I am now officially certified as Culturally Competent.
I am not sure what this means.
On a practical level, it means that I took a ten-week class that was geared, as near as I could tell, toward the simple (and in 2018 somewhat radical) idea that the workplace and the world in general would be a better place if we were nicer to each other. This is a lovely starting point, of course, but it does lead to some pretty weird places if you take it far enough, and these classes are nothing if not designed to take those ideas a long way in ten weeks. You’ll know it when you get there.
My boss thought it would be a good idea for me to take this class, on the theory that as an advisor this sort of thing is always good to know and since I already am pretty good at treating people decently regardless of their backgrounds or identity it shouldn’t be much of a struggle for me to do well. My boss is a pretty optimistic person.
I’m not really sure what the theoretical goals of the class were, now that I think about it.
We talked a great deal about “privilege,” which is one of those words that often makes white men recoil like vampires at a garlic festival. Dudes – it’s okay. You can handle it. Look at me! Unscathed! We talked about a whole lot of terms, actually. I can’t say I agreed with the definitions that were offered for some of them – which led to some problems down the line, as those who define the terms determine the outcomes, after all – but they were interesting at least, most of the time.
There was a lot of discussion about what would no doubt be called “politically correct” subjects by those not on board with the concept of the class. People get way too worried about being politically correct, really. Nobody on the left actually uses that term unironically, you know – haven’t for decades. Only people on the right use the phrase, mostly as something to complain about. This is why I find that whenever people use the phrase “being politically correct” it is helpful to substitute the phrase “not being an asshole” instead. So when you hear people saying, “I hate being politically correct!” you can just translate that as “I hate not being an asshole!” This saves a lot of time in the long run and may well spare you an uncomfortable meal or a disastrous relationship.
The class suffered from a couple of things.
First, it was a new class and any teacher will tell you that the first time you offer a class you stuff it about half-again too full of things you want to get done and end up either not getting to many of them at all or racing through everything at speed to squeeze everything in. Eventually you learn to do fewer things in the depth you’d like to do them in, but that cycle repeats every time you create a class so you’re never completely free of it. We were always running short of time to discuss things, and in such a class that’s a problem.
Second, for all the talk of this being a “brave space” rather than a “safe space” – that we would be challenged to think rather than simply accepted as is – the fact is that there was such a fear of offending people that we never really drew any conclusions from anything we did. Today for example, we did a second round of a task that had us all walking about the classroom to various Stations of Identity, but we never really talked about why and even now I’m not sure what I was supposed to get out of it. I suppose it was decent exercise, but still.
The third thing is perhaps more specific to me. A lot of the class was designed to get you thinking about your own identity – who you are, what privileges you have or don’t have, and so on. And I suppose there’s value in that, except for one thing: I already know exactly who I am. Good, bad, or indifferent, I have always known exactly who I am. There are good bits that I rather like and there are annoying bits that either I’d like to change or have simply accepted as the price of being me, and there are bits in between that are neither here nor there as far as I can tell, but they’re my bits and I know them pretty well. This is in part what makes it easy for me to be around people who are different in significant ways, because I don’t regard them as a threat to my own identity. I am thoroughly, boringly heterosexual, for example, which is one reason why having gay roommates in college didn’t particularly bother me. I knew who I was and it wasn’t that, and so as long as they were good with me why should it bother me who they were? I am pretty much the poster child for privilege in American society – straight white middle-class cis-male, no particular disabilities, native-born citizen, highly educated, a member of the dominant religion, and generally conversant with most culturally mainstream things to one degree or another. A class designed to get me to recognize those facts is therefore a bit late to the party.
But here I am. Certified.
I shall add it to my resume.