Monday, February 6, 2012

Testing the cultural waters before you cannonball into the pool

Recently, I have been very curious and interested in a supermarket called Supermercado Montery close to where I work. Apparently, they have fantastically tasty and cheap homemade tortillas, freshly made churros (a deep fried sugary cinnamony pastry), awesome fajita meat for a fair price and other culinary delights that are absolutely unavailable in the supermarkets I frequently visit. Being a bit of a foodie, this place seems as if it would really strike my fancy. What’s holding me back from charging in there and dropping some dough to get some warm tortillas? Fear. Although I am very familiar with the Texas Hispanic cultural, I’m still scared to walk into this place alone because it would be incredibly obvious that I wasn’t one of them (and most likely the only one in there like this). What if they don’t speak English? What if I offend somebody? How will I get my beloved churros?? If I could just have a Hispanic guide to walk with me the first time it wouldn’t be so daunting thereafter.

These feelings of fear are not unlike those that exist for some Sexuality Educators teaching to cultures not of their own. What if you use unfamiliar terms? What if you accidentally offend somebody? How will you convey the importance of learning about sexuality related topics?? For me, having a cultural “guide” to help me test the waters would greatly increase my confidence and comfort level with the population. So far, this has come in the form of completing a needs assessment. Utilizing the Gateshead Needs Grid has been successful in helping me gather information and applicable knowledge about the potential population. However, being a culturally competent educator is not solely based on the amount of knowledge one has about various cultures. Perez and Luquis (2008) state that the Joint Committee on Health Education and Promotion defines cultural competence as “the ability of an individual to understand and respect values, attitudes, beliefs, and mores that differ across cultures, and to consider and respond appropriately to these differences in planning, implementing, and evaluating health education and promotion programs and interventions” (p. 46).

We (meaning me) get so caught up in our fears of not having enough knowledge that we forget about what’s really important. As long as we keep an open mind, stay prepared, respect others, and remember to ask questions we will be just fine. It’s okay if we look stupid and mess up sometimes. More than likely it is going to happen anyways. Both education and experience are important when teaching sexuality, but for beginners like me the experience part can be a little intimidating, especially if you are in unfamiliar waters. It is important to test the waters, but sooner or later you’re going to have to cannonball in. Even though you may look a little silly it doesn’t take away from the awesomeness that is your cannonball! And, you won’t really know how cool it is until you try it.

Time for some churros!

Perez, M. A., & Luquis, R. R. (2008) Cultural competence in health education and health promotion. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass, Inc.


  1. Yummy churros :) I can get on board with some of those! It was a great analogy comparing cultural competency and getting into a pool. I remember feeling something similar to what you had stated about entering the supermarket when I entered the federal penitentiary in Beaumont. Right away I knew I would stick out since I was a female entering a men's prision and I would be a civilian rather than an inmate. For me, I was more apprehensive about conducting my interview properly than interacting with the inmates but to my surprise that was a culture in and of itself. In keeping with your analogy I did a blind cannonball straight into the deep end. I did not fully grasp the extent of prison life until I actually passed through the multitude of doors and checkpoints to get to the heart of it. Even though myself and my colleagues attended an orientation as to the Dos and Don'ts of the facility it never phased me until I was in it. I became aware very quickly that life was different on the inside and I was the one who had to adapt to it. Not that it was a huge adjustment for me as I was just a visitor passing through but I became more cognizant that this was people's reality everyday. In my case the research project I was working on that got me into the prison was my way of dipping my toe in the waters of prison and after doing so I do not want to take a swim in that pool.

  2. When reading your posts, one short story came to my mind: "Half a pound of ham" by Bernadette Piassa It is a short story about an immigrant waiting in line to ask for half a pound of Virginia baked ham. During the whole waiting time, she just keeps practicing how to pronounce that sentence, while her anxiety builds up with each second. You can read it at:
    It is interesting that you may be feeling something very similar to the woman in the story, though from a completely different perspective.
    As Boatwoman mentioned, besides the Needs Assessment and other research that we could do to be more knowledgeable about the community we are going to work with, there are other things that are equally or more important. Besides being open minded, prepared, respectful, and begin able to ask questions; I think that is very important to be aware of the community’s experience of oppression and discrimination; and to be mindful of our privileges and how that could affect our working relationship with community members.
    There are a lot of stereotypes about specific communities (prison inmates, immigrants, ethnic minorities, etc.), and as educators we have to be careful not to fall for them. Everything else we need to know, we can learn it from the community; it could be a slow - and maybe painful- process, but we with the appropriate attitudes we still can learn it.

  3. Love the analogy Beth! My thoughts when reading your post made me think of the time I really wanted to go see the Keith Sweat concert (for those who don't know, a nineties R&B singer & late night radio show host) in Buffalo in 2008. I was 21 at the time and I felt like it would be a challenge to find someone to come with me to the show. I thought maybe my mom would, but then I thought what if we are the only two white individuals at this thing? What would people there think of us? All in all, this stupid fear of mine, made me lose out on seeing my favourite R&B singer. While a concert isn't the time to be asking others questions, I know that while looking back at this situation,I would now be able to go because I know we'd all have one thing in common, the love for Keith Sweat, regardless of the colour of skin.
    Another thought that came to me when I read your post was all these videos on facebook right now called "SH*T white girls say to black girls" or "Sh*t girls say to gay guys" or "Sh*t women say to trainers" which attempts to make fun of things certain groups of people might say to another group of individuals. I won't lie, sometimes I saw myself in any of these videos, and for the most part when I had said some of these things, I didn't even realize it! Now I find through HSED 501, I have been able to ask questions when necessary and I feel that by doing so really isn't as hard as I thought it would be when I am presented with something about another cultural group in which I am less familiar. In most cases, people have been happy I have asked and are happy to respond to my questions!

  4. I know we talked about this in our practicum class and either in 501 or 626--I'm not sure which, it's all blending together for me--but I think the Johari window is very helpful in this kind of situation as well. For those not familiar, here is the Wikipedia article for it:

    As educators in general, but especially sexuality educators, it is important to keep in mind the different boxes of the window and be aware of our strengths and weaknesses. However, there are always going to be things in that fourth box, those things that we don't know we don't know because no one has ever noticed it before. If something like that comes up when teaching, it's okay. It will be a little embarassing at first, but we have to be able to roll with the punches and not beat ourselves up. For example:

    Let's say you go to the Supermercado and ask for a churro. The man behind the counter gives you a blank stare. You feel yourself start to get flushed. You stammer for a few minutes and then point to the tasty treat in the case in front of you. Slowly, a look of understanding crosses the man's face. "Oh, a blankety-blank," he replies. You feel a little awkward as he hands you the churro, but next time you know to call it a blankety-blank and before you know it, the guy is giving you your usual, like you own the place.

    Or you're teaching and someone asks you what blue waffle is. You look at the student like he has two heads and start to lose your cool. But wait, you're ready this time. You look at him calmly, tell him that you don't know but you can find out and look it up online that night (I recommend safe-search if you're really going to look it up.) You educatate yourself, go back to class and explain your findings. Then next semester, when someone else asks, you know exactly what to say.

    We can't be perfect as educators. Being culturally-competent takes time and a willingness to ALWAYS be working on it. As long as we keep trying, and keep digging into our own Johari windows, then we are always growing as educators and as people.

    Thanks for the post, it's one of those things for me that I can give good advice about but I can never seem to take it. I still refuse to go to Panera because their line system confuses me and I always end up getting yelled at! Might be time to take that cannonball!

  5. Through all the readings and the courses at Widener, I have really looked at myself, my personal culture and other cultures. I too have fears about stepping into communities that are different than my own. I question whether or not I will be an effective educator. I feel like I am an incredibly pale, white girl and wonder if I am the best person for the job. In my experience at various schools and community organizations, there have been expressions and vocabulary that are unfamiliar to me. I feel a little uncomfortable because I feel like I don’t fit in. As we have come across in the readings, I know it can be better to have educators that are of the same culture as the participants. However, I feel like I am being provided with tools that can help me be a much better educator than I received through other trainings and undergraduate education. I think I need to be okay with the fact that I will probably mess up at some time and to grow and learn from that experience. I am sure I will offend someone at some point, even if they are of the same culture. I think by having an openness and awareness about culture diversity, I can begin to grow into a more competent sexuality educator. I should make sure that what I am doing in the classroom/presentation is what is best for the community and the participants. It is definitely a learning process and we are beginning to dive right into the pool of teaching sexuality education.

  6. I think all my classes are blending together too, because this sounds like a perfect situation to post for our HSED501 class!

    I like how you mentioned the Gateshead Needs Assessment with gathering information about the unfamiliar. If you were to do a Needs Assessment on the Supermercado Montery store you might be able to prepare yourself better and possibly avoid an uncomfortable situation. You may also discover that you had nothing to fear and wonder why you didn’t get your churro sooner!

    Getting back to the Needs Assessment and how it can help any educator avoid an awkward situation in the classroom. It’s important to do your research and be prepared for any situation in the classroom. I over plan for many things, which can be both a blessing and a curse. I stress myself out and try to be prepared, but sometimes you need to go with the flow and through out all your planned lessons. Yet, I feel better when I am prepared and know what I’m walking into.

    Don’t let your fears of the unknown stop you from what you want, if that’s teaching a lesson in a classroom or getting a churro at a local market. Face your fears, be prepared, and welcome the unknown.

  7. Fantastic analogies. I have definitely found myself in similar situations during my time as a student and educator of sexuality. Actually, your posting made me think back to when I was younger and I had a fear of traveling. Traveling to countries that didn't speak english. For so many years I let the fear of being recognized as an outsider, and the potential of embarrassment, stop me from experiencing the world.

    Being someone who has conquered that fear and traveled the world (and taught about sexuality), I have to say that the best advice I can give is just to jump in. Like you said, cannonball it. Throughout this program we have been told that we will mess up, and fail, and make mistakes. As someone who has messed up, failed, and made mistakes, I ask everyone this question...what's the worst that could happen? Seriously, think about it. Because I guarantee that when you really think about it, you are completely capable of conquering what ever is ahead of you.

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  9. I have been thinking a lot about cultural diversity this term, too. With our study of cultural competence and diversity in HSED 626 and the demographics of the environment where I am doing my practicum, variation in cultural values and behaviors is taking center stage.

    My greatest fear is that I (as a middle aged, white woman in a Latino dominant school with a wide variety of races) will not gain the respect of the students because, in some part and maybe a large part, of the cultural divide. But I think you summed it up beautifully, Boatwoman, when you said “As long as we keep an open mind, stay prepared, respect others, and remember to ask questions we will be just fine.”

    These are key to gaining respect and credibility with any body of students. Another ingredient that I think is critical is connecting with the students either through TV references, music references, and/or humor.

    Finally, humility is important to me as I embark on any new adventure. Teaching sexuality is an adventure wherever and whenever we do it. Sometimes, it will click and sometimes I will fall on my face. But as long as I keep striving to improve and work hard to gain credibility and respect through quality lesson planning and good content delivery mixed in with a measure of laughter and fun, then my chances for success are good. It will be a fun ride no matter what!

  10. Teaching in cultures that are different from my own is something that I've been very intimidated by too. My fears, however, are less centered around ethnic differences. Instead, I'm most worried about instructing cultures with different sexual identities than me. I often fear about teaching homosexual men about HIV, because I do not share their experience or their higher risk. Also, I've attempted to offer some affirmative counseling strategies for my LGBT clients, and I feel like they don't take me seriously, because I don't share their experience. Similarly, I worry about educating heterosexual men about sexuality, since I'm a woman.

    I think that the Needs Assessment can be a very valuable tool to help us feel more comfortable with and understand our population. I just tend to worry more about my population's perception of me. I'm hoping that in the future, I can learn to establish credibility, so I'll feel more confident in approaching groups that are different from me.

    Last weekend in 626 we discussed a few of these concerns and completed the journal/animal activity that helped us learn how we can make connections and find surprising similarities between seemingly unrelated topics. I hope that I can use tools like that activity to encourage my students that although my identity is different, we do share commonalities and similar experiences; I hope that this can strengthen my credibility. Also, like Chris said, humility is important. By accepting the fact that I don't know everything and will most likely fall on my face is a part of the learning process for an educator. I think that the stumbles I'll experience in the future will allow me to grow both as an educator and a person.

    "Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle."
    Napoleon Hill

  11. I have had a similar experience. I love Indian food and I recently started teaching myself to cook it at home. I decided that the best and cheapest place to by the spices would be at an Indian market. I was with my mother but I think the sensation is still the same. We went in, got our spices and left quickly. After the fact my mother and I were discussing the awkward vibe we got from the store, the feeling that our presence was intrusive. We came to the conclusion that as white people, we do not often encounter situations where we do not belong. And it is good and important for us to be in that place because it may be a feeling many people of color have. Not only does cannon balling into a culturally different situation teach you about a new culture, but it can inform you about the experience of others.

  12. Great post! I'm glad to see I'm not the only one that feels uncomfortable in new cultural situations sometimes. Like you, one of my biggest fears is also that I will inadvertently offend someone or that they will not think I'm worth listening to because I don't share their experiences.
    However, just as your title suggests, everything always seems to work out just fine when I just jump right in and do it. Ocassionally there are a few awkward moments here and there, but they are easily navigated without any major mishaps.
    I hope you have since visited that supermarket and found your delicious churros!!