Sensitivity and Awareness; Respecting What You Don’t Know

Respecting the culture of others does not mean that we have to agree, understand, or even integrate another understanding into our own. There have been a lot of discussions within the Pagan community that boil down to differences in culture and understanding, and the inability to embrace concepts of cultural sensitivity and awareness. What cultural awareness is not, is proving that someone else’s cultural or personal understanding of the world is wrong. Integrating empathy into our own awareness practices can propel everyone into another position of growth and global understanding of some of the experiences — differences and views of those who do and think differently than another.

Photo I took on a middle school yard in Oakland. The kids were doing an expressive art project after watching the movie Bully as an entire school. They came up with the idea of drawing their shadows connected together, in respect.

In short exploration of this concept, let’s look at a couple of the key elements that contribute to the concept of cultural sensitivity and awareness:

  • Experiences can be told, described, explained and illustrated, yet we cannot transfer feelings and cultural association to another who is not of the same culture or experience. We might be able to correlate experiences to create a “like” feeling, but part of harnessing awareness is the understanding that there will always be many things we may never understand.
  • Cultural awareness or sensitivity does not mean you have to agree. It is more about the knowing than it is about agreement, and an awareness of the layers of sameness and difference.
  • Most communication models identify the sender as the responsible party for the receiver’s understanding. There can and will always be exceptions to this, but overall the communicator holds this responsibility and should take that extra step of awareness in the communication that supports clear intention and effective translation.
  • Language is powerful. The words we use will often be the steering wheel on the vehicle of a dynamic. Words will have associations, energetic connections, and history that can change the interpretation of what is being said, versus what was being heard.
  • Let your values and ethics pave your road of good intention. There will always be differences of opinion in the world and that does not mean you have to deviate from what values you say are important. If you want equality, practice equality in spirit and value. That doesn’t mean bring everyone into your world, but it does mean not to say you want one thing and then display another. We can value one another as human beings whether we agree or not. Our values and ethics should always travel with us, not just on good days.
  • We are all one, YES!! But we are not each other. No one can truly judge or assume the intentions of another by the characteristics of any particular culture. As a Black woman, I recognize several different cultures at play during any given moment, but that does not mean that someone can make assumptions about who I am based on their subjective opinions. As I recently stated in a Facebook post, one gay person isn’t all gay people, one black person is not all black people, one trans person is not all trans people, and so on. If you find yourself judging a whole group of people based on your own distanced understanding of another’s culture, or based on limited interactions of a few, you are repeating the same actions onto others that you probably don’t appreciate in your life. As a Black woman, my judging of any minority group would be the same as my own experiences of being judged for my race, size, or gender.
  • We don’t have to perpetuate hate, judgment or fear when we can push love, tolerance and hope.
  • Respect for others is often rooted within our own spirits, with direct connections to our own understanding and experiences of respect for ourselves.

It is only within our own sense of justice for our own self and our own community, that we can understand justice for another. It is with that same force of spirit, that same passion, and that same longing for respect that we can thrive to be understood, and to understand.

So while we are contemplating what it means to respect the cultures of others, maybe we should stop pointing fingers outside as the root problem and start to look further inside; the ability to see the beauty within the divine spirit of another starts with the ability to see it within oneself. And in that moment we can see more beauty within the colorful cultures of those around us, adding paint to our otherwise limited black and white canvas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.w.morehead John W. Morehead

    There are many elements in this essay applicable to interreligious engagement. In that context one does not have to agree in totality with another religion in order to respect or even admire elements within it. The late Lutheran Bishop of Sweden, Kirster Stendahl, said we should practice this “holy envy,” and I think your essay overlaps with some of this.


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