Dear Cultural Coach:
Q: I have always attended black high schools. This fall I will attend a predominantly white university. I am afraid people won’t like me and I won’t fit in. Do you have advice?
READY FOR LIFE
A: The most culturally competent people typically are those who have lived abroad or among people of diverse racial and ethnic groups. It takes courage to venture out alone, but these are the journeys that often pay the highest return on our investments.
I can’t promise that you will receive a warm and welcoming reception. It is important to understand that your experiences will be shaped, in part, by your own expectations. Much of communication is nonverbal. People have ways of tapping into our private thoughts and prying open our true feelings. If I suspect that a stranger is racist, most likely I will receive a gruff response from that person.
When I try to postpone judgments, I find that I increase the likelihood that others will treat me pleasantly.
Rule 1: Manage your biases.
Sadly, people are much more accepting of those who look or talk like themselves. People who are biased or prejudiced place significant limitations upon themselves — that is their right. Remember, words can only hurt you if you decide they are true. Racial slurs reflect upon the person speaking, not upon their intended targets. You have the power to disarm these strangers.
Don’t offer them the power to determine how you see yourself.
Rule 2: Exercise your right to disarm those who try to hold you back.
Diversity drives our creativity, but only if people are willing to participate in a cultural exchange. Regard your experiences and ideas as an asset. The more you share your intellectual wealth, the higher its value. Be unafraid to offer your cultural perspectives. Be open to others with different viewpoints.
Rule 3: Share your culture, and increase its value.
There is no such thing as a dumb question. African Americans often grumble when white Americans ask questions about their “curly” hair. A few years ago, I met a white teacher who worked at an all black elementary school. She shared many wonderful stories; among them was one about her students’ desire to touch her straight hair. The moral is: None of us knows everything we ought to know. It is human to be curious, and wise to be patient. He who criticizes others opens himself up to criticism.
Rule 4: Employ random acts of patience.
The person seated beside you just might be the one who hires you in the future for the job of a lifetime. Draw upon diverse ideas and perspectives from the universe of talent around you. Watch foreign language films. Read books by authors with whom you disagree.
Rule 5: Get your money’s worth.
Keep in mind that difficult experiences have a magical way of introducing us to destiny. I chose to attend the University of Missouri-Columbia, a predominantly white and rural college. While enrolled there, it seemed like I had made an awful mistake. Later, I realized that those years ultimately led me to the work I love and the life I desired.
A university can offer you a diploma, but it is up to you to get a worthwhile education. The quality of your experience will be determined by the degree to which you are willing to test drive new perspectives, work hard, manage your biases and meet your deadlines.
Rule 6: Commit to success.
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