Practicing a deep intercultural understanding


Vancouver Broadway Street is buzzing with life. Today is Greek Festival Day. Life music accompanies the celebration of a culture and its people. The smell of food is inviting and people join long patient line-ups to sample Greek cuisine. Greece’s blue-white flags are everywhere, intermingling with the maple leaf of Canada. Pride. Culture. Stories. Throughout the summer, Vancouverites flock to temporarily closed-off streets, as cultures are honored, remembered, celebrated, revitalized and carried forward into the future.

The Women’s FIFA World Cup had been drawing an influx of people from all over the world for the last month. Canada’s multi-cultural melting pot has temporarily become slightly fuller and more colorful.

I am getting ready to present a workshop on intercultural understanding to a group of young, bright and eager international high school students. The meaning of ‘intercultural’ and ‘understanding’ are on my mind. I sit in cafes and ponder. There is much to say, – so much, too much for a brief hour -, and the topic is important. It is also shrugged off, overused, misunderstood or understood too narrowly.

A few weeks ago, I watched Barack Obama’s eulogy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The combination of white hatred and supremacy had yet again claimed life. Throughout America, churches are burning; racially motivated hate crimes lay waste to places of worship. The symbolism is powerful, oppressive and in the south, the Confederate flag remains hoisted high. Those who understand and live the implications of the flag’s history on a daily basis demand that it be removed. Now. History is alive in the everyday and slavery, while gone, has been transformed into systemic racism and the continued devaluation of ‘black’ life. The Charleston-Syllabus explains. We witness an ever more pressing, angry, and exhausted challenge: Allies, the time for your silence has expired! And so we are all called to action, again and again. And yet, how does one engage and step forward? How do we begin? Too many of us stand passive, overwhelmed, or removed from empathy.

Intercultural understanding…

A few weeks ago, Canada’s final Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was released. Years of hearings and thousands of testimonies paint a horrifying picture of what it meant and continues to mean to be First Nations – a broad term including a diverse group of people -, in Canada. In ‘A Call to Action’, 94 recommendations were made and Canada was urged to confront the legacies of ‘cultural genocide’ and move from apology to action. The need is as pressing as ever, as systemic racism reigns in Canada also. Black and Indigenous people are united in their struggle and experiences with colonialism, oppression and white supremacy; both groups are disproportionally attacked, targeted and neglected by the state and individual acts of white hatred. Truth-telling as healing must be accompanied by concrete actions at the state level and calls all of us to self-reflect on how we are implicated and whether or not we are treating others how we ourselves would like to be treated or more importantly, how they would like to be treated.

The socially constructed and maintained gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’, must be bridged. And yet, how does one start? Activists call upon us all to decolonize together. We are called upon to listen, practice humility, seize courage and act in solidarity with a struggling people in pain. Our neighbours, colleagues, friends, partners, teachers. Canada Day celebrations are wrapping up. Many First Nations people would ask of us to reflect on what we are celebrating and what this day means to Indigenous populations who have and continue to lose so much. Can we, settlers on colonized land, dig deep inside of ourselves and think about how we can all work together to rectify the colonial legacy of Canada?

Two years ago, I was part of a bystander awareness campaign at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. My University. We worked to promote intercultural understanding and respect for diversity on campus and hoped to empower individuals to respond to discriminatory comments or situations. “No more walking away from scenes of discrimination and prejudice, demeaning and stereotypical comments, offensive jokes, or all those situations where we wish we had said or done something to help”. ‘Really?’ was not only the name of the campaign but also a powerful way to intervene. Did this really just happen? Did you really just say this, do that? Not on our campus! And yet, the campus remains a colonized space. We are reminded that the curriculum is white, that the Western canon reigns and that talk of tolerance is oppressive. Diversity advocates in higher education continue to run up against walls; institutional walls and much momentum that maintains us on paths of ‘this is how things have been done and will continue to be done’. Audacious critical self-reflection and systemic change is but a whisper amongst much noise in most institutions of higher learning.

It is very common to think about country of birth, first language, food, music, festivals, customs, and so on, when culture emerges in conversation. This is what Vancouver’s Greek festival celebrated.

And yet, there is more here to uncover. My university defines intercultural understanding as “the breadth and depth of understanding across profound cultural differences wherein an individual or a group understands a variety of significant cultural experiences tied to 1) ethnicity, race, religion, gender, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, immigration and in many cases academic, employment or professional status; 2) the cultural histories of various social groups within a society; 3) the interrelations between dominant and non-dominant cultures; and 4) the dynamics of difference”

And culture, the ever elusive term, captures all that which is meaning-making: lenses that shape what we see and don’t see, how we perceive and interpret, and where we draw boundaries. Culture shapes our ideas of what is important, influences our attitudes and values, and animates our behaviors. Culture is also a shifting, dynamic set of starting points that orient us in a particular ways, pointing toward some things and away from others (Michelle LeBaron).

When we take these definitions and apply them, it is easy to see how much we all still have to learn from each other. We have barely scratched the surface, and yet it is so urgent that we scratch, dig deep and humbly aspire to understand. Empathy is not innate. We must practice it. The ‘heart’ muscle cannot be allowed to atrophy. The stakes are high and urgent.

“We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway.” (Obama)

A powerful reminder from a eulogy to a tragic event. Grace, whether we deserve it or not, is within us. A precious, precarious life pulsates in all of us. How can we then become, day by day, a little bit less judgmental and more understanding? How can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions?

I would like to encourage everyone to join me and reflect on their own culture, their personal worldview and lens of looking at the world. Why do you hold this belief or view? Where does it come from? How does this belief influence you and your life? If you were to now assume a completely opposite view to the one you hold, what would it be? How would it make sense for those who hold this view? What can you imagine might reinforce this view for those who hold it? With this alternative belief, what would your world look and feel like now?

Now think about some everyday realities of people and seek to understand: a migrant sitting in a crowded boat in the middle of the ocean – “You broke the ocean in half to be here, only to meet nothing that wants you”, writes Nayyirah Waheed; a poor single mother as she is confronted by barrier after barrier in her struggle to care for those whom she loves, only to be looked down upon as a ‘welfare queen’ – poverty is so incredibly expensive; a First Nations person on Canada Day, observing festivities while trying to rebuild resilience in the face of so much trauma and marginalization; a young black activist having to shout again and again that black lives matter too!; a farmer in rural somewhere losing their land to the creeping behemoths of industry and profit; a Muslim harassed on the street because Islam is violent and Muslim = terrorist; a LGBTQ activist hesitant to engage in the euphoria when gay marriage was made legal; a black president in America; the list goes on and on, and we may even think about our friends, grandparents, parents, teachers, mentors, etc… and apply a critical reflection.

Each time, we may feel the urge to generalize and call upon surface level assumptions. It is easy to put people into boxes and label them. Let’s not. Let’s embrace a deeper spirit of intercultural understanding. A social justice driven intercultural understanding. Let’s break down barriers to understanding. Let’s brake down fear, isolation, stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and ignorance. Let’s not make this about us – ‘the proverbial me, me, me’ -, but about healing and honoring relationships.

Let’s, as Parker Palmer challenges us, labour to understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”, cultivate a sense of personal voice and agency, strengthen our capacity to create community and cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

Let us rise and do justice to a grace that dwells within us all.

Let us watch out for one another, and honor life, wherever it resides.


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