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By Vince Terstappen

Blind Man with Octopus

When I first heard about Dialogues Youth Vancouver, I was immediately intrigued and excited. I have been fortunate in my life and work to have participated in dialogues and I strive to use the principles of dialogue in various aspects of my own life, so seeing this project take off with the support of so many diverse community groups is truly amazing.

I was particularly struck by the goals of the Dialogues Youth project: to demystify stereotypes, to celebrate cultural differences, and to explore shared interests within Vancouver’s very diverse youth population. I think that all of these goals are very powerful and complement one another as we strive to build more respectful, safe, inclusive, and diverse communities in Vancouver. One goal that really triggered a thought for me as soon as I read it, though – a thought that I wanted to write a little bit about as I try to sort through it myself – is the second one: celebrating cultural differences.

Over the last few years, in many different settings – both work-related and otherwise – one thing that I have noticed many young people saying, particularly young white people, is something along the lines of “I don’t see race” or “The only race I see is the human race”. Although these phrases and others like them are surely well-intentioned and are rarely said with malice, they rub me the wrong way. Talking about the Dialogues Youth goals and reflecting on the importance of celebrating difference triggered these memories again and I have been ruminating on them for a few weeks now. I think that I am bothered by these “I don’t see race” comments because I feel like at a deeper level, they contribute to ignoring issues and silencing important voices and histories. I believe that this ignorance, though not the intent of these comments, is not good for any community. As I was looking for some other perspectives on this, I came across an interesting line from a blog that I think is worth quoting at length:

“Though when we tell another that ‘I don’t see your race; I just see you as a human being,’ may seem as a righteous statement, what are we really telling the person, and how may this come across: ‘I discount a part of you that I may not want to address,’ and ‘I will not see you in your multiple identities’? This has the tendency of erasing the person’s background and historical legacy, and hides the continuing hierarchical and systemic positionalities among White people and racially minoritized people.”

Importantly, I don’t think that identifying and talking about race or cultural difference is the same as stereotyping at all. In fact, I would argue that not talking about these differences – and not celebrating them in the way that the Dialogues Youth project aims to – actually reinforces stereotypes. If we pretend that we don’t “see race” or that there are no differences between us, we inevitably fall back onto tired and destructive stereotypes.

So where does this line of thinking take me? I think that it leads me to an even stronger recognition of the value of dialogue and initiatives like the Dialogues Youth project. By explicitly naming “celebrating difference” as a goal, the project is naming the importance of this issue and implicitly refuting the tendency among many individuals to “not see race”. By talking with one another with the explicit intent of celebrating our differences, we are “seeing race” (in a good, constructive way), we are illuminating the implications of race and culture in our city, and we are building a solid foundation on which to build safer, more diverse, thriving communities. It can certainly be awkward to talk about these issues, but that is precisely where dialogue helps, no matter what the setting.

Vince Terstappen is Project & Operations Coordinator for Check Your Head, a youth-driven non-profit organization. He has a passion for social and environmental justice and has worked and studied in the area of community health for several years. Vince especially loves exploring (and acting on) the linkages between broad social justice issues and health – which he did with a grassroots feminist organization in Nicaragua for his thesis on fair trade, gender equity, and health. He loves discussing social justice issues with youth and recently worked as an educator with Project Respect, the violence prevention and education program of the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre.

3 thoughts on “Cultural Blindness vs. Celebrating Difference

  1. While I totally agree with what you are saying. I want to point out that how you worded it made it seem like only white people are making these “mistakes” or references. I think while celebrating differences we should also remember that everyone is equal no one should be stereotyped. Stereotypes are something that make people afraid of differences.

  2. Anonymous – Thank you very much for your comment. I absolutely agree that no one should be subject to stereotypes and that we need to work towards a world wherein everyone is viewed and treated equally / equitably. For me, however, there is a very important consideration which is that “equality” is a different concept from being “the same”. Based on your comment, I feel that you and I agree on this; however, I think that this difference is where a lot of the youth that I have seen in dialogues may be confused. My argument is that working towards “sameness”, though it seems righteous, is not a constructive process, since it assumes identical backgrounds, contexts, experiences, etc. Working towards equity, however, is very productive and, to me, can and should be done without striving for a notion of “sameness”.

    To your other point, my intent was not to frame this as a problem of white people only – and I believe you are correct in noting that this is a broader issue – however, in a city (Vancouver) where whiteness is still associated with more power and privilege, I do think that white people need to be more aware of statements that might end up discounting the multiple, intersecting identities of others and themselves. Again, I totally agree that this is not exclusively white people making these remarks, but I do think that the implications or consequences of these remarks in a city like Vancouver is different when white people make them.

    -Vince

  3. Pingback: Cultural Blindness vs. Celebrating Difference | lifeofkeiko

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