If You Don’t Know, Just Ask

Anyone who’s read my blog before knows that being from a small town in the West has definitely shaped my view of the world. As yesterday was MLK Day, I’ve been doing some thinking about how my upbringing has shaped my views on race and diversity.

Coming from an area of the country with little diversity, I grew up with a deficit in cultural awareness. Obviously through television, the media, etc, I knew some about diversity, but I had yet to experience it firsthand. This led, admittedly, to a lack of understanding about what it means to truly be sensitive to cultures, beliefs, and races. By no means was I in any way biased against people on basis of any of these things, but when you don’t need the vocabulary to talk about diversity, you don’t acquire it.

Before I came to college, I was warned by a family member about cultural awareness. I was told that things would be different. This is again not to say that I had to stuff my racist beliefs inside (I don’t have any) or that I had to stop telling the offensive jokes which were so loved by Westerners (untrue) or anything like that. This is just to say that things would be different; when everyone is accustomed to, aware of, and immersed in diversity, the conversation looks different from that of people who have perhaps in their whole lives never experienced diversity at all.

Coming here, I was pretty cautious especially when dialogues were initiated on race, religion, or sex. I was worried about unknowingly saying something politically incorrect or offending someone. I found after awhile that the biggest problem is not cultural ignorance, but lack of awareness and admittance of one’s own ignorance.

What separates the people who offend and the people who do not is the awareness of such a deficit. I’ve learned that it is completely okay not to know if a certain racial term is acceptable to use or if what you know about different religions is biased. The error comes not in not knowing, but not asking. While it might be unavoidable that at some point I’ll put my foot in my mouth accidentally, I’ve found that the vast majority of those cases can be avoided by just asking the person to which you’re speaking, if appropriate. Don’t be afraid to ask them which term they’d prefer to describe their race, or which gender pronouns they’d prefer to go by, if you aren’t sure. If done with grace, most people will genuinely appreciate your willingness to be politically correct and view you as culturally aware yet uninformed, not socially ignorant.

I in no way fault my upbringing for not teaching me these things about diversity. It just so happens that my area of the country in a lot of ways is undiverse. This does mean, however, that those of us from those areas have the responsibility of educating ourselves by asking questions and initiating dialogues about topics like race, gender, and religion. It’s okay to be culturally uninformed, but it isn’t okay to remain culturally ignorant. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

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