‘Bias Busters’ Class Publishes Cultural Competence Guide
May 22, 2013
Where do we begin to learn about one another?
Here’s a little story and a little answer.
Last summer at age 83, my mother downsized from a four-bedroom home to a two-bedroom apartment. She loves that her eight-unit cluster includes black, Indian, Middle Eastern and Jewish neighbors.
One day, she noted that someone — she thought it was the Indian couple upstairs — had bought a new car, and that someone had vandalized it. There was a swastika on it, she told me on the phone. She wanted to show her support or call security. She felt uncomfortable that creeps might be hanging around the complex.
When I visited her that Sunday, she showed me the car. Sure enough, there was the swastika, smack in the middle of the hood. I leaned in close and saw grains of rice in the symbol.
I stood up and used my phone to look up “Hindu, blessing, car.”
“Mom,” I told her, “when you see your neighbors, tell them that you see they have a new car and that you see that it has been blessed.”
I had heard about the Hindu blessing ceremony, or puja, at a temple as part of the work by my Michigan State University journalism class on a new guide titled “100 Questions & Answers About Indian Americans.”
The guide is the first in an MSU School of Journalism series on cultural competence. The class is called “Bias Busters.”
The idea is that, if we can answer 100 very simple questions about a culture, religion or ethnicity, we have taken the first small step toward greater understanding.
The project is meant to make talking with neighbors and co-workers easier by answering awkward questions that often stop us before we can get started. Tone and accessibility are essential. We sought to be non-judgmental, figuring that even a clumsily phrased question can come from someone who is earnestly curious, not trying to be rude. We wanted to be clear.
The students had a launch party for their new guide in April on the last day of class. It had taken them about 100 days from the first class to having copies in hand.
The guide began with interviews. Each student interviewed across fault lines to learn some of the statements or assumptions that Indian-Americans hear all the time: “What religion are Indians?” “Why are Indians so good at engineering?” “Do Indians steal jobs?” “Are your marriages arranged?” What a great exercise for young journalists.
The class then sorted the questions, pared them and began seeking answers.
Several people helped to vet the guide, including Vikas Bajaj of The News York Times, Krishnan Anantharaman of Automotive News in Detroit and Neal Justin of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis.
Other cultural competence advisers came from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Bharatiya Temple in Troy, Mich., where I first heard about puja.
The publisher, Read the Spirit, made “100 Questions & Answers About Indian Americans” accessible by publishing it on almost every platform. The 50-page paperback is available at http://amazon.com and http://barnesandnoble.com. Digital copies are available for Nooks and Kindles, and a student is building an iPad app for the guide.
About half of the content will appear on the series website at http://news.jrn.msu.edu/culturalcompetence/.
More guides will be published this year. We are working on reprinting one published in 2000 by Knight Ridder about Arab-Americans and another produced in 1998 by the Native American Journalists Association.
Another class is ready to go in the fall. The guides are intended for journalists, businesses, schools, teachers and anyone who wants to know more about and work with the people around them.
The guides are meant to be conversation starters. Eventually, we hope to create manuals for discussion leaders who can bring people together, start with 100 questions and then move on, much as the MSU journalism students did.
We know that 100 questions is not many. One thousand would not be enough. But even one question can be a step toward understanding.
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