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Cultural Privilege and Mindfulness

By every imaginable criteria, I am a person of privilege. I am white, male and straight. I have an Ivy League education and advanced degrees. I have been married for four decades to the same woman. I am tall, have a baritone voice, and am an American. English is my first language. I have been unemployed for no more than two weeks in my entire career. I have never been arrested. I have no visible or invisible disabilities. I am a professional, an entrepreneur, and a business owner. When I walk down the street at night, no one accuses me of being in the wrong place. When I speak, I expect to be listened to and usually am. I may be an older adult but my white hair, according to my soulmate, looks distinguished. Rarely do I experience someone explaining the obvious to me like I was clueless.

With such privilege, it is a choice for me whether to see the thousands slights and barriers that people with less privilege experience every day. For me it is possible to have eyes and not see; to have ears and not hear; to choose to bear witness to injustice or not. Empathy and compassion demand otherwise.

The Life-long Journey toward Mindfulness

Becoming mindful of privilege for the privileged is a life-long journey. It need not be a guilt trip. The journey toward greater inclusion begins with developing an awareness of the power of unconscious cultural assumptions.  Assumptions about power—who has it and who does not—can inhibit fairness. Hidden attitudes about leadership, hierarchy, and communication styles contribute to verbosity in some and silence in others.

These assumptions are at play when men are treated more favorably than women, Caucasians given more respect than people of color, and the affluent invited to speak more than poor people.  Exclusive attitudes, often unconscious, are evident when immigrants are less regarded than long-time citizens; persons with disabilities have diminished roles in groups; openly LGBTQ people are relegated to the sidelines. Cultural mindfulness of these assumptions is the beginning of a journey toward justice and the inclusion of all.

What is culture?

Culture is far more than the food we eat, the songs we listen to, and how we dress. A person’s cultural makeup includes race, ethnicity, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, education, marital status, age, physical ability, and medical status. It includes religion, economic status, profession, nationality, military background, geographical location, language, attitudes about leadership and followership, myths that shape behavior, and assumptions about how we communicate with one another.

Becoming mindful of these cultural attributes is a lifelong discipline. For the privileged, it sometimes takes a metaphorical club on the head to begin the journey. More often than not, cultural awareness begins with being quiet and listening. Regular exposure to people different from you helps if coupled with a willing spirit and an open mind. Training in cultural competency helps build mindfulness. Self-awareness and a humble spirit help as well.

Cultural Attributes Exercise

Try writing down a list of the cultural attributes that make you who you are. I will use myself as an example.

Race – Caucasian

Ethnicity – White

Skin color – Pale with freckles

Hair color – Red, fading to white

Gender – Male

Sexual orientation – Straight

Education – Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorate

Marital status – Married

Age – Young older adult – 63 years old

Physical ability – Able-bodied

Medical status – Healthy

Religion – Liberal Protestant Christian

Economic status – Middle Class

Profession – Professional facilitator, consultant, writer, clergyman, small business owner, manager

Employment History – Farm worker, janitor, handyman, conference organizer, community organizer, speaker, senior pastor, facilities manager, manager of a homeless shelter, transportation manager, entrepreneur, professional facilitator, consultant, writer, and speaker.

Nationality – American

Military background – None

Geographical location – Urban/suburban northwestern U.S.

Language – English

In the hierarchy of privilege, I score somewhere between the stratosphere and outer space. Your list will be different. Exchange your list with someone, notice the differences, and have a conversation.

When I first completed this cultural awareness exercise twenty years ago, I was hit between the eyes by how privileged I am. It slowly changed the way I see my place in the world and its people.  I can no longer ignore the power of my privilege and the cultural attitudes I carry with me every day. I am more likely to restrain my own verbosity and draw others out. I am more likely to invite persons other than me to the full expression of their insights. I am more likely to embody inclusion rather than talk about it.

The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice. However, the bending depends on us.

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