Sunday, February 07, 2010

Listening to different voices -- in pursuit of multi-cultural competency

In my first semester at Grinnell College -- a small Liberal Arts college amid the cornfields of Iowa -- there were only two African-Americans on my dorm floor, one (my roommate) grew up in a middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood outside Chicago and the other who came from an inner-city neighborhood. I remember how angry I got at the second guy when he characterized Grinnell as being a place lacking diversity. "We have students from all over the country," I exclaimed! "We have foreign students!"

It was only after college, when I had lived in New York City for a bit, that I came to realize how right he was. We might have been from all over the country, but almost all of us were white, middle class kids who had come to college straight out of high school and who would finish college in four straight years, without having to drop out to work for a bit, as so many people do today. No wonder -- to borrow the title of the book I am reading, today, for my Adolescent Development class at NYU -- all the black kids sat together in the cafeteria.

The little story I just told about myself is part of the tale of my own development of what we sometimes call multi-cultural competency. It is, significantly, not a story so much about what I learned about another culture. It is more a story about myself -- how I came to grow in my self-awareness about how I am different than others. This kind of approach to multi-cultural competency is counter-intuitive for many -- "isn't ending prejudice about learning about how we are all the same?!?!" they might say.

But as this power point presentation on multi-cultural competency that I used in the Clinical Pastoral Education unit I supervised last summer maintains (I adopted it from something I found on UCLA's web site), the most important step in cultural competency is to start to come to an awareness of difference. Only then, can you really listen to the truth of who the person is who you are interacting with.
I came to realize today that some of the books I am reading for my classes this week and last are part of my journey of growth in multi-cultural competency, and will hopefully help me to do a better job of facilitating my students' growth in this area in future.

Last week, for the same class I am now reading Why are all the black kids sitting together, I read Carol Gilligan's Meeting at the crossroads, a book about the development of girls as they approach adolescence. I really like how Gilligan uses the concept of voice, and how listening to voices forms a central place in how she understands her work. For Gilligan, understanding the development of girls starts, not with some gathering of theoretical knowledge, but with listening to girls and trying to come to some understanding of how they construct -- how they understand -- the world that they inhabit.
Similarly, I believe that coming to an advanced level of cultural competency does not come from reading about other people and their cultures in books. It comes from listening deeply to the person in front of you, and coming to an understanding of how they understand the culture(s) they inhabit.

Another book I'm reading this week is C.J. Pascoe's study of how teenagers understand -- and develop -- masculinity. The book -- with the provocative title, Dude, you're a fag -- may be the best book I am reading right now. In her appendix, Pascoe talks in detail of how she approached the challenge of being both a participant and an observer in her time in the West Coast high school she was studying. Pascoe makes a convincing case that she never could have gotten her teenage subjects to trust her as they did if she had tried to set herself apart as some kind of objective adult observer who would treat a student with harsh judgment and scolding if he, for example, tried to hit on her sexually.

But that hardly means that Pascoe did not have a framework of boundaries that helped guide her in negotiating such a challenging interaction with her subjects. Instead, following what she learned from Nancy Mandell, Pascoe took a "least-adult" and "least-gendered" approach where she would more likely react to such sexualized behavior with humor -- humor meant to desexualize the interaction -- than with shock; in this way, she was able
to maintain rapport without submitting to the student's attempt to sexualize the relationship.

It strikes me that there is some application to chaplaincy here, especially about how we think about setting and maintaining boundaries with our patients. Our patients often try and test us with the boundaries we try and maintain. Can we take "least-gendered" or "least-social" attitudes with our patients in ways that would be helpful?

For Pascoe, maintaining these "leasts" was a matter of negotiation with her subjects. She shared with them that the purpose of her research was to study masculinity and they eventually took to have pride that they were being studied by this liminal figure who not only wasn't a boy, but also wasn't really a girl (she was an outsider who took notes, not a fellow student) nor an adult (she wouldn't "tell on" them or punish them if she witnessed them breaking school rules). This negotiation became itself a source of data. As my professor said in class last week, "you turn the way people react to you into data."
Consent is another issue where there are strong parallels between the issues in research and in chaplaincy. Even though I really liked Pascoe's book, I was a bit disturbed when I read (her excellently written) introduction describing the yearly assembly in the high school she studied. It occurred to me that the students might feel like she was making fun of them if they were to read what she wrote. They also might feel betrayed: my guess is that she did not share with them during her research that she was forming these kinds of conclusions -- conclusions that labeled some of their behavior as sexist and racist.

The question it raised for me is whether you can -- or should -- share the results of your research with your subjects as you go. Gilligan describes, in a way I found convincing, how she did so in her book. And I know that I try and share my "results" with my students as we go through a unit (although I admit this is a very challenging part of my theory to consistently put into practice).
Multicultural competency is one of the hardest things we try and do in our work as chaplains and chaplaincy educators, but it is one that I find most rewarding. There is so much to learn from our students and the others around us. I love it!

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