Cultural dexterity, a simple solution

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The word “dexterous” if applied to you would be a compliment, no matter what the reference – sports, writing, driving, climbing trees, organizing children: “She is dexterous with the tennis racket…the pen… the preschoolers….” Dexterous means that you are adroit, skillful, clever, artful, deft, that you have mental skill and quickness, that you work with grace and ease.

A nice phrase now in the news is “cultural dexterity,” which means getting along with different races. If you are culturally dexterous, it means that you have a capacity for connections with people outside your tribe; you like difference and you accept it as normal.

Writer, lawyer, professor Cheryll Cashin, who teaches Race and American Law at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and who writes about race relations and inequality in America, believes that cultural dexterity is on the rise in the U.S. and that it’s going to be what eliminates the divide in this country.

What this means is that as we get to know “the other” well – a phenomenon that is actually happening all over the country despite what we’re bombarded with from some of the media — we begin to allow each other to exist in our own beliefs, discover that each other’s beliefs are interesting and often very similar to our own, and that we are helping to save the grand experiment that is the democratic ideal of this nation.

I like the positiveness of the phrase cultural dexterity and its implications in a time when we’re led to believe that all news is “bad” or “sad” or “fake.” The more we’re told the bad, the sad, the more it will be so. Cashin believes that intermarriage is the key to a sane country of less prejudice, and that simply having friends of different races and backgrounds works as well.

Sociologists studying race relations have discovered that close friendships with people outside our tight little groups makes us less anxious about everything, including the future. This is a hopeful idea to think about when the daily drivel is enough to make one not have a TV or open a newspaper.

Just knowing someone else who has a friend of a different color, nationality, language, improves your own attitude about life. This kind of transference is completely lovely; it is the opposite of catching a cold from a friend, it is catching a clue from that friend . . . it softens our own prejudice and fear of the other.

An even more fascinating discovery from social psychologists is that if people can develop bonds with fictional characters who are unlike us, or famous people who are not us — say, a black president — this is a way of reducing any prejudice we might have. She calls it being “humanized.” What a great word. What a hopeful piece of research. Most of us already have friends who are fictional and famous; why not make the “different” ones, those we think are unlike us, our book friends and heroes also?

The fix may not be simple, but it feels like a sound fix, a possibility, one small way to soothe this fractious era into sensibleness.

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