Make It Work Monday: The Importance of Culturally Competent Awareness

We all sat in the room anxiously waiting to see what would happen next. The fifth grader’s in Frau Augustina’s German class had gathered along with their teacher around the television that had been wheeled in on an Audio Visual cart from the library and tuned to CNN. Today was the day that the dreaded Berlin Wall would be breached and families and friends who had been separated for almost 30 years would have a chance to cross the divide and celebrate the reunification of Germany.

I sat near the back of the pack observing what was going on. We had studied both World Wars and the events that led up to the building of the Wall earlier that year so I understood that this was a big deal. What I could not grasp was why the other kids in my class as well as my teacher were so very emotionally invested in the events taking place halfway around the world from our tiny elementary classroom in Coralville, Iowa.

In 1991, there was no shortage of global conflict. Iraq declared war on the U.S. and while we were told it was because of Iraqi greed and the jacking up of foreign oil prices through school and media outlets, my parents would talk to me about the U.S.’s role in destabilizing Iraq and other foreign countries and source material I could read for myself that showed how these actions of my “civilized nation” led to unimaginable living conditions for the people in those countries and how that was used as justification for war.

That same year Lithuania was struggling for independence from the U.S.S.R. (Soviet Union) which was on the verge of collapse as well. We were taught that this was a conflict that spelled the end of Communism and that we should support the effort as it would mean a victory for Democracy, but we heard very little about a rash of killings taking place at sporting events in South Africa.

Leaks broke out about the U.S. interference in Panamanian politics via CIA and US Army support of Manual Noriega but we were not allowed to talk about it in social studies class.

But we dropped everything to watch the bricks come down out of this man made wall as a special moment in history.  

What I did not and could not have known at the time was that most of my classmates had either direct familial ties to Germany or were from Jewish families who viewed the tearing down of the wall cautiously as they considered what the reunification of the German state truly meant for the world.

I saw it all as evidence of the violence people constantly enacted upon one another over things and ideologies. Sitting in that fifth grade classroom at the beginning of what would become a very geopolitically active decade, I began to question how others viewed conflict around the world through their own cultural lenses.

Six years later I sat in another classroom in Fayetteville, Arkansas, engaged in a heated discussion with my AP Government and Politics teacher about her uneven treatment of the conflicts in Bosnia and the very similar ethnic conflicts taking place in Rwanda. There was only one other student in that class who argued alongside me and I will love him forever for that because he understood despite the fact that his skin gave him privilege that mine did not, it was wrong to openly call for the U.S. to intervene in the ethnic genocide that was taking place in Bosnia and condem the U.S. offering the same assistance in Rwanda.  In the end, my teacher admitted that she could relate more to the Bosnian conflict than she could to Rwanda and I told her that in that same way I related more to the Rwandans than I could Bosnia (though I had no objection to the U.S. helping both nations).

I was born a citizen of the United States of American and perhaps I benefit from having an African American perspective. Notice I said “an” not “the” because there are as as many perspectives as there are African Americans. 

What I am referring to is my perspective as a displaced person. Someone who was raised in several regions of the United States and forced to interact with a huge diversity of cultures in the process living in small, university towns in the rural U.S. AND being a black female from a middle class family. And so I am speaking in this essay to the hearts of my fellow Americans.

It amazes me how narrowly many people view the world. That in these places that shaped my awareness of the world greatly, it was wrong to question U.S. foreign policy because doing so meant that you did not “support our troops overseas”. Which was a ghastly thought for me because I belong to a family with many who have served during just about every major U.S. conflict AND I pay my taxes just like every other law abiding citizen.

Yet, to blindly believe that the U.S. does not actively engage in this tapestry of ongoing global conflict is naive and it is past time that each U.S. Citizen open their eyes to how we all affect the world through our actions.

IF we want to see an end to global violence, IF we want to stop passing fear and hate along to each successive generation, 

IF we want to leave this world better than we found it for our children’s sake,

WE THE PEOPLE of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA should examine ourselves and ask on a personal level, what can I do each day to live more humanely? 

How can I through my actions further love and tolerance of those who are different than I perceive myself to be? 

How can I contribute to the creation of a global economy that has room for everyone to live well and provide for their families regardless of where they live? 

When a neighbor is in need, what will I do to help him? 

Do I respect the culture and traditions of others rather than force them to adopt my own for my personal comfort? 

Am I kind?

These questions are threaded throughout a number of religions and philosophies and just might help us to a point of recognition and action to become the type of society that truly values all life over death and is courageous enough to fight for that world of opportunity.

If you would like to view another perspective on how to bring about an end to global conflict here is a video by Russell Brand that might help you think through this very pressing, longstanding, human issue.

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