Living in a Global Culture

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by Dale Sproule

“Are you disrespecting me?” is one of the popular catchphrases of the early 2000s. “Not on purpose,” would probably be a common answer.

Accidental disrespect may be one of the big hazards of our time.

With the huge increase in global migration, everyone living in Canada shares this hazard. Even if you spend 95 percent of your time within your cultural community, you will have to deal with people from other cultures. You find yourself at meetings, in retail stores, or at a social function with someone from a culture that’s completely different from either your first culture or that of your adopted homeland. Chances are, your children or your brother’s children will marry someone from a different cultural background and you will have to deal with the differences on a regular basis. Our day-to-day lives are filled with people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.

It doesn’t pay to stay insulated

A recent Stats Canada study confirmed that people who work entirely within their own cultural community will almost certainly be making less money than those of us who develop the ability to work and socialize outside of our ethnic circles. In other words, the better you are at dealing with people from other cultures, the greater your chance of getting hired, being promoted or earning more money.

You may think you are pretty good, but mastering this skill is not as simple as you think, due largely to the risk of accidental disrespect.

What is accidental disrespect?

One recent incident happened in March 2008, when Toronto City Councillor, Rob Ford, during a council debate about stores staying open on statutory holidays made comments including, “Those Oriental people work like dogs, they work their hearts out, they are workers non-stop.” and “Those Oriental people are slowly taking over.” In his mind, he was holding up the Asian work ethic as a good example, without realizing that he was stereotyping Asians in the process.

Another council member responded by quoting Korean comedienne Margaret Cho’s line, “Carpets are Oriental, people are Asian.”

And the controversy began. The story made the national news. Many apologies were issued.

A letter from The Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter contained the line, “[Rob Ford’s comments] were offensive because the term oriental is outdated and derogatory.” The letter went on to explain why the word was inappropriate, saying, “any essentialist generalization about a racial group is racist. This is regardless of whether the generalization is intended to be complimentary or derogatory.”

But since the media likes their stories short and pointed, and most of us seldom read past the headlines, the story became entirely focused on use of the word “oriental”, and the much larger issue of racial stereotyping became lost in the shuffle.

Many Canadians heard the story when it broke. So there was a level of public awareness that “oriental” is a bad word.

How bad is it?

You’re a Canadian sharing an office space with someone from China. You heard the Rob Ford story. “Oriental” is the word you have always used, thinking it was not just polite, but sort of exotic.

You have never felt self-conscious using the word “orientals” until just a moment ago when you were planning to go for lunch with your co-worker and suggested an “oriental” restaurant. She doesn’t appear to notice, nodding her head and telling you about a good Vietnamese restaurant just down the street.

Does this mean it’s okay to keep using “oriental”?

Certainly, when you use the word in a way that reinforces stereotypes, that’s not the best way to use the word. You will offend people.

Your usage of the word was a lower case “oriental”. Can it be used as an adjective to refer to the part of the subcontinent where a certain kind of food or an art movement came from…as in “oriental restaurant” or “oriental carpet”?

Don’t touch there

Cultural sensitivity can be hard to put your finger on, until something offends you. You may feel insulted, embarrassed or angry, even when the person who committed the offence intended no offence at all.

At Canadian Newcomer Magazine, our awareness was heightened by a collective cry of protest from African-Canadian readers who found the montage on the cover of our 2008 Settlement Guide to be offensive.

To put this in perspective, this cover was seen by a good number of staff, suppliers and friends of the magazine from more than half a dozen different cultures, including the model and others of African decent. No one suspected that there was even the potential for controversy on that cover.

And yet, well over a dozen readers phoned and e-mailed us to tell us how offended they were.

“I had the opportunity to take a look at Issue #22 of your magazine and I must say I was deeply offended. You should know better that the majority of immigrants that come to this country are well-educated, are doctors, engineers or business people.” (Narmin Mahdavi)

“When one who has never been to Africa sees that picture it sends a message stating, people in Africa walk with no shoes, have no professions, are dying of hunger and they survive hunting. Africa is full of professional jobs, natural resources and so many other things that one who has never been to African can’t imagine.” (Mohamed Nur)

“This picture does not do justice to newcomer women, especially women of colour from Africa. I am very disappointed this picture was chosen for the cover of a magazine that has so much valuable information to newcomers. A more accurate picture would show an African woman in her country in an executive position and then in a Tim Horton’s uniform here in Canada.”(Shirley Graham)

As the feedback continues, I have had to come to terms with the realization that my “brilliant” concept for the cover of the magazine may not have been so brilliant after all – and in fact, it insulted the very audience it was intended to help.

I take full responsibility for the concept. I wanted to depict a transition from someone’s old homeland to the new. In order to do that, there had to be some differences between the lifestyles depicted on the two sides of the page, so we wanted a picture of someone in a culturally identifiable setting and/or costume. If we had a picture of a Russian person in front of the Kremlin, we might well have used that instead, but our favourite photographer had just returned from Africa rather than Russia.

I already had the concept before I looked at her pictures, so it was just a matter of choosing one. I saw someone dressed in non-north American clothes walking across an African landscape and selected it, never dreaming that it would turn out to be an issue.

We then recruited a (volunteer) model and took the “Canadian” picture. The cover drew compliments from everyone who saw it. No one anticipated a negative reaction and when it happened, we were all pretty puzzled at first.

I think that if the photographs had illustrated a particular person’s journey – and there was a story to go along with it – we may have avoided the reaction…because it would not have been interpreted as a generalization. But since there was no corresponding story, the natural reaction is to view it as an illustration of the journey taken by “African women” in general – and in that context, the picture on the left hand side of the page does indeed come across as a stereotype.

And that was culturally insensitive. We are truly sorry about offending a large portion of our audience. But the experience taught us a valuable lesson and the controversy that has begun opens some important issues for discussion. Cultural sensitivity is what this magazine is all about. It’s how we make our livings and how we live our lives. And if we can make a mistake that can raise the wrath of a whole cultural demographic – then anybody can.

Learning from mistakes and correcting the course

Global migration is going to continue, and those of us with the best chance of success are those who understand the importance of getting along and working with people from other cultures. Rather than finger pointing, we should be talking with each other, building understanding and appreciation of other cultures. The best way to begin is to pay attention to what you think, say or do and try to recognize when you are guilty of thinking in stereotypes.

Correct yourself, forgive yourself and move on. The world you’re moving into will be better for it.

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