Have you lately felt disinclined to engage strangers of another race or ethnicity in any kind of conversation? Say in a locker room or sharing waiting space. We bring this up because we have found ourselves cutting these interactions short. Instead of following “good morning” with “how’s your day going”, it ends withe first salutation. At the heart of the reluctance is the real fear of inadvertently sayings or doing something the other person might find offensive. In these days of “code words” and “dog whistles” it’s almost impossible to keep up with what might offend somebody. If you’re not the one inadvertently offending, you might be the one offended and feel compelled to stand up. Better to dodge a possible confrontation.
Now some people advise if you find yourself in a situation of offending someone possibly because you weren’t properly “woke”, apologize immediately and if asked to do something to rectify the situation, do it. Forget this puts you at the mercy of what someone else thinks and your side isn’t heard. If you offend someone your reasons and explanation are immaterial. Unfortunately this can lead to some bizarre situations.
Recently in downtown Phoenix, Az, a gentleman and his wife were at a party at the Cornish Pasty Company Restaurant. The establishment had numerous photos depicting the life and history of its namesake area, Cornwall,in the UK. (If you watch Poldark on PBS,you are already acquainted to this scenic area) The man noticed a photo of a number of men with blackened faces. Summoning the manager, he informed him he saw this as an offensive picture of white men in black face. The manager and owner explained the picture actually was of Cornish coal miners covered with coal dust at the end of their shift. Hungry after a hard day’s labor, the men would often satisfy it with tasty Cornish Pasties. A mating of cultural history and food of the sort many found in the travels of the late Anthony Bourdain. As Tony pointed out, food and culture go hand in hand and understanding is gained over a good meal. Enlightened as to the true nature of the photo that should’ve been the end of any conflict. Alas, that wasn’t to be. The gentleman instead wrote an OP-ED appearing in the Arizona Republic Newspaper lamenting his objections to the picture weren’t properly attended. Regardless of the history and circumstance, a picture of white men with darkened faces was unacceptable. He subsequently appeared on several media outlets making the same point. His cultural perception over-ruled the actual cultural history of people across the Atlantic in Cornwall,UK. Of course, this resulted in much ugliness on both sides. If this was the purpose of the Arizona Republic to sell more papers, it surely worked. Instead of a Bourdain moment, we were further divided.
People who have traveled to places with different cultures are well aware they will never know all the cultural dos and don’t s upon arrival and depend on the forbearance of their hosts not to take offense. After-all, in some cultures no is indicated by the head going up and down rather than our side to side. Interacting with Hindus could easily bring you in contact with swastikas a symbol in this ancient religion. Navajo in our own country have a similar symbol. Encountering these could lead to all sorts of misunderstanding, but is usually handled with good nature. After-all the hosts in most cases want you to visit. We need to adapt this friendly attitude to our domestic interactions. Instead of looking for offense, assume the good faith of others. In hanging a picture of coal dust-covered miners from across the seas was obviously to show us something of the life and history of Cornwall not to insult blacks in the US. A friendly discussion of cultural misconceptions over ther pasties would’ve gone a long way to increasing understanding. Just maybe this could increase our talking to rather than at each other or worse, avoiding conversation altogether. Reruns of Anthony Bourdain’s travels are still available on CNN and other places. If you haven’t already, watch a few and see how people of differing cultures can enjoy getting to know each other over a good meal. The vast majority of people mean no offense to others, so let’s cut each other a little slack. Maybe we’ll stop avoiding each other. Oh, the symbol at the top, a Navajo whirling log symbol.