Everybody has a perspective, a point of view, based on where they stand, how they have grown up, what is in their field of vision. Everybody also has blind spots, including me. It’s not our fault; this the shape of our heads. When people don’t check their blind spots, they are a danger to self and others. When they deny that there are objects in their blind spots, when they deny that their blind spots exist, they are not fit to operate a vehicle.
Everybody has a cultural perspective; a point of view, based on where they stand culturally (cultural perspective), how they have grown up (cultural background), what is in their field of vision (cultural context). Everybody also has cultural blind spots, including me. It’s not our fault, this is the shape of our lives. When people deny that there are people in their cultural blind spots, they are a danger to self and others. When they deny that their cultural blind spots exist, they are not fit to operate a cultural vehicle; that is, they are not fit to create policy.
I’ve written about this before, in terms of noodles.
My perspective and blind spots
I’m proud to say that I’m Filipino American; that’s my cultural perspective. I can tell by taste if the rice you served me is fresh or reheated. I squat with my heels flat on the ground. I point with my lips.
I have huge cultural blind spots. It’s not my fault; it’s just the shape of my life. I can’t answer my Chinese friends’ questions about Radiohead or Coldplay. The appeal of Christmas cookies, winter sports, and Woody Allen is totally foreign to me. I have zero understanding of soup in a bread bowl.
I’ve confronted my own cultural blind spots in every different society where I’ve lived. In college, living with white Americans meant I had to confront the hegemony of “classic rock” on a daily basis. When I was in China I could never figure out how to get Chinese people to stop cutting in front of me. In the Philippines I had trouble handling all the lies; lies like “we’ll make an announcement when we start selling tickets,” “this plan has unlimited internet,” “there is no national museum.”
I’ve lived my whole life as a cultural minority, so I’ve developed an unconscious habit of checking my blind spots, of trying to figure out what the majority’s cultural perspective is, so I don’t make a mistake. I know better than to talk salary with other Americans in formal situations. I’m careful not to talk to French people about their health, or to casually mention Tian’anmen Square 1989 to Chinese people. I know that Filipinos don’t care if their food is cold; I know I will have to have a solid argument prepared if I want to leave a Mexican party early. I keep a long and exhaustive database in my brain of cultural behaviors that will keep me out of trouble.
Here’s the tricky part; I also know that a big part of my life exists in the cultural blind spot of the majority population. Knowing their blind spots and watching for danger is a matter of survival for me and others who have grown up as cultural minorities.
- Will I be reprimanded for stinking up the break room with my lunch? White comfort is more important than my own diet and culture, right? Yes. Americans design break rooms with a clear bias against Asians. Be Asian when you’re off the clock. Here comes the Department of Baloney and WonderBread Enforcement.
- How will white parents react if I tell them I worry about the safety of my African American students for things their white kids will never face? What if I personally think that racist police brutality is a national emergency?
- If I report that the Mexican American kids are getting harassed by their white classmates, do they take it seriously? Will anything happen? Will anything happen?
These are things that I actually wonder about, even though I have faith in my white colleagues that they are not evil people, will they see what I see? The answer, sometimes is no, they don’t see what I see… cultural blind spot. Huge parts of our existence are outside of their cultural field of vision. Sometimes white people will, in good faith, make a call that they believe to be in their hearts to be objective, but is solidly grounded in the white cultural perspective. They didn’t check their cultural blind spot. They cut someone off in the process. And also they’re pretty much in charge of everything here.
Awesome things may be hiding in your cultural blind spots.
Honestly, it’s a shame that people from the dominant culture (in China, that’s the Han Chinese; in the Philippines, it’s Filipinos, in the US, it’s white Americans) so rarely check their cultural blind spots; sometimes there are awesome things hiding up in there; things that would make their lives better. Here are somethings that I would think my white fellow Americans would prefer to know.
- You don’t have to take the top tortilla from a stack at the taco bar; that top tortilla is a lid. Skip it. Don’t be embarrassed to dig to the middle of the pile. By the way, in México there would be an actual lid.
- East Asian and South East Asian people don’t eat rice off a plate with chopsticks or a fork. Rice on a plate is eaten with a spoon; eat rice with chopsticks when it’s in a bowl. So when Japanese people or Thai people give you a spoon with your curry, it’s NOT because they think you can’t do chopsticks; i’s because the spoon is culturally appropriate and they assume you are culturally competent.
- Black people greet each other politely when passing on the sidewalk, even if they don’t know each other. You can participate in this custom; I love it. “Good morning, good evening.” If white folks greet each other similarly, it’s not in my apartment complex. Asian people? We pretend that we are invisible.
How did I learn these customs, if they exist in my blind spot? I checked my cultural blind spot.
How to check your cultural blind spot.
- Check in the mirror. What does it look like in reverse?
- Turn your head and look. Change your cultural perspective for a second.
- Ask someone. Ask someone who is a better position to see, because they have a different perspective. Especially if they have to ride in the back seat all the time. Feel embarrassed about having to ask? Don’t. It’s a safety issue.
That was back there?
Listen, you might not always like what you see back there, outside of your field of vision. You might be scared or ashamed of what’s back there. But remember, you saw it. Don’t deny that it exists, don’t deny that you saw it; it’s there. Make choices based on what you saw in the mirror, what you saw when you changed your perspective, what your passenger told you they saw… their safety depends on it as well as yours.
Here’s some things you might find out when you check your cultural blind spot:
- We say nothing. Nothing! It’s still a free country. But watching you pour soy sauce over white rice at the table actually fills us with pity. When you talk about how good it is, we disassociate. Look closely next time, you’ll see we have left our bodies.
- You’ve been pronouncing someone’s name wrong all this time, and they’ve long given up on you. That’s their name, their identity. Maybe you feel like a jackass. Will you make and effort, or continue to be a jackass? How would that make you feel?
- You thought you were being awesome; they’ve resented it the whole time. “I don’t care if you’re purple!” you proclaimed, hoping to express a lack of bias. The whole time, they heard, “You’re identity is irrelevant to me!” which is not nice. Would a purple person actually like that statement? What makes you think a brown person would?
Maybe you don’t care that this stuff is back there; it’s still a free country, and cultural incompetence is not a crime.
But maybe some of you actually care. You don’t want us to pity you, or be embarrassed to eat lunch with you. Maybe you care enough about someone to make an effort to pronounce their names, to honor their identity, the identity of their parents and grand parents; rather than assign a name that is convenient to you. Maybe you want express that you care about equality, rather than insult people who are purple and everyone else in the process.
Look, I’m not going to blame you for having cultural blind spots; we all have them. It’s not our fault; it’s the shape of our lives. I will fault you, however, for a) denying that your blind spots exist, for b) refusing to check your cultural blind spot to see who you might be cutting off, for c) refusing to listen to someone whose giving your a warning from the back seat, for their safety and your own.
If you don’t take your blind spots seriously when you’re driving a vehicle, you’re not fit to drive; you are incompetent. If you don’t take your cultural blind spots seriously, you’re not fit to make policy for other people, you are culturally incompetent.
My bet is that people are not trying to be culturally incompetent. Look, we have to share this world, we can learn from each other if we listen.
15 January 2018. Today we celebrate Dr. King, who led the Civil Rights Movement, by betting that white America would dismantle segregation when confronted with the truth. He had to force the issue with marches, speeches, and protests. They tried to intimidate him by bombing his home, he was stabbed, he was arrested and thrown in jail… which he dressed for. He was shot on a hotel balcony. He bet his life that America wanted to be better. He was right.