We are living in complicated times. Important issues around race, culture, sexuality, and gender have gained mainstream spotlight like never before. We need to have these conversations to move our country, our relationships and ourselves forward, but tensions are high, and respect is often embarrassingly low.
No matter who you are, topics around race, culture, sexuality, and gender are difficult to talk about. Anyone can say something awkward or do something inappropriate without fully realizing it. However, it is our duty, both personally and professionally, to handle sensitive topics and situations with respect, compassion, and empathy. Below are three (3) steps you can take today to approach delicate matters with greater ease and care.
We all pass judgement every day. We go out into the world and notice differences about others that unsettle us–whether it’s their sense of style or a particular cultural mannerism. But what these types of observations have in common is that they are superficial, providing us with zero concrete understanding about the people around us.
Making a superficial judgement about someone else is as harmful to them as it is to you, the observer. In passing judgement on another, you take away their chance to be completely safe, comfortable, and free in their given environment. You also limit your own ability to connect with others on a deeper and more meaningful level.
It’s easy to judge, but it’s much more rewarding to dig deep and find empathy for others. And so, instead of passing judgement, seek to understand the person you happen to be observing or talking to. By opening yourself up to understanding, you can treat others as you, yourself would want to be treated—with kindness and compassion.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”
Who knows—by choosing the path of understanding, you may even get the opportunity to help someone else in a way you never thought possible, a rewarding, uplifting, and potentially life-changing experience for the two of you.
Since childhood, we have taken in many social messages and images both consciously and unconsciously. Given the breath of exposure, it is easy to regurgitate information and mimic behaviors that are inaccurate or flat-out disrespectful.
For instance, growing up we may have been exposed to “native” Halloween costumes featuring a feathered headdress. Since these types of costumes are so common, it’s possible that we never thought to question them; we may have even worn them ourselves once or twice.
However, in the age of information it’s easier than ever to educate ourselves on how to appropriately pay homage to another culture rather than blindly appropriating it.
Cultural appropriation happens when you take something of significance from another culture and use it as your own without fully understanding it or without paying respect to its origin culture, like with the Halloween costume example above.
To avoid cultural appropriation, it is best to give credit where credit is due. If you choose to take inspiration from another culture, then make that very clear by crediting who or what you were inspired by.
Another way to pay homage is by including your source of cultural inspiration in your decision-making process in some way. For instance, before using a Native American design in a graphic for work you could phone a local tribe to discuss your goals and see if there is an appropriate way to accomplish your assignment while being respectful of the culture.
However, no matter how hard we try, we aren’t always going to be on our best behavior. And so, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you’ve mistakenly appropriated another culture, then apologize, correct your error, and learn from your mistake!
Stay Open to Learning
In addition to seeking understanding and paying homage, it is important that we stay open to learning. Learning underpins both of these processes; without it, we cannot hope to understand each other or be respectful of other cultures.
Awareness is step one in learning. We need to open ourselves up to the world outside of our experiences before we even begin to dive into sensitive topics like race, culture, sexuality, and gender.
After awareness, we need to take the time to actively learn about a particular community or someone’s background by doing research online, browsing resources at the library, or by initiating an open and respectful dialogue.
Be patient with yourself though—learning takes time and practice. As you embark on your learning journey, be ready to apologize for mistakes along the way.
Photographed above is my and my dear friend Zemen Marrugi, who has taught me so much about her culture, values and family back ground and who continues to inspire me every day. We are different in almost every way, but our mutual respect for one another has provided a great friendship, many lessons learned from a past business partnership and an eternal amount of respect and love.
Stay curious—you never know how your new cultural learnings could positively impact you, what unique relationships you might forge and how you can positively impact the world around you.
Until next time,