Over the past few weeks, I read two books that provided insight to the relationship between two of our shared values, respect and being inclusive/culturally responsive.  The insight for me was a deeper knowledge of how inclusion encompasses respect.  The first book I read was by John Grisham entitled, “The Confession.”  It was about an African-American male who confessed to a crime he did not commit, due to police coercion, and was sentenced to death by a white jury.  Grisham’s book was written through the lens of a white male.  The second book I read was by Ernest Gaines entitled, “A Lesson Before Dying” and was placed in the 1940’s.   Mr. Gaines, best known for his book, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” is an African American who was born on a plantation.  A Lesson Before Dying also is about an African-American male who was wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to death by an all white jury.  While the story lines were similar, the contrast between how these books were written was significant.    

The lens through which Mr. Gaines’ book was written provided a feeling of the Deep South during a time of oppression.  The book was told through the voice of the main character, an African-American male named Grant, who had achieved a college education and was a teacher in his community (he was not the one wrongly accused of a crime).  His education made him more disliked by the dominant society because it was threatening to them (there actually were many laws in that time that prevented the education of non-dominant society members).  Here are two examples Ernest Gaines used to depict how Grant was supposed to act in the presence of someone from the dominant society:

  •         While speaking to a white man, Sam Guidry, about his aunt visiting her relative on death row, Grant said, “She doesn’t feel that she has the strength to come up there all the time.” “She doesn’t, huh?” Sam Guidry asked me.  He emphasized doesn’t.  I was supposed to have said “don’t.” I was being too smart.  …..”You’re smart,” Guidry said. “Maybe you’re just a little too smart for your own good.”
  •         Speaking to Henri Pichot, a rich white man for whom Grant’s aunt had been a slave for many
    years:  I shook my head. “I have no idea.” [Henri Pichot] stared at me, and I realized that
    I had not answered him in the proper manner. “Sir,” I added. 

How does this relate to inclusion and respect?  Aretha Franklin sang about respect. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me” are part of the song’s lyrics.  This was said in the context of relationship with the dominance of one gender over the other.  The concept of respect has a deep history relative to interactions between people of different genders and cultures, often with very different meanings.  Historically, it was a term that often meant people in the non-dominant culture had to obey the people in the dominant culture.  In the two books I just read, there was a clear difference in the meaning of respect between cultures.  In the African-American culture, the wrong look, the wrong word (or lack of a word), could result in serious consequences.  The dominant culture defined this as a lack of respect. 

I hear people today use the word respect in relation to culture and difference and I wonder if they have ever thought about what the word might mean to people from the other culture.  In the past and even today, the term “respect” from the dominant culture may result in feelings of oppression or in the expectation to act or speak in a certain way.  In striving for cultural competence, one would investigate with those who are non-dominant, what cultural competence means.  If someone from a non-dominant culture speaks about respect, the dominant person could ask, “How can I convey that to you?”  If cultural competence is defined from a dominant perspective, it would likely end up being something people in the non-dominant culture wouldn’t care for.

 I hope the information in this blog provides a moment of reflection about the relationship between our shared values, respect and being inclusive/culturally responsive.  I continue to be humble along the path to increasing my multicultural competencies. 

Gaines, E. J. (1994). A lesson before dying. New York: Vintage Books.