New Year, New Opportunities:
Championing Cultural Diversity and Racial Equity in Everyday Life
How did you start your New Year? Did you have any ambitious or creative New Year resolutions? Many of us take this time to pause and think about things we want to change and we often focus on self-optimization. Healthier, stronger, more efficient – as individuals we are continuously working on becoming better versions of ourselves. But what if we took this year to become a better version of society – together? What if we worked on what we could do for each other as part of a community, if we flipped the first letter and envisioned a stronger “We” instead of a better “Me”?
Becoming a stronger ‘We’
The first step in becoming a strong community is always getting to know one another. Who is our neighbor, what are their living situations like, what things do we have in common, how we can we support each other, what are their (hi-) stories? Living in an America of the 21st century, we will encounter members of our communities who do not share the same cultural or racial background as we do. Maybe we are the new family on the street who have fled from Syria as refugees. Maybe my parents emigrated from Israel and my African-American husband and I have kids of mixed race. Maybe I am a PhD student from Malaysia and am still getting used to the American way of life. In order to build a strong community in which everyone feels supported and respected, we all need to reevaluate our own cultural and racial identities and histories. What is our comfort zone and why is that so? What preconceived ideas might we have about people who do not share the same background that we do?
This week’s blog post presents a few ideas on how we can champion racial equity in our everyday lives. Although SERC does a lot of systemic, long-term work on racial equity, these suggestions are for anyone who wants to do little things every day: when we socialize with friends, when we go grocery shopping, plan our travel or holidays, watch another show online, spend time on social media… Imagine if every little act of kindness, of self-critical evaluation, of honest listening, of stepping out of our comfort zone had a spiral effect and sent waves of change through our society!
Harvard Implicit Bias Project
First, however, we might have to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Paquita Jarman-Smith, one of our education consultants at SERC, called my attention to the Implicit Bias Project at Harvard University. Most of us would probably say – and hope – that we do not have any prejudices or preconceived ideas about gender, race, economic status, etc. My boss is a woman? Of course, no problem. My best friend is plus size? Let’s love our bodies as they are! – But what if we dig below the surface of these beliefs? This research project at Harvard University aims at revealing and educating about hidden biases in society. To quote from the website directly:
“People don’t always say what’s on their minds. One reason is that they are unwilling. For example, someone might report smoking a pack of cigarettes per day because they are embarrassed to admit that they smoke two. Another reason is that they are unable. A smoker might truly believe that she smokes a pack a day, or might not keep track at all. The difference between being unwilling and unable is the difference between purposely hiding something from someone and unknowingly hiding something from yourself.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.”
Taking some of these tests might be uncomfortable and confront us with an aspect about ourselves that we did not know – and might not like. But recognizing problems is the first step toward solving them. Let us find out what biases might lurk in our subconscious – and then do something about them!
Movies & TV
Wanda Guzman, one of SERC’s project specialists, is convinced that you can start with something quite small already: Instead of watching the same TV show every night, why not try something else this week? Search for a movie or a TV show that features other cultures or ethnicities than your own! What about a comedy from South Africa? A telenovela from Venezuela? A documentary filmed in Tibet? Wanda says it is important, however, that a representation of a certain culture should also be realized by or at least advised by people with the same cultural background that is featured in the production. Otherwise you would become a witness only to someone else’s idea of a country or a culture, but not get an authentic impression of the culture itself. And who knows, you might just pick up a few expressions in a different language while you become a fan of your new TV show. Grab some popcorn and travel around the world, all from the comfort of your own couch!
The New York Times, as one example, has put together a list of TV shows with a diverse or non-white cast. Look at the creators of the show, however! Are the people behind-the-scenes just as diverse as its cast?
And while we are talking about TV: Inform yourself about some of the main TV and social media channels that you are consuming regularly. What are their political positions and how might this influence their features and posts? How are they funded, and which political agenda might they have to subscribe to by accepting certain money? How many people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, etc. do they employ? Let’s become critical consumers of media outlets and remind ourselves to always put articles and news stories into their political, societal, and economic context. Let’s strive to become not just informed but rather knowledgeable citizens. Knowledge is information in context.
Festivals & Food
“Attend festivals that celebrate a culture that is different from your own! These are lots of fun with amazing food and music!”, Wanda recommends. The Connecticut Office of Tourism has even put together a list of celebrations and restaurants of various world cultures. Instead of going to your local diner tonight, why not try out an authentically run restaurant where you can not only have a great meal but also learn about the food’s history and the owner’s culture?
Another idea is to mix up your grocery shopping routine and go to a supermarket or bakery in a different corner of your city. When I worked in San Francisco, I always made an effort to pass by a Mexican bakery on my way to work for delicious brocas or besitos! The website CTbites.com, a food guide for Connecticut, put together a list of Latin American markets in Connecticut and says: “Whether you’re making corn tortillas from scratch, seeking beautifully ripe fruit at a great price, looking to pick up a luscious pastry, or preparing your grandmother’s mole, these stores are well worth the trip.” Or why not go to your local Asian supermarket and discover new ingredients! There is so much more to Asian cuisine than just fried noodles!
Local Farmer’s markets are also a great opportunity to support small businesses that often employ immigrant workers. And what is better than a freshly French-pressed coffee on a Saturday morning while you pick up your locally sourced veggies for the week? In New Haven on various farmer’s markets, you can enjoy delicious culinary creations from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan at the stall of Sanctuary Kitchen, a non-profit organization working with refugee and immigrant chefs as part of the CitySeed Inc. Iniative.
Travel and learn about other cultures!
Mark Twain is believed to have said: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” So travel some more this year, if only just in your own city! Venture off the beaten path and educate yourself about the history and culture of communities other than the one you grew up in. The Yankee magazine has put together an interesting list of museums and historical sites with regards to African American history in Connecticut. Connecticut History.org, a project of Connecticut Humanities, has also created a varied potpourri of resources where you will discover various books, documents, websites, and historically significant places.
From the state of Connecticut you can also easily travel to and learn about a variety of sovereign nations such as the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Nation, the Golden Hill Paugussett Nation, the Mashantucket (Western) Pequot Nation, the Mohegan Nation, and the Schaghticoke Nation (of these, only the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Tribe are officially recognized in Connecticut by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs). Have a look at their websites and find out whether and how you could visit their land or attend open cultural events. The Mohegan Nation, for example, will host this year’s Mohegan Wigwam in August!
In addition to visiting tribal events that are open to the public and educating yourself about the different nations’ histories, you can also support Native American art and craftsmanship by purchasing clothes, jewelry, blankets and much more from specific organizations that are exclusively run by Native American artists and give back to their community. Rather than buying an item from a large retail chain that features an indigenous pattern or artwork often without paying tribute, why not buy an original piece of artwork straight from the artist and help to support Native American artists? Cultural appropriation is hurtful to any party affected – seeing your culture and history reduced to stereotypes for the sake of entertainment and quick sales would hurt any of us, independent of our background. SERC cannot endorse any specific shops or organizations here but a simple Google search for “native owned businesses” or “buy native made jewelry/clothes/decor” will quickly yield results. Why not plan ahead and get the next birthday gift for your nephew or housewarming gift for your sister-in-law from a Native American artist’s workshop?
So let’s start this New Year off right! Let us grow together as a community and become a stronger “We” as we head into this new decade. Let us stay curious about cultures and practices that are different from our own and step out of our comfort zone regularly – only then can we grow and expand our intellectual, social, and political horizon. Let us take a critical look in the mirror and take Harvard’s Implicit Bias Test to find out what biases might hide under the surface – and then begin our journey to educating ourselves about and experiencing other cultures and backgrounds than our own. This is a long journey that might sometimes be uncomfortable and have us realize aspects about our culture that are not only pleasant, but it also will turn us into a more respectful and proactive citizen who explores the exciting and thought-provoking worlds that other cultures offer. Let us build bridges and learn from our diversity so that we become stronger together.
Disclaimer: Resources, listings, or links to websites in this blog post do not indicate approval or endorsement by SERC or the Connecticut State Department of Education. This blog post is provided solely as a resource of general information and also does not claim to be comprehensive in any way.