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Inclusiveness September 6, 2007

Posted by amybeth in School.
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Yesterday I went to a workshop for TAs (teaching assistants) on ‘The Inclusive Classroom’. From the description (interpreted through the lens of my own interest background), I assumed that that we were going to be taught how to work with diversity in the classroom, particularly in terms of helping the various cultures that come to McMaster learn the material and excel as much as their peers.

That’s not what it was about at all. It had nothing to do with learning, perse, but with eliminating discrimination, making everyone feel welcome regardless of race, gender, disability or sexual orientation. While I am strongly against racism or discrimination of any kind and believe that we should definitely confront such when we find it, encouraging, instead, a fundamental belief in the equality of everyone, I get frustrated with the way in which ‘inclusiveness’ has become an obsession to the point in which one has to trip over one’s tongue in order to risk the least hint of potentially offending someone with their language, regardless of their true intentions. Can’t we all give each other a bit of grace and trust that, for the most part, people today are good intentioned and want to show respect to all peoples? Sometimes an accusation of discrimination creates more division than was ever intended in the first place, pointing out difference that was never even noticed in the first place.

One thing I found amusing was the way in which the workshop leader struggled to model what she was teaching. She was being so cautious in her wording, trying to avoid any hint of exlusion. At one point she was talking about some distinction between the dominant culture in the West and others but in doing so she used the word ‘whites’. Instinctively sensing that perhaps that was not the right choice, she scrambled for an alternative and came up with ‘non-ethnic’. Satisfied at last, she went on with her teaching.

Now is it just me, or does the word ‘non-ethnic’ strike you as even more problematic than ‘white’. For some reason, it implies that Caucasions have no ethnicity, but even worse, it implies that they, therefore, are the default from which all other ethnicities diverge. Now, if that isn’t culture-centric, I don’t know what is.

Any feedback? How do you feel about the whole inclusion issue? How do you react to the word ‘non-ethnic’? Have you ever encountered a situation where this extreme caution about wording has made a real difference in how a person feels about themselves (I’m not talking about preventing an overt reaction of offense…I’m talking about the true self-esteem of people)?

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1. patti - September 6, 2007

OK, I’m a little bit crusty today, and not feeling at all profound (see my blog for details), but here’s what I think.

“Can’t we all give each other a bit of grace and trust that, for the most part, people today are good intentioned and want to show respect to all peoples?”

Yes, oh please, YES.

“Non-ethnic”? A very stupid, unhelpful word.

2. Sheepdog - September 6, 2007

When I saw “non-ethnic” I started laughing. What is THAT!?

We’re all racist. Let’s just face it. And the worst offenders not only don’t have a clue, but they believe they’re right and no amount of “training” is going to do anything to change them.

I’m more cynical than you and Patti. I don’t believe that people want to show respect for all peoples. I’m crusty today, too. 🙂 But then again, I’m always kinda crusty.

When I first started reading your post, I thought it was going to be about how sometimes the way things are taught and the content of what is taught can exclude people. I didn’t expect that you had to sit through something so elementary. I didn’t realize people were still running around trying to teach something so basic.

Well, that shows you how much I know!

3. patti - September 6, 2007

“We’re all racist.”

Really? I dunno. Maybe we all are.

I NOTICE different races. Sometimes I see characteristics that tend to settle in different cultures. Like many of my Italian friends have 2 kitchens. (Gasp – am I allowed to say that??!!)

I LIKE some of the differences I see! I LIKE learning about different cultures. When I was working in Toronto, the culture I was working with tended to communicate much more aggressively than I was used to. I had to toughen up. Then I moved to Hamilton, and had some interaction with an entirely different culture, who are very polite and non-confrontational in their way of communicating.

It’s not ALWAYS true, but it seems to me that SOMETIMES those CAN be cultural characteristics.

To quote Seinfeld – “Are we allowed to be talking about this?” “I don’t think so.”

Me – I’m a non-ethnic (geez, am I non-gender too??) who could probably stand to loosen up a bit, but I’m descended from the “stiff upper lip” non-culture.

🙂

4. Sheepdog - September 8, 2007

I thought I understood – until I dated a man who was a different race than me. I couldn’t believe the way we were treated.

And I learned about myself, too.

It’s our nature to categorize people (and things) in order to try to make sense of the world. We categorize by religion, race, class, hairstyle, musical tastes, use of language – you name it, we have a category.

And when we do that, it’s inevitable that we’ll make some mistakes about individuals.

That doesn’t mean all of us are bad or that any of us are all bad.

Am I making sense?

5. amybeth - September 8, 2007

Hey Patti, your post made me think about how all too often we equate race and culture, and that leads to problems because there is an assumption that race is biological and therefore unalterable. But culture, on the other hand, is a complex interaction of a multitude of factors. People can learn about and partiticipate in other cultures, and even change their own default ways of thinking about and reacting to different things. Culture is a powerful shaping force in our lives but its not an ultimate one. While we can use our knowledge of a person’s culture as a starting place, we have to take a lot of others things about them as a unique individual into consideration in order to truly understand who they are. But if we observe a cultural characteristic and attribute it to a person’s race, out opinion about that person is more rigid.

Sheepdog, I think some of my frustration about the whole topic of inclusiveness stems from having only heard people from my own racial/cultural background talk about this and I’ve only ever observed people from my own racial/cultural background getting upset about words or practices that are deemed as excuslive…to others. Its got me puzzled as to whether some of the minor things we argue about are really as big an issue to those people we are supposedly arguing on the behalf of. Your story about people’s reaction to your dating someone from a different race was informative in that regard.

I guess what bothers me the most is that, in order to avoid any potential risk of offending others, we sacrifice everything at the alter of inclusiveness. One of the topics brought up in the workshop I attended was the idea that we need to include authors from other races in the reading lists of courses. To be perfectly honest, when I read a scientific author, I haven’t the foggiest clue what his or her race is, often I don’t even know their gender. I think a professor should choose the highest quality, most relevant articles to include and not worry about whether they have a representative sample of all possible social categories. Now, if a professor was purposely excluding an article on the basis of an author’s race, then yes, that is racism and needs to be dealt with. I am against racism in any form, I’m just not sure our definition of inclusion is the answer.

6. Hamameliss - September 8, 2007

The interaction of culture and race and people’s perceptions of both is a very complex issue. I’ve had the opportunity to observe people in many different cultural settings and had to conclude that sometimes there are overarching cultural principles that can define individuals very well, but that they aren’t always true. In my experience, there are certain cultures that could care less about how we phrase things, because they look more closely at how we act, rather than our words, whereas there have been other cultures where I have gotten into trouble because I didn’t choose my words carefully. The thing is that there are so many different cultures and so many versions of polite behavior that to avoid offending everyone is almost impossible unless you never speak and you never act.

I find it interesting that a part of the normal functioning of the human brain is towards categorization. We do it on an everyday level about thousands of little things. We make daily decisions based on perceptions we have about the world around us. For example, over time I have determined what color and style of clothing I like to wear, but I factor in the clothing and style of the people around me as well as the weather and other factors to determine what shirt to wear today. Our brains are incredibly good at making incredibly simple decisions based on very complex input. Initially a particular decision may be very difficult because we have many factors to weigh, but later these factors become subconcious when a particular decision becomes habitual. We do the same with people. Thus, the more contact I have with a person of a particular racial or cultural background, the more assumptions I make. And out contact is not just limited to our real-life encounters, it is influenced by our peer’s opinions, the TV we watch, the radio we listen to and the books and magazines that we read. So there may be many aspects of our interaction with cultures that may already be ingrained before we even meet a person. It’s not to say that we should use this as an excuse to justify discrimination, but to realize, that I come into the picture with a preexisting bias that is based on all the interactions with various people I have had in my life before. I think part of the issue with discrimination is realizing that there is a part of it is how our brains normally function, and that although our bias may be in one direction or another, that I choose to take each person I meet as an individual and refuse to classify them in a negative way, until they prove otherwise. And to realize that even if I perceive certain behavior in a negative way, that it may not be perceived that way by them…ie that things that hurt me or offend me may not have been intentionally offensive.

So, all that to say, that I would agree with sheepdog that we are all inherently biased, and the only way to acknowledge that is to see our own bias and work past it.

I do think that the term “non-ethnic” is a poor term to use. Being non-offensive and inclusive is more than just the words we use, it is understanding the people in our audience and being quick to repair the relationship when we make mistakes, because…honestly, the only way we learn how to be non-offensive to various cultures is by being offensive and figuring out that we were offensive by requesting feedback.

7. Sheepdog - September 9, 2007

“honestly, the only way we learn how to be non-offensive to various cultures is by being offensive and figuring out that we were offensive by requesting feedback.”

I think you’re right about that. It’s better to learn the truth about people and be in relationship than to hide behind the rules of the day.

And we do have to request feedback and be prepared to really hear it.


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