Monday, March 10, 2014

Getting beyond color-blindness

In a previous post, I referenced Dr. Milton Bennett's Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. I'd like to write a bit more about that because it can help us understand a lot of the tension we're currently experiencing in regards to racism.

The genius of Dr. Bennett is that he envisioned cultural competence as a developmental process going from stages of ethnocentricity (one's own culture is central) to ethnorelativity (one's own culture is seen in the context of others).
Here is how Dr. Bennett described the six stages.
  • DENIAL of cultural difference is the state in which one's own culture is experienced as the only real one. Other cultures are avoided by maintaining psychological and/or physical isolation from differences. People at Denial generally are disinterested in cultural difference, although they may act aggressively to eliminate a difference if it impinges on them.

  • DEFENSE against cultural difference is the state in which one's own culture (or an adopted culture) is experienced as the only good one. The world is organized into "us and them," where "we" are superior and "they" are inferior. People at Defense are threatened by cultural difference, so they tend to be highly critical of other cultures, regardless of whether the others are their hosts, their guests or cultural newcomers to their society.

  • MINIMIZATION of cultural difference is the state in which elements of one's own cultural world view are experienced as universal. Because these absolutes obscure deep cultural differences, other cultures may be trivialized or romanticized. People at Minimization expect similarities, and they may become insistent about correcting others' behavior to match their expectations.

  • ACCEPTANCE of cultural difference is the state in which one's own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. Acceptance does not mean agreement—cultural difference may be judged negatively—but the judgment is not ethnocentric. People at Acceptance are curious about and respectful toward cultural difference.

  • ADAPTATION to cultural difference is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture. One's worldview is expanded to include constructs from other worldviews. People at Adaptation are able to look at the world "through different eyes" and may intentionally change their behavior to communicate more effectively in another culture.

  • INTEGRATION of cultural difference is the state in which one's experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. People at Integration often are dealing with issues related to their own "cultural marginality." This stage is not necessarily better than Adaptation in most situations demanding intercultural competence, but it is common among non-dominant minority groups, long-term expatriates and "global nomads."
In our increasingly interconnected diverse world, it has become all but impossible to inhabit the denial stage. What we see from the openly racist/nativist crowd is increasing hostility coming from those in the defense stage. But its the "color-blindness" of those in the minimization stage that so often fuels racist microaggressions (or the subtle racism of friends and allies).
This happens because - for people in the minimization stage - "white" is still the default mode. A HUGE leap happens when people move from minimization to acceptance. And as Bennett points out - the keys to that leap are curiosity and respect. IOW, in the photo above, Courtney's "friend" might become less focused on how s/he sees Courtney and more curious about how Courtney sees herself. 

Other than the open racists still in defense mode, I believe that this is the major challenge facing most white Americans when it comes to dealing with racism. It is because this move involves going from ethnocentricity to ethnorelativity that it becomes a bigger hurdle. There is a blindness to our white supremacy that gets in the way.  It is the death or normal that scares us. But once that hurdle is crossed, an amazing world of difference awaits those who can leave their surety behind and open themselves to curiosity.

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