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DarbyKoogler Mar 27, 2023

Cultural experience and bias

Some parts of biopsychosocial-spiritual diversity are more easily detected than others. For example, some aspects of human biology are obvious—height and weight for example. But some aspects of biology are hidden such as allergies and medical conditions which can affect genetics and biology. Still other parts of biology can be affected by psychology, sociology, spirituality; even geology and agriculture; as in available, seasonal, traditional and/or celebratory foods and diets. For example, I love berry and apple picking. But, as a child, berry and apple picking were scarce because I lived in an arid climate. However, sometimes my family would travel through the mountain pass towards the more rainy coastline where we had opportunity to pick both berries and apples—in fact, on the other side of the mountains, blackberries grew like weeds!

Although wild blackberries do not grow on the desert coastline of the Arabian Gulf, never have I learned so much of diversity and multiculturalism than living as an expatriate in the multicultural city of Dubai. Learning about culture in different areas is a steep learning curve. For example, I recall the first time I recognized that there are many different sorts of dates—larger, smaller, super soft, more chewy, etc.  I felt ignorant; I knew there were different sorts of apples, so why didn’t I know that there were different sorts of dates?

When I was a child, my family visited a pizza place in Massachusetts; we expected our East Coast restaurant choice to carry our West Coast pizza toppings of: “Canadian bacon and pineapple” however, the people working there had no idea what we were talking about. Still 30+ years later, pineapple is a controversial pizza topping!

Another memory I have of living of as a West Coast elementary school child on the East Coast is my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Travis, requesting me to read the week’s spelling list: lawyer, mother, father, teacher, sister, brother. I read it. But Mrs. Travis corrected me, “Dah-bee [aka Darby], that’s not how we say it he-a! We say: ‘Loy-a, muth-a, fah-tha, teach-a, sis-ta, bru-tha…’ read it again.” Willing tears not to drip down my cheeks,  looking at the page, and focusing on my culturally appropriate pronunciation, I read the spelling list again to please Mrs. Travis (aka Mrs. Trav-us).

No one has since forced me to speak the local dialect as Mrs. Travis did, but as I complete my graduate counseling internship in Iowa, I have moments where I feel culturally lost. Iowans tend to be friendly, but I still feel culturally confused. For example, when I heard about a sandwich called a Maid-Rite, my ears told my brain: homophone: “made right” and I wondered how the Maid-Rites are made since they are “made right.”

In Iowa, I have also learned that scotcheroos are very similar to the protein bars my mother-in-law makes.  Neither are very good descriptors as there are no ingredients [technically] from Scotland and scotcheroos are vegetarian--no kangaroo meat. However, scotcheroos is a slightly better descriptor than protein bars as both protein bars and scotcheroos contain sweet, butterscotch flavors. Likewise, protein bars are a dessert—I just don’t know how much protein they contain.

Cultural linguistics and ingredients aside, living internationally has forced cultural introspection. For example, like Will Ferrell’s character in “Elf,” I tend to default to smiling: “I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” And Nat King Cole’s lyrics back up smiling too: “You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.” However, I have found that sometimes it is not worthwhile or appropriate to default to smiling in all daily multicultural interactions. In fact, it is considered more respectful (and more comfortable for all parties) to withhold smiles sometimes.

Cross-culturally I have learned that compliments are similar to smiles. I was communicating more than a simple compliment when I stated: “I like your bag!” To non-American ears, I was actually not complimenting, but instead communicating: “I want your bag!” On the other side, when I go makeup-less,  a couple of friends from a couple of different countries judge how I look: “Beautiful!” and “Tired.” although the words are different, the metamessage is the same; both friends communicate that I am makeup-less.

When friends come to visit the apartment building, I make sure to go down to the lobby and have a friendly chat with the people at the security desk because I know they keep a log for outside maintenance and repairs; however, I do not want friends to be stopped and inconvenienced. So, when a friend arrives, I greet her at the door and accompany her to the elevator and our place together with no issue and no questions from security. The security guards can easily see that we are simply resident and guest. The first time, my friend noted and questioned my hospitality and excitement to see her, “Why did you come down to meet me?” I answered that I didn’t want the male security staff to stop her with their long guest log, and I genuinely reflected,  “I do not know what it feels like to enter this building as a female guest and non-white person.”

She thanked me and shared unsolicited that in our multicultural city, she is stopped more-often-than-not. Further, she educated me regarding  “traveling while black.” As in, when she and her family travel anywhere—including to their home country of Kenya, they plan extra travel time on top of international travel time recommendations because, without fail, they are stopped and searched.

With no disrespect to airport security, I wonder if international airport security stops are parallel to American traffic stops—as in, are non-white people pulled over and stopped more frequently than white people? This is discriminatory, biased injustice.

Bias unconsciously seeps into counseling. Multicultural counselors are aware of their own culture and work to be non-judgmental, non-imposing, ethical, respectful, and empowering allies. Ready for introspection and self-awareness? What have your recognized about your own culture? How to do you honor cultures? Don’t know where to begin? Try something my graduate multicultural counseling class directed me to: Harvard’s Project Implicit tests:

Darby J. Koogler is a graduate counseling intern, writer, former teacher, and hopeful international school counselor.

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