The Art of Knowing What You Don’t Know: Cultural Intelligence, Tamir Rice and Hope for a More Enlightened 2016

The first time I heard the term “Cultural Intelligence” was in a church basement. The topic under discussion was an update on the redesign of Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health division; the person updating us was describing an all-too-familiar and depressing reality:

The group doing the  redesign work is comprised of mostly white, upper middle class, suburban people who know, socialize and interact with other mostly white, upper middle class suburbanites. These well-meaning people are creating policies and procedures that will affect mostly black, poor, urban people whose realities are very different. Worse, they have no chance to understand that they doesn’t understand, because people with the ability to effectively reality check those committee members (people who are, were, know, socialize and/or interact with mostly black, poor urban people) have virtually no voice at the table.

St._Dionysus_Kehinde_Wiley.jpg
When I saw this painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum yesterday, I knew it was the image I wanted to go with this post. Tamir Rice was already in my mind, and he will never be as old as the young man in this painting. It’s called St. Dionysus; the artist’s name is Kehinde Wiley. Check out more of his work at http://www.kehindewiley.com

Or, to put it another way, there is one person of color on the board. There used to be two, but one took a job that meant having to leave the board.

One thing the two people of color were able to achieve was getting the County to pay for Cultural Intelligence training for Human Service workers. Last month, offered a seat at one of the trainings, I jumped at the chance. We had to take a pre-workshop assessment. Our scores would be given to us at the training.

I wondered what mine would look like. A few years ago, I took one of Harvard’s Project Implicit tests. I wasn’t surprised to pull a score showing an automatic preference toward white over black faces.

Cultural intelligence measures one’s ability to work and relate across all cultures. When we got our scores, my “CQ” was higher than I had expected. So, just for the heck of it, I went home and retook the Project Implicit test. My automatic preference had disappeared. That I’d had it wasn’t a surprise. That it’s gone isn’t surprising, either.

As a white lady of a certain age, my first experience with people of color occurred before I understood anything about what color was. Lily Mae Madden cleaned our house once a week and sometimes took care of my sister and me when I was way too little to know anything other than that Lily Mae wasn’t scary like my mom and I loved her. She was big and soft and kind. Her husband, Sam was tall, slender and as kind as his wife. My sister and I adored them.

By the time I was in kindergarten, they had passed out of our lives. There were no black children in my class. Or my school (which went to sixth grade). Or my neighborhood. There were no black characters on my TV screen (“I Spy” came on after my bedtime), until “Julia” came out in 1969.

In junior high and high school, things changed some. My urban public high school had no ruling class. Race differences were a reality but not an issue. White and black kids hung out together during the day, and maybe some socialized outside of school. All the girls in my crowd were white, though none of us thought about it in those terms.

In college, I was a fish out of water. It was my first real brush with class differences, although I was too green to realize it. At my small, private liberal arts school, most of the students had come from families with way more money than mine and many had gone to private boarding schools. The norm was to spend junior year somewhere else. My “somewhere else” was Israel.

The program was through the Reform movement, a year on the same kibbutz outside of Jerusalem. Professors came to us, and our single summer class was three hours of Hebrew instruction, six days a week. I wanted to learn Arabic, too. Attempts to connect with anyone who could help me find a class or teacher were quickly quashed. (“What do you want to do that for? You don’t want to do that.”) I was a good sheep, out of my element and with enough strange things to handle. I didn’t push things with the authorities.

I still tried, though, and achieved a small victory.

My aunt, in Minnesota, had a friend there whose cousins lived in Acco, a lovely city in Northern Israel. The Shaabi family’s Roman-era house was a cavernous stone structure just across from the sea wall along the Mediterranean. I didn’t learn much Arabic. But I was able to experience an aspect of Israeli culture I wouldn’t have otherwise. The experience taught me a lot about race relations at home. In Israel, it was the secular Jews, the religious Jews and the Arabs living separate lives in shared space. Here, black and white people mostly live separate lives in shared space.

I was 30 when my first marriage ended and my quest to find a family-supporting job led me to a racially mixed nonprofit agency where people socialized outside of work. The result was my first experience walking or driving down a street and wondering, instead of being a little uncomfortable and scared, whether the non-white person coming toward me was someone I knew.

These days, everybody I pass on the street looks like someone I might know and it feels weird to be in a roomful of people where everyone is the same color as I am.

I don’t know how to make that the reality for more of us. I wish I did.

Because it’s the only real way we can stop living in a country where police officers who look like me won’t be able to pick off a 12-year-old black kid with a toy gun and get a free pass from a grand jury. Tamir Rice’s family deserves better. The same goes for Trayvon Martin’s, Deontre Hamilton’s, Sandra Bland’s, Laquan McDonald’s and Walter Scott’s.

May 2016 be a safer place for all of us.

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