One of the main things that has been emphasized in all my courses so far is multiculturalism. When I first heard the word, my thoughts went to how I defined culture at the time (mostly based on racial/ethnic background and the corresponding traditions belonging to those backgrounds). What I have learned, however, in my reading, studying, and classes is that culture, particularly in the counseling context, is not limited to race and ethnicity. It also consists of myriad other variables like age, gender, socioeconomic status, religious/spiritual affiliation, life experience, geographic region, dis/ability, etc. At first, the idea of being mindful of this fact seemed absurdly obvious to me – of course we’re all different, and of course we should all be treated with respect to being a unique individual but also a member of a number of different cultures. Considering myself to be a non-racist, non-prejudice person, I didn’t see myself having any difficulty with that at all.
Spirit has a funny way of diving in during those moments and with the sort of look you can imagine that says in a questioning, challenging, almost offensive if it weren’t so gentle way, “Really?” My, like most people I would think, reaction was, “Of course!” but then I participated in an exercise in class that made me take a step back and say, ‘hmmm….’ During the exercise we were given descriptions of 8 people from varying backgrounds. We were told their age, their race, their profession, various life roles they played (grandmother, widow, etc.), what language they spoke, and some other information as well. The situation was that we would be spending 6 months with these people on an island, completely isolated and cut off from the rest of the world but supplied with everything we needed. Our job was to rank them all in the order of who we would want to be with us on the island most to least. The top 5 would be our companions. In the process of going through and ranking these people, I was confronted with my supposedly non-existent prejudice. It was not targeted at race, ethnic background, or religious affiliation per se, but rather life experience. It hit me hardest when confronted with an 18 yr old female Orthodox Jew who was illiterate, pregnant, a childcare worker, and considering her 6th abortion. Now, I personally haven’t really made up my mind as to how I concretely view abortion aside from being very against it being used as a method of birth control. How could this girl who worked in childcare and claim to be Orthodox Jewish reconcile that with having so many abortions? And as we got into small groups and discussed who we had ranked where, I realized I had completely pre-judged this girl based on the small amount of information I had about her. Faced with this fact about myself in such a light that I could not rationalize, could not deny what I had done, I was left sitting there feeling a combination of surprise, disappointment, and quiet culpability. I did not feel defensive or angry at having been shown this about myself since the way it was done was a very gentle way in which I had committed to participating in the activity – it was not something thrust upon me or violently shoved in my face. At the same time, this rendered it no less powerful and intense of a reality check of sorts reminding me I have a long way to go before I can claim with integrity and veracity what I had claimed before the beginning of that class.
These experiences do not come easily or often – especially in this form where we willingly enter into it, anticipating ourselves to be found blameless, but not knowing what the outcome will be. I think most of us do our best to avoid these experiences if we can simply because some unconscious part of us has a doubt as to what we will see when that mirror is held up to our faces for us. Who will it be that is reflected back? Will the image be a pleasant one or one we don’t recognize initially as our own? And will we be gentle enough with ourselves when we do see it so as to not hate the reflection, which would be a kind of perpetuating self-defeat and only serve to enforce a vicious cycle so as to prohibit us from reaching our goal, but simply recognize it is at a certain point of development and needs to be nurtured so it can grow and become the reflection we seek to portray to the world?