Beginning from the time that I was living in Valparaiso, Indiana, working to bridge the Latinx immigrant community and the white, majority community in area Lutheran churches, I have come to understand that engaging each other across cultures is a highly emotional experience, which requires thoughtful reflection, guidance, and some tools for interpreting and dealing with the ups and downs that come with getting to know new people.
I don't believe that we as individuals or our world and its systems will change much without getting to know people who are different from us. We can do this by learning a new language and traveling around the world, or simply by asking, "whom in my town or region or state do I never see or speak with?" We often have stereotypes about people from these groups of "others," especially in our own contexts. Working in study abroad allowed me to see the willingness we have to learn from others who are far away - I hope that we can also incorporate this willingness into our lives close to home.
In my work in study abroad, many of the students who arrived to us in Costa Rica were the "typical" study abroad students: upper-middle class white women. I talked with them (and the upper-middle class white men that also came) about "cultural adjustment" and the emotional ups and downs that come with engaging difference (moving through phases like "fascination, shock, adaptation, biculturalism"). It felt like I had pretty much solved this particular issue in intercultural education: learning to deal with our own emotions while living abroad, and gaining some skills for getting to know new people and cultures at home. My students found it useful, and so did I.
Then at ICADS we started hosting more and more "non-traditional" students: first generation, Black, Latinx, mothers/grandmothers - "underrepresented" students in universities in general and in study abroad specifically. Suddenly my workshop on cultural adjustment didn't hold up as well. First of all, the cultural assumptions that I could predict so well in my white students, were not as predictable in a group of Black students. "Is US culture more like x or like y?" I quickly came to find out that my definition of US culture was more accurately described as "white upper-middle class Midwestern culture."
And the cultural codeswitching that I described as biculturalism, the final goal of the cultural adjustment process, I discovered was a state of being that people of color in the US are born into. They are bicultural by necessity - in their own country, the United States - because white culture is so dominate (supremacist?) that people of color here are skilled at making certain cultural assumptions at home and others in the workplace, school, or other public places. Assumptions about visible aspects of culture like food and music, and also invisible aspects, like what respect looks like, or how time is best used.
So I came to understand that being "intercultural" is not just an emotional process, but involves power dynamics, politics, economics, and long histories of being told the "socially acceptable positions" of certain races and cultures. I do still believe that sitting with our emotions and being mindful of how we are feeling in any given situation can help to clarify the situation and give us paths forward when it seems that none exist. I hope that this blog can be something of an exploration of that for myself, and be useful to you, as well.