So this past weekend was Cinco de Mayo, an American holiday that celebrates margaritas, burritos and drunken tomfoolery. What, you thought it was about a Mexican military victory against the French? Interestingly, the holiday is much more widely celebrated in the U.S. than in Mexico, thanks mainly to beer commercials and clever marketing. A dear friend of mine of Hispanic descent brought up several good points on the subject and got me thinking about dealing with cultural sensitivity, or insensitivity, as the case may be.
When I first moved to San Francisco, I worked with a woman who made a big impression on me, though not necessarily in a positive way. She had a personal mission to point out every instance of what she perceived as racism in her day-to-day interactions with the intention of making people more aware and sensitive to their words and actions. She took particular delight in calling me out (presumably because I was from the South) every time I mentioned race, ethnicity or culture. Her approach was something like this: “Why did you say that just now? Was the fact that the man was black important to the story, or are you just fostering latent racism?”
Needless to say, she and I butt heads often. I would immediately go into defense mode since no one - least of all me - wants to be called racist, but also because I thought her reasoning was flawed. What’s wrong with noticing that people are different from you? Racism is certainly still a problem in this country, I agreed, but being blind to race and culture is hardly a solution.
To this day, when I think of this lady’s seemingly personal vendetta against my “racist” Southern ways, my blood boils. But five years later, I have to admit that she had a point.
Fast forward to Cinco de Mayo 2013. My aforementioned friend made the point that dressing up “like a Mexican” was incredibly offensive, brought on I suspect by this photo posted on a Facebook event page:
This started something of a Facebook debate concerning why lumping a number of cultural and racial stereotypes into a costume is problematic, with which I couldn’t agree more. It’s one thing to dress as a historical figure or cultural icon such as Che Guevara or Emiliano Zapata, but quite another to dress up “as a Mexican.”
But she and I got to talking about the best way to raise awareness to such stereotypes and yes, latent racist attitudes that many Americans foster. When one is personally offended by another's words or actions, it’s difficult to approach the situation calmly to point out the offense.
However, as I learned with my former coworker many years ago, it’s also very difficult to be on the other side and have your actions or words criticized or even worse, to be called racist. And while I like to think racism in this country is dying with each generation, cruel stereotypes and ignorance are alive and well. The trouble is recognizing it and correcting the behavior without launching into attack or defense mode.
On one side, you have people who throw up their arms and yell “Offense! Racism!” at every joke or comment to the point of exhaustion. On the other side, you have those who either have no clue when it comes to interacting with other cultures, or feel PC-ed to death and resistant to any notion of cultural sensitivity. Personally, I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
Political correctness is much more lax in the South, so most people - even those who in no way would consider themselves racist - don’t realize when they’re saying something terribly insensitive. Here in San Francisco, people can be not only be overly-sensitive, but also incredibly impatient when it comes to others lack of insight and sensitivity.
As always, it’s that middle ground we’re most in need of but also proves to be most elusive. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could engage in a legitimate conversation about race and stereotypes without one or both parties becoming offended or self-righteous?
For my part, I’m trying to understand issues from viewpoints other than my own, even those that to me seem flawed, and avoid initial knee-jerk opinions. But also, I’ve got to learn not to let my feathers get ruffled so easily when someone makes an insensitive or ignorant comment regarding my hot-button issues.
Perhaps this exercise in understanding and patience is a lesson we could all stand to study a bit further.