The Cultural Coach
By Linda Wallace
Dear Cultural Coach: As a college professor, I am startled by some of the scantily-clad women students in my class. Some of these outfits I couldn’t wear in front of my own husband. I like these young people very much and enjoy our discussions, but I feel this attire is inappropriate for a classroom setting. What would you say to these young women? — Blushing in Philadelphia
Dear Blushing: Some colleges and universities now have dress codes that prohibit such attire, but they are a leap in the wrong direction. It is far easier to develop rules than it is to sit down with someone and hold an honest yet difficult conversation. If colleges and universities seek to encourage learning and growth, they must find compelling ways to explain why a behavior is good or bad, instead of regulating what students can do and say.
Years ago, I mentored a high school girl who wore very tight, sexy clothes. Once, as we were crossing a busy street, a motorist stopped at a traffic light, turned off his car, got out, and started chasing after us. He wanted my friend’s phone number. When the light turned green, the people stuck behind his abandoned car were pretty angry, and a near-riot ensued.
That presented the perfect opportunity to hold a candid conversation. “You have a right to dress as you choose, and men should not bother you,” I told her. “Nonetheless, some guys will see your revealing clothing as an open invitation for harassment.”
Instead of criticizing her attire, I simply informed this intelligent young lady that if she expanded her wardrobe, she could experience a new type of personal power. After all, clothes are a tool to help us reach our career and life destinations. She began to experiment with outfits to determine which ones worked to her advantage. Over time, her wardrobe expanded, along with her view of herself and her sense of power.
When I awaken each morning, I decide how I wish to be treated. Then, I pick out the outfit that will bring about the desired result. If I am going to see my banker, I wear business attire. If I want to be treated with great respect by men, I wear African or ethnic clothes. If I am in a playful mood, I’ll wear shorts and sandals. Instead of offering criticism and implementing dress codes, we should show young people how to make their clothing work in their interests — in the classroom and outside it.
Dear Cultural Coach: Why is it that some people with extensive knowledge of diversity and cultural literacy often insist on making others feel inferior or ignorant? It makes it harder for the rest of us to catch up. — Still in the Minor Leagues
Dear Minor Leagues: How perceptive you are! If you want to improve your cultural IQ, you’ll need a competent support team. Good coaches welcome questions and help teammates improve performance. Bad coaches focus on deficits, rather than on increasing potential. So, if you seek to increase your cultural IQ, find a good coach and assemble multicultural teammates as your backup. Then let’s take on all the people who make us afraid to learn. Tell them, “When the day comes that I think I know it all, that is the day I’ll worry. Seeking out information is an admirable goal.”