Skip to main content

How do we recognize each other?

How do we recognize each other?  How do we see each other?  Do we see each other and interpret and infer characteristics from behavior, demeanor, verbal and nonverbal data based on our own experiences and cultural beliefs?  For example, do we interpret a certain degree of physical closeness to be a sign of invasiveness and a further distance as a sign of evasiveness or withdrawal?  What leads us to believe that we are objective and accurate in ascribing characteristics to others?  Is it simply personal arrogance, ignorance or a learned belief that commonalities in our culture are or should be universal?  And, if we believe that our cultural norms should be universal, do we perceive, label, and/or attach negative characteristics to others who do not ascribe to our myths? 

            These are hard questions to ask—and harder issues to explore deeply within ourselves.  As human services workers, we define ourselves, at least partially, by our services to others so it can be very displeasing to see ourselves as exclusionistic or elitist in any way.  We strive to offer respect, compassion and support to those we serve.  However, I propose that sometimes, just because we so want to define ourselves as respectfully inclusive, we may be apt to totally miss or deny our blind spots; ie., those times and situations when our assumptions, attitudes and behaviors are prejudgmental, discriminatory and exclusionary.

            It is to open and explore these limitations that I offer this essay.  I have no desire to “cast the first stone” at others by implying that I too am not limited by my perception, experience and culture.  Of course, I am.  However, I have found through decades of serving as a human services professional and professor, that through open exploration and sharing of perspectives we all benefit.  This path may be a challenge and can even be emotionally painful but the end result is well worth the effort.  By keeping an eye on the prize—that of becoming better service providers and human beings—we come to truly respect and anticipate differences and can therefore recognize and meet the psychological, social, spiritual and material needs of those we serve, often even before those needs have been requested.

            Georg Simmel, a sociologist, often spoke of the benefits of being a stranger.  A stranger, as he defined it, is a person who, for whatever physical or cultural reason, does not grow up completely immersed in one particular culture or subculture, but always has been forced to remain on the social periphery.  (This is not the same as someone choosing to remain aloof.)  Causes of being endowed with a stranger identity may be a disability, a physical trait, a cultural or religious heritage, a personal history, and/or a style of behavior or mannerisms.  One can even be stigmatized as a stranger simply due to a language accent.  It is the social response that determines the stranger label.

            It has been both a blessing and a curse that I, and my children, have always been perceived as strangers within the dominant culture.  I am Mohawk AmerIndian, a widow, and a woman whose identity is complicated by a severe physical disability.  I have benefited by seeing, as an outsider, as stranger, to be able to recognize some cultural myths, assumptions and perceptions that others may take for granted as universal “truths”.  However, I have also struggled with boundary sanctions imposed upon me by others due to my distinctions.  For example, while I have always been warmly welcomed within professional work circles, boards and committees, I have missed the brainstorming, networking and supportive  informal meetings over lunches, at people’s home gatherings (steps are impossible), company ball games and recreational alliances.  Other times, committee meetings have been limited to discussion of options perceived as currently professionally popular even when those options are not successful.  I have often seen that “out of the box” discussions are curtailed, albeit unintentionally.  There can be an underlying assumption that “we already know all options there are so let’s get out of here as fast as we can”.  (I often see this mentality in IEP meetings, for example).

            When I was asked to write this article, I wanted to be sure that I presented information broader than my own experience, yet not fill the pages with pedantic verbage. Therefore, I sent an email to some international listservs of which I am a member, requesting “little stories” that demonstrate how cultural biases permeate our professional spheres of influence.  I offer a few.

            A mother and collegue, Susan Fitzmaurice, wrote of the very different experiences of her teenaged son in England vs. Michigan.  With a cognitive disability, her son was seen, in England, “as a physically able young man capable of hard unskilled work…he was offered many part time jobs…” and was successful holding a number of those jobs and meeting all responsibilities independently.  Then, later, in Michigan, his mother approached several business seeking work that her son could do and had done.  She concluded “Not one was willing to consider the possibility”. 

            Another collegue, Dr. Linda Rammler, wrote of how a social worker’s biases affected interpretation and had consequences for a young woman with Down Syndrome.  She wrote that within “old school Italian” neighborhoods it is common for one of the daughters to remain living at home during adulthood to care for aging parents.  Also, since frugality is a strong value, lights are often “dimmed or turned off completely during the day” and shades are drawn so the fabric of furniture does not get sun-bleached.  It is also common for pieces of furniture to be covered to reduce dust, wear and tear.

            After sharing this context, Dr. Rammler told the story:  “When I was on the board of a local Arc”, a relative of the young woman came in “fuming because a DMR social worker, totally clueless about that family’s way of life, had initiated proceedings to transfer guardianship to the state” reporting that “the young woman was being ‘held captive’ in a darkened room, without stimulation, and with a pathological insistence on the parents towards total cleanliness.”  Dr. Rammler concluded, “Umm, so were 99% of the other Italian women of the same age group in that neighborhood”, so that, in effect if this social worker had been successful, this young woman would have been forced to exchange a normal life, similar to other young women of her age, to a lifestyle in which she would be excluded on the basis of her disability!

            In New Hampshire, for much of our recent history, we have been relatively culturally isolated.  Only within the last two decades, have we really begun to tackle the issues of our cultural biases and myths.  I personally recall when the Center for Students with Disabilities for UNH was upstairs in a building no means of accessible entrance!

It would be easy to say that this type of exclusion existed only in our immature past, however that would be denial.  How often I am invited to board meetings and professional meetings that are not held in accessible places!  (The underlying assumption is that someone with a disability will be the person served and not the professional providing services!)  How often events publicized as public events are not accessible!

For example, in Concord every autumn, there is a dinner event specifically focuses on celebrating diversity, yet, every single year, that event is not held in an accessible building!  People with mobility limitations are excluded from an event wherein people celebrate their inclusivity!  How often we are pleased and proud of ourselves for liberal attitudes yet do not see either the forest or the trees! 

            I have adopted a son who is Mayan Indian and who has a brain injury.  Many of his mental health and special education team members believe it is a sign of impairment that he does not make eye contact when spoken to by them.  I  have communicated that his lack of eye contact is seen within Native cultures as a sign of respect and that while I understand that he must learn cultural norms of the dominant culture, that this habit should not be seen as pathological.  The difference is still not generally understood.

            Addressing cultural differences sufficiently in a brief article is an almost impossible task.  When picking through possible themes, questions and ramifications to leave with the reader, it has been my goal to choose issues that the reader will turn over in his/her heart and that offices and work groups throughout the state will become centers of discussion stimulated by this topic and the questions I offer for contemplation.

  1. Are the persons you serve embedded in a collectivist or an individualistic cultural enclave?  To assume that an individualistic identity, decision making process and lifestyle is universal, normal, or superior, is to miss the different beauty and wisdom of collectivism”.   “Self” determination may have limited application and in fact may be counterproductive within collectivist cultures if we define “self” as an individual, and not as a social unit.
  2. To what extent do ancestors and descendents, living or deceased, enter into the lives of those we serve?  As a hospice minister, I once sought to serve a woman dying of advanced carcinomas.  She could find no peace and was very distraught.  Eventually I learned that her older sister had died years before and that the family had eliminated all trace of her from their lives and she was never spoken of again.  This woman was horrified at being forgotten, as if she had never lived.  Only when I helped her church group demonstrate a continuity of caring and memory, could she die peacefully.
  3. Who sets the agenda for meetings?  Who determines appointment teims?  Do we see people as disrespectful or unmotivated who do not appear on time, according to our “western” scheduling template?
  4. Again using death as an example of a more general issue, Leigh Ann Kingsbury asks us to consider other assumptions and practices.  She writes that “Hindus bury their dead within 24 hours…but do we even know if anyone we support is Hindu, and are we supporting them to practice their faith and culture?”  She also asks what we will do if an autopsy law conflicts with religious or cultural belief systems.  And, how many of us offered to carry a heavier load so our collegues could attend church on Ash Wednesday?

A personal example that I am fighting with has to do with the possibility that I

May lose my right leg in surgery in the foreseeable future.   I have requested that if they amputate my leg, that I be allowed to bring it home to do ceremony and to burn it in traditional fashion.  I will not have my leg thrown into a body parts trash heap!  I am having to fight laws and regulations for this to possibly happen and as yet am not finding success.  Not only must I contend with the emotional trauma of the amputation, if  it must occur, but I must fight to not have my body desecrated by the dominant culture.  It is as if I have no rights to my own body!   In a materialistic culture, once a limb is amputated, it has no value or meaning whatsoever which results in rules and traditions that do not allow for differences in spiritual beliefs.

            I offer one more example of how difficult it is to live a normal family life as a family of strangers in a strange land.  Similar to many aboriginal peoples, our main family meal and gathering is at 10 am, yet it is impossible to dine and gather together as a family around our traditional main meal and spiritual gathering in this culture.  This may seem like an insignificant loss, but for us, the 10 am meal is a time of prayer, of joining together in cooperative daily plans and tasks, of maintaining a collectivist unity.  Without this time, we often feel ruddlerless in the larger world as we go throughout our day.  By losing this tradition, we lose a supportive and strengthening part of our identity; we lose much that cements us as an entity, and yet, we must struggle and adapt to this loss.  I wonder how it would be if the dominant culture were told that they would lose their jobs and fail in school if they continued to have family meals.  This is such a small stressor, but it is one of many that occur each week in our lives.  As we walk into the lives of people of difference, it is important that we seek to perceive how adaptation increases, rather than decreases personal and familial stresses.

            In closing, I would like to leave you with 5 principles to explore.

“1.  A prerequisite to any successful intervention is an understanding of our own cultural, ethnic, and language background and the values and beliefs that we hold about individuals who are different from ourselves.” (Lynch & Hanson, 1998)

  1. “ All interactions and interventions take place in a larger sociopolitical context.  This context varies from family to family and is powerfully influenced by one’s culture, race, language, and economic status.  Many of our assumed differences do not spring from the individual but from the sociopolitical boundaries within which people are forced to live.  The ultimate goal of cultural competence is to recognize and rectify political and societal barriers that artificially separate us.(Lynch & Hanson, 1998)

In the middle of the 20th century, there was a weekly scindicated cartoon, “Pogo”.  In one episode, Pogo commented, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.  I have always remembered that comment and sought in my practice, in my teachings and mentoring, to challenge human service workers to first enter people’s lives to listen and to learn, and only then, later to act.  In this manner, Pogo’s insight will hopefully be much less often true for us.