Step into the circle characterized by diversity.
“We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity,” said human rights activist and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
An essay by Nina Dove
(Editor’s Note: the author is a senior at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, NC, and served in the summer of 2018 as a Guide for international dance troupes participating in our Folkmoot Festival 2018. If you read nothing else today, please take the time to read this glorious testimony to the unfailing human spirit.)
As a high school senior, I see increasing diversity everywhere around me.
Just as an example: chapters of the GSA (Gender and Sexuallity Alliance) and Girl Up were established last year at my school. Appreciating diversity has always been very important to me, so when I learned that I would have the opportunity to work specifically with cultural conversations during this year’s Folkmoot Festival, I was beyond excited.
Cultural Conversations is a discussion-based program that brings people together through commonalities while appreciating their differences. This year, Dr. Dana Patterson, Director of Intercultural Affairs at Western Carolina University, lead staff, guides, dancers, and even audiences through several Cultural Conversations workshops.
The guide workshop was more challenging than I thought it would be. I consider myself pretty inclusive, so I was prepared for a simple reiteration of the things I already knew. I was wrong.
One of the things we reviewed is a list of statements from Dr. Maura Cullen’s book, 35 Dumb Things Well Intended People Say.
“If you’re going to live in the country, learn to speak the language,” and, “ that’s so gay,” were easy to condemn as “dumb things well intended people say.” They are so obviously discriminatory the only remaining question should be, “they’re said by well-intentioned people?”
“I know exactly how you feel!” and “We’re all one race: the human race!” seemed more positive, maybe even helpful.
Once we discussed them, however, I started to see problems.
How could I know how someone feels if their experiences are vary different from mine? And if I really believe I know how that person feels am I, then, closed off to learning more about their experiences?
Similarly, if I say, “we are all one race,” I undermine the past and present experiences of someone of another race or geographic heritage.
Since that activity, I am more aware of the effect my best-intentioned words might have on others.
But what about the situations where the language was more obviously wrong?
In one of our Cultural Conversations we discussed different types of racism. Someone brought up the concept of “reverse racism.”
“Wow!” I thought “Don’t you know that’s just a way the dominant race excuses their own racism?
“Don’t you know you can’t say that, especially here?”
The discussion leader calmly explained that racism is characterized by laws and rules which uphold racial discrimination and, therefore, “reverse racism” would not actually be considered racism but prejudice based on race. If my fellow workshop participant had not been allowed to ask that question we all wouldn’t have learned about the power dynamics in systemic racism.
I came to understand everyone is on their own journey towards cultural understanding and acceptance and that part of walking down that road means putting ourselves in situations which are not always comfortable. If we don’t ask, how can we learn? I looked around at the other guides, most of us roughly the same age and from the same region, and realized how very different we are. We have a lot to learn from each other. How much more can we learn from the dancers and musicians coming to our region from vastly different part of the world and life experiences?
One of the most meaningful Cultural Conversation exercises was called “Step into the Circle. ”
Participants were directed to step from our larger group circle toward the center and a smaller circle when statements were read aloud which applied to us.
Some of the questions were lighthearted: “step forward if you have a best friend.” Others were more difficult.
At one point, the facilitator said, “step forward if your life has been affected by drug and/or alcohol use.”
That one was tough. I couldn’t explain my family history, so I figured people would assume the worst if I stepped inside the circle. On the other hand, what if someone needed me to step in so they could find the courage to do the same–regardless of their reasons? I stepped forward. I was not alone.
With Folkmoot 2018 behind us (and precious memories to last a lifetime), I vow to continue to step into the circle to share my experiences with others.
Additionally, I will help spread cultural understanding through Cultural Conversations, no matter the assumptions that stem from me doing so. These moments are powerful reminders to throw out my own assumptions about others and make room to learn from their experiences.