The boys were 2 and 4, and we had been going to that indoor gym for months and had never encountered any problems until that day. We found it to be a very nifty destination for us because, even though it was cold outside, there, they could burn off their extra energy by running, biking and bouncing. On this particular day, I was just hanging out by the slides watching Little Bro climb and slide away his wiggles. I smiled and nodded to the mothers around me and to one in particular who was staring a little too hard.
"Hi", I ventured, trying to break the awkwardness of being stared down in the middle of a little tots gym.
"How do you feel being here?" she asked.
"Oh we love it," I replied, "Isn't it a relief to have somewhere to take the kids when it's this cold outside?"
She shook her head, "No, I mean how do you feel being the only colored person in here?"
Honestly, you could have knocked me over with a feather! Firstly, I was shocked that she could ask me that as coolly as if she was asking if I came there often. I pretty much just wallowed in shock for a few seconds and then told her that we had been going to that gym for months and the demographics of the occupants therein had been the same as it was that day. I then told her that that day was the first time I would feel uncomfortable at that gym and I had her to thank for it.
"How do you feel about that?"I asked her pointedly.
As I drove home that day, I thought it strange that the demographics at that gym had never bothered me until the moment that lady asked me about my possible reaction to it. I suppose it is because sometimes we don’t seriously consider a thing until it stares us in the face and affects us in a personal way.
For example, my background is quite diverse. My childhood involved movement from one country to another and I am originally from a country of 250 ethnic groups and over 500 indigenous languages yet I wasn't intuitively culturally-aware when I landed in America all those years ago. Most people I knew back home were black and Nigerian and I really seriously started thinking about cultural awareness the year I arrived in the US. That was the year that diversity became more meaningful to me. It was in that same year I started nursing school and cultural competence was all the rage.
Cultural Competence involves the knowledge cultivation of different cultural practices of various people groups and we had to be culturally competent as nurses because it would help us provide more patient-centered care.
We even had a book that listed common cultural practices and tendencies for different cultures. It would highlight the opinion that this culture would have this tendency and that culture will have that tendency. And so the phenomenon of cultural competence essentially put different cultures into neat little boxes. One of the limitations of cultural competence as a cultural awareness model is that it can easily give rise to prejudices and stereotypes. And really, is it possible to be competently knowledgeable about a culture that isn't your own without making broad generalizations? I doubt it.
And so I found that as the years rolled on I began to see workplace workshops about culture evolve from the expectations of cultural competence to that of cultural sensitivity.
So with cultural sensitivity, we were encouraged as nurses to respect and value the uniqueness of other cultures without making broad generalizations about any culture. But even with cultural sensitivity, it is not always possible to fully understand another culture even though we can respect their practices. Also, there was a need to evolve from merely accepting or tolerating different cultures to being culturally intelligent.
Cultural Intelligence or Cultural Quotient (CQ) is the ability to function collaboratively and effectively in culturally diverse situations.
And so CQ takes cultural awareness a step further looks at the ability to work effectively across cultures we may not fully understand or be competently knowledgeable about. I have written about fostering cultural intelligence in kids and you can find that here.
So over the years I have seen the evolution from cultural competence to cultural sensitivity and now to cultural intelligence and these are some lessons this evolution has taught me:
I cannot be competently knowledgeable about other cultures without making sweeping generalizations about them.
I cannot claim to fully understand another culture, different from my own without sounding patronizing or condescending.
I can, however, experience different cultures through travel, books and other media.
I can respect other cultures and this doesn't mean I need to agree with every cultural practice I encounter.
I can function collaboratively within other cultures even though I may not fully understand everything about those cultures.
All in all, culture is a complex organism that really can't be harnessed, tamed, or sliced into neat little packages. But I do believe we can channel its unique beauty in our everyday lives.
How have you seen cultural awareness evolve in your own life or in that of your kids? Let me know in the comments below. Until then,
Best Regards and talk to you soon!