One time at this mediation training I attended, the subject of cross-cultural and cross-racial mediation came up. One of my (white) colleagues said, “If you’re working with someone who’s not like you, all you need to do is have an open mind.” Unfortunately, that’s not true.
If you’re trying to resolve disputes with people who are different from you, it’s not enough to “have an open mind.” Yes, having an open mind is important, but it’s not enough. If you’re white in the United States, you probably haven’t had enough experiences that have made your mind open.
Don’t get me wrong, I love white people. I am one myself.
But I also know that the American education system, social structure, economic structure, everything about America, leaves white people massively unprepared to understand and interact with people who aren’t white. This is true for mediators, like my colleague at that training, and for just about everyone.
If you’re white, and you think that you can resolve disputes or clear up misunderstandings with someone who isn’t white just by keeping an open mind, you’ll never be effective.
What you really need is experience around people who are different from you. You need to find ways to learn how different the experiences of white people and people of color can be in this country. You need to know this in your heart and in your gut.
Here are five things you need to do to truly open your mind and your heart.
1) Brace yourself.
You’re going to learn some things that will overwhelm you. So plan to take care of yourself.
2) Get some new experiences.
Go to a place where there are very few white people. Make sure it’s a place that other white people also go; going to a black church, for example, isn’t a good idea unless you have a friend who’s a member of that church to take you as their guest. Mixed-race churches, cultural events, farmers markets, sports events – anywhere that you won’t be intruding on a private space, those are all good options.
3) Prepare to feel left out.
You aren’t going to be part of the majority, and you may not feel at home. That’s okay. It’s part of the experience.
4) Enlist your support team.
Find other people who are opening their hearts and guts. They’ll understand how difficult it is. You can support each other as you experience and learn.
5) Enjoy yourself.
Wait, what? You’re probably thinking, “I have to brace myself to feel uncomfortable and left out, I’ll need people to accompany me, how can I enjoy it?” Here’s what you can enjoy: enriching your life with new experiences and greater understanding. Ultimately, you’ll be happier, you’ll be more confident, and you’ll enjoy a whole range of things you never would have enjoyed before.
Once your mind and heart are open…
Once you get some experience with people of different races, cultures, and ethnic origins, your mind will be opened more than you ever thought possible. So will your heart and your. Only when you prepare yourself to understand people who aren’t white, will you truly be effective with people who are different from you.
Don’t make the mistake my white colleague made of assuming that an “open mind” is enough. You need an open heart, and that comes through experiences. Get those experiences, and if you ever have a dispute with a person who’s not like you, or even a misunderstanding, you’ll have a much easier time resolving it.
Photo credit: © 2010 Igal Koshevoy, CC BY-NC 2.0.