Interculturalists & society: Engage!

What does it mean to be an Interculturalist? For some, it means promoting study abroad as an immersive experience to expand young minds. For others, it means conducting academic research and contributing to “the literature.” Still others find their callings in international development, social work, education, and health care. And of course, there is a great need in business as well, not only in providing pre-departure training but in facilitating successful multicultural teams.

All of these areas are worthwhile and satisfying, and I am fortunate to have esteemed colleagues bridging cultural differences in each of them. I work in them myself, and find it tremendously rewarding to guide individuals and groups through a process of intercultural growth. I think we have a lot to offer, and I genuinely believe that our work is important, meaningful, and worthwhile.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if it isn’t too easy. If we aren’t afraid of getting our hands dirty. Of making mistakes. Of having our character called into question (if you doubt this one, just look at some of the take-downs happening on Twitter lately). Of putting ourselves in the awkward zones that we invite others to dance in. And so we talk amongst ourselves, wring our hands about why most of the people at our conferences are white and hold advanced degrees and wonder what it will take to get our field engaged on the big, pressing questions of our day. Because as important as it is to help global businesses understand the nuances of culturally-rooted communication styles, it is equally critical to help our society frame, process, understand, and productively discuss the serious intercultural issues we face right here and now.

It’s not hard to come up with a list of examples. Stand Your Ground. Stop & Frisk. Immigration. Deportation. Gentrification and displacement. Incarceration rates. Education attainment. Representation in the media. Voting rights. Equal Pay. LGBQT rights. Sports mascots. Life expectancy. The role of religion in the public square. The role of the government in houses of worship. All of these have, at some level, a cultural dimension. The way we see ourselves, the way we see others, the expectations we have, the assumptions we make, behaviors we choose from, the ways in which we discuss or act on these issues, the way we interpret how others talk and act, what we value, and how we exercise power and voice to protect those values – all of these are areas in which interculturalists hold special knowledge, skill, and expertise.

The items I have included likely reveal my leftward bias, and indeed, many interculturalists, by the very nature of their openness, are liberal. But not all of us, and not on every issue, and that is how it should be. Crossing culture isn’t about ideology, and it’s not about arguing. It’s about engaging, listening, seeing, hearing, and learning. It’s not about agreeing or even agreeing to disagree. It’s about finding a way to coexist, not as silos but as real communities that permit, address, and honor the messiness of our legacies. And to do that, we need to embrace the reality that our many peoples and many histories bring many different perspectives to the table. Some of them are painful. Some of them are contentious. Some of them are unresolved, festering wounds that haunt generations. Some of them are promises still unfulfilled. And many are tied not just to individual perspectives but to broader issues of collective identity and belonging, divergent lived experiences, and policy decisions.

I don’t have all of the answers. But I do know that if we wait until we have all of the answers – until the issues are resolved and it feels safe to engage – that it will be too late. The ship will have sailed and we will have missed the opportunity to make productive contributions to the issues of the day. And so my colleague Susanne Rinderle and I decided that we would start with a humble blog series. We focus on race, and about why White people need to start talking about it. We acknowledge that it’s hard, and that we don’t always know what we’re doing, and eventually, we hope to get to some suggestions about what we can all do better.

It isn’t perfect. It isn’t easy to write. It’s vulnerable, raw, and sometimes faltering. We are writing from our perspectives, since that is what we can claim, and that is what we can speak to with our own voices. If this exploration interests you, please feel free to join us here, on my colleague’s site. We’d love to have you (and your perspective).



One Comment Add yours

  1. susanarinderle says:

    Melissa, to me this is an excellent piece, as you call out many important points that I have long been critical of in the intercultural world. I appreciate your passion and commitment to what I would call integrity — authenticity, walking the talk, and congruence. I think some of the causes of what you describe lie in the roots of the intercultural field (see my related piece from last year: but if what I heard and saw at SIETAR USA last fall is any indication, Millenials like you — many of whom are multiracial or people of color — have the potential to make real change as the old guard dies out. The elite, international nature of the intercultural world can no longer afford to ignore the way race, power, and history show up on our own soil as the world increasingly becomes more glocal!

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