard,” or “capacity to endure hardship.” As Shipler sensitively notes of African-Americans, “Black Americans do not want to be ‘tolerated’ as one tolerates deviance or pain. Anyone who advocates tolerance today risks being misunderstood as grudgingly accepting the unpleasant qualities of another group.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I remember driving in a pickup truck through a section of rural, East Texas with a much older and prominent community resident. It was spring time and orange wildflowers–Mexican Hats (Ratibida Columnaris)–were in everywhere display. Obviously trying to conversationally connect with me and provoke a laugh, he remarked with a mischievous smile on the abundance of “n&#g*r tits” in the fields.

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

My discomfort might not have been as acute if I had not just a few weeks prior, had another, even more senior, yet this time female resident shout out twice to her near-deaf husband upon the ringing of their doorbell and during my visit to their home, “THE N&#G@R’S HERE!” (they were expecting an African-American to come by and clean their rain gutters) Come to find out years later that racial prejudice in this part of the United States, was endemic, such that one nearby civil rights advocate claimed “East Texas is Mississippi 50 years ago.”

Benedictine nun and popular speaker/writer, Joan Chittester, observes in Called To Question that “once an image is cast in stone” it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back or reclaim its essence again. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, co-authors of The Myth of Africa, similarly echo about Africa and Africans, “The errors and biases so perpetuated have by now acquired an inviolable tenure.” The truth of this statement is no where more evident than Africa, a place synonymous in the Western mind with “the dark continent.”

Chittester speaks from a woman’s and oft-times socially invisible and undervalued perspective to the inviolable “heresy of God the Father,” in which, religious professionals legitimate their male positions of ecclesial power by stifling, even excommunicating anyone who dares question the status quo’s interpretation of Scripture–one, in which, God, despite disclosing identity to Abraham in neutral gender terms, “I am who am,” is from their accustomed privileged position Solus “Father.”

Call it over-sensitized, call it picky, call it anal, call it what you will, the truth is words possess a passive and active heritability, reflecting attitudes and perceptions toward others different to oneself, as well as maintaining entrenched stereotypes and emotions.

Choice and use of words is often subtle yet significant. It is common among the Christian community to hear or read reference to people different as “non-Christian.” Obviously the implication is that “Christian” or “Christianity” is the exemplar, the standard by which all others are to be assessed. Another popular term of reference is “uneducated,” implying that if you don’t have at least a high school education you’re “less than” — uncivilized, uncultured, uninformed, unworthy, unimportant, and un-opinionated. As my mentor respectfully distinguished, why can’t we be more sensitive by referencing those who possess “informal” versus “formal” education?

Given the world population’s unabated increase, coupled with simmering tensions and all out conflict in countless hot spots, the least we–aka, those privileged to be living in a part of the country/world not yet noticeably affected by overt conflicts of relationship–can do in reshaping a more peaceful, equitable, and just world order, is begin intentionally utilizing vocabulary and language that is respectful, inclusive, and sensitive.

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Why Learn A Foreign Language?

Want to see millions of North Americans experience apoplexy (incapacity or speechlessness caused by extreme anger)?

Insist they become fully conversant in a foreign language!

This is ironical because wherever you go in the United States, at least, from airports and train stations, to Wal-Mart, Costco and Barnes & Noble – even virtual behemoths like Amazon – you’ll see displays of, if not solicited to buy, language learning books and software.

Merely search “Spanish software” on Amazon and 190-pages appear, including Instant Immersion, Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, Learn To Speak, Language Trek, eLanguage, Visual Link, JumpStart, Berlitz, SmartPolyglot, Hooked On, The Learning Company, and, well . . . you get the picture.

If there is such an evident commercial, even educational, push to learn another language, why are we as a nation still so monolingual?

Partly because it’s still too common that required school language courses are taught by non-native or non-fully conversant speakers, who teach grammar and vocabulary but do not insist on full language immersion from day one. This is true for my three girls currently enrolled at elementary, intermediate, and high school.

Partly because as a nation we have been for more than a century, and remain-to-this-day, a “superpower.” Power and privilege generally imply that “the others” have to accommodate themselves to you. NO, I’m not even slightly suggesting this is the way it should be! Power should imply responsibility versus privilege.

I propose that the millions of North Americans, who annually go on mission trips, studies abroad, frequent bucket list vacations, or who start non-profits to eradicate hunger or water shortages in such-and-such African countries, should seriously, as a precondition for going or doing, set a goal of attaining a minimum of Level 2 or 3 (out of 5) proficiency (Limited to Professional) in the language of destination prior to departure.

Why this is important . . .

I could justifiably say “for world peace,” and in the long-term and grand scale of things this is true.

Practically speaking, learning the other’s language minimizes you or your group’s potential (or propensity) to misrepresent the people, culture and country you visit or “help” when you return back home.

The annals of adventure travelogues and missionary correspondence overflow with false witness and disparaging stereotype, which as we know (yet few of us WASPS have experienced), once spoken or visually projected has the insidious power to become the persistent manner by which the world speaks about and views “the other.”

For example, for the past 300 years, portrayal of blacks as savages and heathens, corresponded to a like-treatment of them. According to Winthrop Jordan, former National Book Award-winning historian who wrote several influential works on American slavery and race relations, “Negroes were from the very first encounters with Europeans likened to beasts.”

Why? Because in Africa there resided a beast that was like a man. That is, whites encountered blacks at almost precisely the same time as they encountered apes.  Unfortunately for blacks, this led to rabid European speculations, which incorporated centuries-old traditions with the coincidence of simultaneous ape/African contact.  It resulted in the inevitable correlation of similarities between the “man-like beasts and the beast-like men of Africa.”

Expending the time and many embarrassed frustrations of learning a foreign language also conveys the message(s): “I see you! We are on this life journey together. I value your perspective and way of life equally with my own. Neither of our ways of life or worldview is without fault, yet through sharing and listening to our respective personal and cultural narratives we will respect and honor each other. In respecting each other’s dignity, we will each, then, be open to hearing the candid criticisms we each might need to hear.”

This raises a critical question . . .

What should be the principle reason or motivation to learn a foreign language?

I realize this likely will be met with some derision, yet from my bi-cultural, American and African life experience, I believe most of my fellow Americans might be inclined to learn a foreign language primarily to speak, to tell, or to ask – so as to navigate in and around a foreign country and culture. As a 19th century American missionary to southeast Africa voiced his motivation to learn isiZulu, “I trust however that I shall understand enough of the language to explain to the people the way of salvation.”

I believe the principle reason to study a language should be TO LISTEN. And in listening, TO HEAR. And in hearing, TO UNDERSTAND.

LanguageBlog

A 19th century English clergyman to southeast Africa, John W. Colenso, expressed these thoughts about itinerant travelers and fellow missionaries, “I doubt if they have been able—or willing if able—to sit down, hour by hour, in closest friendly intercourse with natives of all classes, and in the spirit of earnest, patient, research, with a full command of the native language, have sought to enter, as it were, within the [native’s] heart.”

Long before there was language software or language schools, Colenso became fluent in isiZulu through no special skills except diligence, hard work, and a willingness to work and live in near proximity to those people, whose language he wanted to learn.

Of this experience he stated, “I have no special gift for languages, but what is shared by most educated men of fair ability.  What I have done, I have done by hard work—by sitting day after day, from early morn to sunset, till they, as well as myself, were fairly exhausted—conversing with them as well as I could, and listening to them conversing,—writing down what I could of their talk from their own lips, and, when they were gone, still turning round again to my desk, to copy out the results of the day.”

Now . . . in case you’ve been thinking “Scott must be a linguist also,” let me dispel that thought! Unlike my wife who is fluent in Spanish, German, English, and conversant in Zulu, Venda and Swahili, languages do not come easily to me. This is largely due to my having bi-lateral high frequency hearing loss, which practically means that in noisy environments initial word consonants are indiscernible due to them being high-frequency. In short, in noisy contexts it’s often like trying to decipher meaning by hearing only vowels and a consonant or two – imagine Wheel of Fortune contestants!

BUT . . . given my own state and nation’s current and rapidly changing demographics, I’m enrolled in a Spanish course at a local community college, and I do possess Level 3 proficiency in Swahili and Venda.

Would you join me in committing to learn another/foreign language? 

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On Vulnerability and Disengagement

My impetus for blogging about vulnerability and disengagement came from reading Brene’ Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Brown, a Houston-based researcher, catapulted to public awareness as a TED speaker.  Daring Greatly advocates having the courage to live vulnerable lives.

I reflect briefly on two personal examples of vulnerability: Place and space vulnerability. Relational vulnerability.

First, a definition . . . Vulnerability is a state of being open, susceptible and exposed to pain or suffering.

eyevulnerable

Vulnerability is paradoxical, in that risking a state of being vulnerable is a prerequisite to growth and intimacy and even life, as for example chemistry, anatomy, physiology and microbiology are prerequisites for most medical science programs.

Vulnerability assumes many forms and degrees of severity, including these few minor ones of mine from this week: Buying Tampax Pearl “super” and “regular” at Costco for the women in my life.  Being shown three close-up photographs of a tuxedo cat’s obstructed anus by a AT&T repair technician after I innocently asked him during a home visit to repair our internet connection what kind of cat he had, and he felt obligated to “show-tell” me more than I cared to know!

risk&reward

Vulnerability occurs by at least one of three means: 1) a voluntary and intentional choice (e.g., me buying a typically feminine product), 2) an imposed duty  (e.g., a course requirement to do or visit something unfamiliar, like the Jain temple below), or 3) an unforeseen consequence of one’s words or actions (e.g., being shown the tuxedo cat photos).  Courage and risk are not only common to all three, but prerequisites to vulnerability’s rewards.

A light, comical example: At some point in my marriage I took a risk and chose to buy my wife an outfit of clothes.  It was a vulnerable, risky and spur of the moment act because it’s a typically feminine versus manly thing to do, plus, she might have taken exception to or misinterpreted my act and/or what I bought her.  Yet, having acted despite the risk, I was and continue to be rewarded by her: liking most everything I buy; I get all the compliments indirectly from her friends, plus, it’s fun to hear the standard I’ve now created for their husbands and boyfriends once they hear I bought all my wife’s outfits; and, finally, I get to “dress her hot.”  Hah!

My wife wearing & receiving "my clothing line."

My wife wearing & receiving “my clothing line.”

My first significant personal experience with vulnerability occurred during postgraduate studies in world religions.  I entered the program from a conservative upbringing, similar it seems to Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil, who described his early formative “context of meaning” as Southern Baptist, but who today – like me – has journeyed far from that without being merely reactionary.

My belief structure and self-identity leading up to graduate studies was evangelical, in so far as that communicates a consciousness and spirituality overly concerned with not only “how to get into,” but also “who’s in and who’s out” of heaven/eternity.  Ultimately, I believe, it’s a frail and insecure faith.  It’s a faith orientation rabbi David Hartman aptly observed about, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

It’s a faith still reflective of, if not mired in its Puritan roots, especially its perception of God:  loving, yes, but also capricious and punitive.  To illustrate using a common African image  – It views eternal security from the fearful perspective of an infant having of necessity to cling to its mother’s neck lest it fall off, rather than seeing the mother’s anxious love as all-embracing and anxious to ensure, herself, that her child doesn’t fall and injure itself.

My wife with our youngest.

My wife with our youngest.

My studies program required that I engage first-hand with cultural and religious difference.  So, for example, instead of learning about Jains from a disengaged and purely theoretical vantage point (books and lecture), I engaged in a year-long participation and engaged study of a Jain community in Richardson, Texas, with no conscious intention other than to experience and understand a people and faith different from my own.  Phenomenology is the term that describes this approach to study.  In the so-called Bible Belt of the southern United States, learning about the religious and cultural “different other” more often than not, it seems, focuses on identifying and emphasizing cultural and religious differences so as to more effectively proselytize.

Indiareligions

Recalling that first Sunday in 2000, twelve years later, stirs up vulnerable feelings of discomfiture. What would “their” place of worship look like?  Am I appropriately dressed?  Has everyone removed their shoes outside the front door, or only some people?  Should I?  Will my shoes be here when I leave?  What kind of reception awaits me as a guest, a white face among likely all brown?  How should I greet them?  Do I greet the men differently than the women? What will “their” order of worship be?  Will I be expected to participate in everything?  Would I even be allowed to?  Will someone be available to explain things?

Similar fears and imagined antagonisms occurred during my trans-Atlantic flight the following year to Geneva, Switzerland, and seminar attendance at the World Council of Churches’ Bossey Ecumenical Institute.  My wife and I laugh now, but as a grown man at 33 years of age, I admit I was emotionally distraught when I “called back home” after arrival and check-in at Bossey.  Everything was threatening, but especially the religious and cultural “different others,” including I came to find out, people who were either gays, themselves, or who had no theological or moral problem with gayness (understand this was my feeling then, not now).

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Over the course of three weeks we participants from many parts of the globe and varying faith and no faith backgrounds engaged each other in sustained conversation and shared experiences.  We ate, laughed, traveled by bus, cried and shared stories.  I still remember the story one Sri Lankan participant shared during morning devotion.  He was attempting to illustrate what it was like to live as a person from a non-super power, colonized population, where local “history” is interpreted and communicated from the victor’s perspective.  In the story, a student asks his teacher, “Ma’am, if the lion is the king of the jungle, why is it that the hunter always wins?”  His wise teacher thought, then replied, “That’s only how it seems on the surface and for the moment, until which time as the lion has his opportunity to tell his side of the story.”

As a Norwegian seminar colleague shared with me as we sat with a glass of wine looking out over Lake Geneva – “Scott, I feel like we’ve done a lot of deconstruction (of our respective faith and cultural traditions, plus years of acquired book learning), yet very little reconstruction.”  I think that’s a lot of what a vibrant, maturing vulnerability entails.  It requires, as it were, unlearning or giving up for a time mono-cycling, so as to learn how to share in riding tandem.

Vulnerability isn’t only important for overcoming our rootedness to place and space (our proverbial “bubble”), but also in building and nurturing relationships.

The most vulnerable of all relationships

The most vulnerable of all relationships

Several months ago I responded to a Harvard Business Review article entitled “We Approach Diversity the Wrong Way” by Liz Ryan, in which she advocated for “MoCo” (more conversations – that is, more vulnerable and candid sharing with each other about stereotypical and prejudicial perceptions and attitudes acquired over the years toward each other; not less) in addressing problems related to diversity. I wrote:

“I appreciate this corrective perspective, especially helping people learn to talk about the ‘sticky human stuff’ by MoCo – more conversation. I recall a conversation a small group of us (whites) had with black colleagues in South Africa years ago – just barely, if yet democratic South Africa. We came together with our culturally acquired stereotypes to discuss a joint work project.  The lingering positive effect and lesson for me was the ‘real conversation’ that transacted, which affected positively on work and interpersonal relationships.  I recall a black colleague sharing, ‘When we see a white person approaching our house we immediately ask ourselves, ‘What is he coming here to ask us to do?’ This man’s comment immediately hit home to me for the truth it was.  I, in turn, candidly replied, When we see a black man coming to our homes, we tend to ask, ‘I wonder what he’s coming to ask for?’  This rare ‘MoCo moment’ was priceless and helped establish trust between people in a new post-racial society by partially clearing the underbrush.”

I resonate with Brown’s observation that while “betrayal” is most often associated with partner/spousal cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, and failure to defend a friend against false accusation, in actuality a more “insidious” and corrosive of trust betrayal is disengagement.

Disengaged?

Disengagement is when one or more parties in a relationship stop making effort and fighting for the relationship, stop paying attention, stop investing time, and stop caring.  Disengagement is the precursor, the underlying condition prior to cheating, lying, abandoning, et cetera.

Illustrative of disengagement is a funny and effective South African Tedelex advertisement.  A husband is slouching on a sofa watching Saturday sports on the “telly” (English for TV). The viewer is led to believe the husband’s crime is neglecting and disengaging completely from wife and marriage.  The wife does several walk-bys the TV trying to get his attention, before resorting to one final and desperate measure.  On the final walk-by she wears nothing but a bathrobe.  She stops mid-center of the TV, turns toward her husband, flashes open her robe, then closes the robe and walks away.  Only then does the husband take quick and eager cognizance of his wife and gets up from the sofa, conveying the message that only one thing possesses the potency to lure men away from their sports – sex.

Seldom, of course, is relational disengagement quite so humorous.  The neglected child, the struggling single parent, the unemployed, the poor, the immigrant, the soldier, the elderly – to name only a few – feel disengagement acutely. Disengagement from friends, church members, family, neighbors, former colleagues is exacerbated when combined with unwelcome, yet, inevitable attending self-shame: a sense of failure, inadequacy and not measuring up, not being good enough.  This is why Brown includes a section in Daring Greatly on “shame resilience.”

Thinking back on a few close friendships lost, as well as many marital separations of friends and family members, I wonder how many of those relationships might still be intact today if either one or both parties had, out of respect for the other and the relationship, resolutely refused to disengage time, attention, effort and caring?

In 2013 my wife and I will celebrate our 28th anniversary.  I credit her for demonstrating and teaching me the importance of engagement.  She (more than I can be credited with) did this through stubborn insistence that we talk through our “everythings” – and I do mean everything, including feelings and insecurities, and the secrets and insecurities of men and maleness, or women and femaleness. Difficult as it is on some days to see or acknowledge, our marriage and family is worth fighting for relative to “anything else out there on the market”.  Brene’ Brown’s importance was in reminding me of the dangers of disengagement and the imperative even for macho men to exercise courage in practicing vulnerability.

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