Friday, October 13, 2006

Culturally Incompetent

So last homestudy session was the one (I had thought the only one) where the cultural competency assessment was done.

I knew it was coming; I welcomed it. I think it’s crucial for parents who intend to parent cross-culturally to have some measure of cultural competency. I felt comfortable that we would “pass”, not that anyone ever “fails” any portion of a homestudy, they just have to “work on” things until they are approved.

The one thing that I wasn’t prepared for was how North American and academic our concept of cultural competency is. I grew up steeped in social justice and anti-racism discourse. I’ve taken workshops on it, and I’ve given workshops on it. But I haven’t discussed anti-racism a whole lot with Sr. Compa. Racism, we’ve discussed, mostly in the context of individual occurrences, and whether or not they could happen in his country, or in mine. But not anti-racism. I’ve never sat down and said: “Now, Sr. Compa: did you know that the definition of racism is ‘prejudice + power?’ And do you know what ‘white privilege’ means? It’s important for you to be conversant in these concepts, see, because you’re a brown person in North America.”

I haven’t done so, because I am a white person, and he is the one who is and will be experiencing both systematic and direct racism (hopefully not too often), and thus it would feel incredibly patronizing for me to do so. I trust him to recognize racism when he experiences it, and I respect him enough to have given him the space to respond or react to it according to his own thoughts and feelings. When people experience prejudice, they need to be reflective, or angry, or sad, or dismissive on their own terms. And while much of the prevailing North American anti-racist thought has been developed by a very diverse group of intellectuals, they are almost all North American-born. As far as I can tell, it makes a big difference.

It is always disorienting to hold certain concepts as a given, and to have them shot down without so much as a second glance. I have written before about the disorientation I felt when I was pregnant/new mom and living in Compa’s country, and was told by his family:
- Don’t hang up the laundry on the clothesline, the baby’s umbilical cord will wrap around its neck
- Don’t let the dog or cat climb on your lap, the baby will be born hairy
- Rub the baby’s nose on the sides, so it doesn’t turn out flat
- Don’t leave the house for forty days, the baby will get sick
- Don’t expose the baby to the sunlight for forty days
- Your baby has colic because he is possessed. You need to find a woman who is not on her period to do the sign of the cross, and then spit on his forehead.

And that’s to say nothing of the reactions I got just for being me:
- People trying to charge me twice the regular price, assuming I was rich
- Two men who threatened to stab me in the belly at 8 ½ months pregnant, trying to mug me.
- People who literally wouldn’t ask me the time of day, assuming that I wouldn’t understand them, who walked past me in order to ask Sr. Compa the time of day.
- People who, knowing that we were a family with a baby, and knowing that Sr. Compa didn’t speak English, asked if I understood Spanish
- An old woman who argued with me for fifteen minutes trying to convince me that my biological child was adopted (I wasn’t offended, but accuracy is nice- I found her more amusing than anything else).
- People who admonished me because I was letting my baby get too tan, when Sr. Compa wasn’t there to let people connect the dots

While in Sr. Compa’s country, I had varying reactions to all these incidents. Some of them made me laugh heartily. Some of them made me laugh bitterly. Some of them made me frustrated. Some made me feel completely powerless, or invisible, or angry, or scared.

Once when I was really frustrated with my in-laws telling me what to do/not to do, Sr. Compa gently reminded me that they were telling me these things because they cared about me, which was incredibly grounding for me. Beyond that, he gave me the space to feel whatever I was going to feel, and say whatever popped into my head, no matter how reactionary it was, knowing that it was just me trying to handle the challenges of being different. To this day, I am incredibly grateful for that.

It can be incredibly alienating to live in another country, no matter how many things there are about that country that you love and cherish. No matter how well you integrate, there will always be days that you miss the tangible (food, music, weather, family) and the intangible (a way of looking at things, or doing things; a sense that your friendships are deep and lasting, and that you share the same cultural short-hand). On those days, you feel particularly fragile, and you need to be able to feel you can be yourself around those who are closest to you.

In light of that- what does it matter if a person chooses one day to brush off an incident of racism, or a comment that just doesn’t sit quite right? Or if, conversely, they choose to hash it out at length over the dinner table, seething at the injustice? Shouldn’t we, as individuals, get to decide when and how we act on an incident (within reason)? Must we necessarily follow a formula (experience it, label it, act on it) in order to be seen as “coping well” with racism? Can’t we simultaneously believe / teach our children that we (and they) are capable of being and doing anything, while recognizing the role that racism plays in our society? Occasional denial and idealism have got a lot of people a long way: sometimes we determine (or are encouraged) to be on the “unlikely” side of the statistics, and when we succeed, we forge a path for those coming behind us, who because of our idealism, also believe that anything is possible for them. Is that so wrong?

So now the cultural competency assessment continues, and I am afraid that, once again, we won’t feel “ready.” Even though we already have a beautifully brown little boy, who knows who he is, and loves himself very much, and who is loved.

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