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17 Sep 2020

The Cultural Coach: Why diversity is everybody’s business

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September 17, 2020 Category: Commentary Posted by:

By Linda S. Wallace 

Linda S. Wallace

Dear Cultural Coach:

Why aren’t you more concerned about giving our youths the correct tools to succeed in a global market? Encouraging students  to constantly speak “hip-hop” vocabulary will only hold them back. It’s not like past generations where the youths had a few words or phrases used among themselves; this is becoming a language — a poor one, at that — and the youths have no desire to learn the correct way to communicate with the world at large.


Dear Houston:

Allow me to answer your question by sharing an urban fairytale.

Once upon a time, the rich, beautiful and powerful people gathered once a year to hold a fabulous affair. To get inside the door, you had to have the right look or family history.

Those who did not meet that standard gathered beside the back fence and watched the fun from afar. 

One evening, a wise elder posed a question to the disenfranchised: “Why do we stand here every year and watch this party? Why not get together and host our own celebration and play our own music? Then we, too, can experience what it is like to be beautiful and cool.”

And so they did. But their festival was unlike any other. Women wore brightly colored African fabric and scarves. The men braided their hair. The music was faster, and the words flowed like poetry. Soon, fashion stylists and music executives looked to that party as the urban trendsetter.

Meanwhile, the hosts of the big party now were ready for bigger and better things. They reasoned that if they opened up the doors to everyone, their celebration could soon be the envy of the world.

When the hosts announced this vision, they expected long applause. As it happened, the outsiders were skeptical. Their soulful language and culture were comfortable, like a second skin, and many were reluctant to let go.

The outsiders, you see, feared that in order to gain general admission to the bigger party, they had to look like and act like the folks who had locked them out. They wondered if that act might dishonor their ancestors and discount efforts to build a distinct identity.

Organizers of the big party have to find a way to convince outsiders that if they join the mainstream, they can bring their cultural uniqueness and customs with them. We have the right to tell others that they should be more like us but, as parents and baby boomers know, that message is rarely received well. (Ok, boomer?)

Why not pledge that the party, going forward, will reflect an authentic community blend, and value the artistic contributions of all generations? The event must have communitywide appeal.

I share this so that you may understand why I greatly admire the European American teacher who shared during a diversity training session that she had created a hip-hop dictionary to bridge the language gap between school and neighborhood.

The dictionary served two purposes: 1) Helping teachers understand what the heck the students were saying and 2) teaching students that they needed two dictionaries — one for school, and the other for the neighborhood. The teacher stressed to her pupils that it was important to understand when it is appropriate to use hip hop, and when it is ill-advised. By saying this, she validated the students’ language while suggesting it might not be a good fit for school. 

You and I agree that young people need to learn the language used by corporations and in schools. Young people do need to know how to speak the language of business, as well as their own. Businesses need to learn the languages of their diverse customers, including youth.

Anyone who doesn’t learn how to speak effectively to diverse audiences — white, black or Latinx- is doomed to fail.

Linda S. Wallace develops cross-cultural messages for the workplace and the media. Readers can submit questions related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical differences to: [email protected]

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