Starting school in America? Time to pick a race!

Posted on March 23, 2009. Filed under: American culture, diversity, education, race | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

For decades, students entering the American school system have been identified by race. Tracking of students by race was meant to identify trends, measure successes and allot funds. Children could belong to one and only one of 5 categories:  

  1. American Indian or Alaska native
  2. Asian or Pacific Islander
  3. Hispanic
  4. non-Hispanic black
  5. non-Hispanic white

Since America is known as the great melting pot, this seems quite arbitrary. So many children, especially in newer generations, are of mixed heritage, and don’t fit neatly into only one category.

When I registered my son for kindergarten I didn’t check off a race on his paperwork, because mixed race wasn’t an option. The principal went ballistic. “If you don’t choose a race, the kindergarten teacher will assign him a race.”  I will never, ever forget hearing that from an educator. 

Starting 2010, new, more inclusive categories will be included on school intake forms for mixed race children. However, these only apply to new students entering the system, not to kids already in school. Also, using these expanded categories it is not mandatory, but the government is encouraging all schools to use this new system.

I find this desire to assign people one and only one race as ironic, given our love of the hyphenated American, when we proudly declare ourselves to be Italian-American, Irish-American, etc. Many hyphenated Americans have never visited their “homeland” and don’t even speak the language. Still, most Americans can proudly tell you their roots, and where their ancestors came from.

By continually slicing and dicing our student body into ever expanding categories of races, we start to miss the obvious. At this point in American history, it seems to me that class trumps race in terms of educational opportunities and successes.  I am guessing that middle class and wealthy students will have greater educational oportunities and successes than poor students, regardless of race.

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The culturally competent healthcare provider

Posted on March 17, 2009. Filed under: American culture, arab culture, Asian culture, cross cultural communication, diversity, Hatian culture, healthcare, hispanic culture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Healthcare providers face multiple challenges when working with patients from different cultures. Unlike managers and employees who work with diverse coworkers and customers, healthcare providers interpretations and decisions impact the patient’s life and future.

I enjoy delivering culture training to healthcare workers. They usually “get it” and understand the importance the role culture plays in their interactions, as well as the idea that culture is more than  just ethnicity.

Still, I often hear the frustration healthcare workers encounter when providing services to members of other cultures. Even though they have the best intentions, they often don’t know how to address these differences.

Examples include:

1. Only immediate family were allowed to visit a patient in the hospital. About 12 members of an extended Hispanic family showed up, wanting to see the patient. When the provider said, “only immediate family” the response was, “We are immediate family!”  To them, the idea that a cousin or aunt is any less immediate was ridiculous.

2. A woman from Jordan was in consultation with a physician, her elder brother by her side. Before she would make any decisions or offer any responses, she would look at her brother, have a quick conversation in Arabic, and then the brother would provide the answer. The physician thought she could build a better relationship with the patient without the brother in the room. When she asked him to leave, the patient panicked and started to cry.

3.  An Hispanic patient brought her 3 children with her for her MRI, even though the healthcare provider explained that the testing would take about 1 hour, and the children could not be left unattended in the waiting room.

4. During intake at a psychiatric hospital, an Asian woman refuses to make eye contact with the healthcare provider. The provider isn’t sure if it’s cultural or related to a mental illness.

One workshop participant told a story that showed the importance of active listening, clarifying, summarizing and probing for more information. She said she was offering bereavement counseling for a Haitian woman who had just lost her 3-year-old daughter. In discussion, it came up that the woman did not attend her child’s funeral with the rest of the family. At first, the counselor was shocked at what she initially saw as a horrible thing for a parent to do. Without judging the Haitian woman, she engaged her in further discussion, only to learn that she was pregnant, and didn’t want to risk the life of her new baby by going into a cemetery. She was, by her cultural standard, being a caring and protective mother. A fact that only came out because the provider took the time to learn more.

 What cross cultural issues have you encountered in the healthcare system?


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Tattoos and Piercings in the Workplace

Posted on February 12, 2009. Filed under: American culture, business, diversity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Like them or not, tattoos and piercings are here to stay. While they hold a certain stigma for Baby Boomers, their popularity exploded in the 1990s as a common expression of individuality among younger generations. How should employers deal with this trend, and what legal rights does each party have?

Who has them?
Among 18- to 50-year-olds, 24% have tattoos and 14% have body piercings (other than ears), according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Among Gen Y (18-to 29-year-olds) 48% have either a tattoo or piercing. Clearly, it is impractical, and nearly impossible, to have a workforce free of tattoos and/or piercings.

What are an employer’s rights?
Tattoos and body piercing are gaining increasing acceptance, but employers have a right to ban their workers from showing them. An employer has the right to set a dress standard for the company, as long as it doesn’t violate discrimination laws, which only protect employees from discrimination based on age, disability, national origin, race, religion, or sex. A discrimination lawsuit brought by a Costco cashier stated that she was a member Church of Body Modifications and that her 11 piercings were a form of religious expression. The court sided with Costco.

Although employers may be legally permitted to ban them, it is not always in their best interest. An employee who feels accepted and is allowed to express her individuality is more likely to be a dedicated worker.

What should an employer do?
Have a written policy on tattoos and piercings. Create a policy and be sure to communicate it. It is important to be consistent. The policy has to be applied uniformly and to all employees, or that may be a form of discrimination.

2. Try to get buy in from the employees, rather than making unilateral directives. Discuss audience awareness with the employee. How, when and why might it affect interactions at work? Perhaps it is ok to show your body art around the office, but not so when meeting with a new client for the first time.

3. Consider the impact on coworkers or clients. Does the tattoo distract or harass others? Tattoos that create a hostile work environment should be banned. A Winnie the Pooh on your ankle? OK. Swastika on your neck? Not OK.

4. Get over it. As an employer, it is important to ask yourself what, specifically, you are opposed to. If it is just that you personally don’t like tattoos or piercings, is that a valid reason not to hire someone? Are you letting skilled workers get away because of their body art?

What do you think of  showing body art in the workplace?

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An extended First Family in the White House

Posted on February 4, 2009. Filed under: American culture, diversity, family, race, women | Tags: , , , , |

How cool is it that President Obama brought his mother-in-law to live in the White House, making our First Family an extended one. The First Grandma has played a key role in raising Malia and Sasha, and was vital to family stability during the primaries, when both parents were often on the road.

Extended families are the norm outside of Western culture, and even in the US, African-, Hispanic-, and Asian-American families very often have an extended family structure.

The Western model of the nuclear family as the ideal  is an outgrowth of a number of factors, including the Industrial Revolution,  emphasis on individualism, and the growth of government services  to replace those traditionally provided by the family.

Extended families lessen the workload for the mother and make child and elder care much easier. It offers children various adult role models and sources of love, and can lessen the tension often found in the overworked parents in today’s nuclear family structure.

How empowering for extended families in the US to see themselves in the First Family. They are no longer the other type of family–the ones who aren’t Ozzie and Harriet.

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The era of diversity

Posted on January 21, 2009. Filed under: diversity |

Obama’s inauguration has ushered in an era of multicultural awareness for America. He is part of a new generation that understands the power of diversity. “For we know that our patchwork heritage is strength, not a weakness,” he said in his inaugural address. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth”.  The world is too connected now for Americans to continue being monolingual and ethnocentric.

Unlike Bush, Obama realizes that the US is not the only but is one of many cultures. Obama has the cultural competency to know that you can’t just go into another country and say, “Here.  Adopt my culture. It’s better than yours.”  Obama walks a fine line. He is multicultural (he once referred to himself as a mutt), but is also uniquely American. He embodies the American story and the American spirit. In his address he tapped into what Americans take pride in most: optimism, hard work ethic, volunteerism, pursuit of individual satisfaction and our diversity.

Throughout his speech, Obama touch on the cultural traits I discussed in an earlier post (1/11) which are listed again here.

 Individuality/personal responsibility 
materialism/consumerism  (Obama also touched on how we have hurt ourselves through these)
goodness toward humanity/volunteerism/charity

He used these traits to energize his audience, and connect with them on a fundamental level. Some examples include:

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America” (future oriented, optimistic, hard working)

“The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit (optimism); to choose our better history (self determination, personal responsibility, individuality) ; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”

Now, what American wouldn’t get totally psyched up over that?


Americans celebrated a great achievement yesterday. Now we are being asked to sacrifice and control our materialism and consumerism. What do you think? Will Americans step up to the plate and do what needs to be done or will they keep on with their same ways?



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What living in the sticks taught me about diversity

Posted on January 15, 2009. Filed under: American culture, diversity |

When people find out where I live, they always ask, “Do you have any clients up there? It doesn’t seem like a very diverse area.” Well, it’s not, and the overwhelming majority of my clients are out of area. Like many parents, we moved to the country for our kids–better schools, safer neighborhoods. After spending most of my adult life in Brooklyn, NY, country living was a huge culture shock. Which I should have been prepared for, right? After all, I’m an intercultural trainer.

My community is mostly Christian/Republican and I am neither. For the first few years, it really annoyed me–I was constantly reminded of my outsider status. When my kindergartener came home from a friend’s birthday party with a What Would Jesus Do party favor mug, I started to rethink the whole move.

Then something unexpected happened. I started to get to know the people as individuals, and not as a category. And what did I learn? That in any group there are all kinds of people. There are people whom I disagree with on a fundamental level, who are still great parents, kind, generous and helpful to their community. I learned that Jesus had a great message, and offers a powerful way to lead your life.

Mostly what I learned, is that embracing diversity includes not just appreciating different ethnicities but different ideologies as well. Moreover, diversity includes not only the exotic and unique, but the mainstream and homogenous as well. These too, are parts of the diversity spectrum.

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Stereotypes or generalizations?

Posted on January 8, 2009. Filed under: American culture, cross cultural, diversity |

My good friend and all around powerhouse, Jennifer, lover of linguistics, culture and the spreadsheet, sent me a great link about intercultural communication. It has a fun list of You Know Your American If… as well as other nationalities.

Is this list of characteristics from different cultures stereoptyping or generalizing? The list, itself, shows cultural bias in its statements. One statement, “If a woman is plumper than the average, it doesn’t improve her looks” is an American notion to begin with. Who else judeges women so severely and constantly based on their weight? Aren’t we the home of the 00 jeans? And who decides what is “plump” anyway? What is baseline for plump?

You Know Your Columbian If… also agreed that a woman who is plumper isn’t better looking. But to an American, many Columbian and hispanic women in general, are plump to begin with. The standard of beauty for Latinos is not the same as in the US. Beautiful women have meat on their bones. They have curves. When I first met my Dominican husband’s family, they all exclaimed that I was tan flaca. My response? Gracias! I took as a compliment what was meant as a concern that I clearly needed to eat more.

Are these list stereotypes or generalizations? Maybe a bit of each. What’s the difference? Stereotypes are absolutes and don’t seek to understand. Stereotypes judge. Gereralizations help guide your understanding. Generalizations are open to variations, and are always seen as on a spectrum.

Which country are you from? Do you agree with the list from your country? What else would you add?

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