This article was previously published by the Northern California Mediation Association’s Quarterly Newsletter (Summer 1999, Number 52).
As I ponder what could possibly be new or helpful to say about mediation and cultural diversity, I am struck by my desire to know who my audience is. Professional mediators, of course. But beyond that, who is actually listening? What are you listening for? And what mindset and collection of experiences and expectations are you listening from? My intention is to participate in an ongoing dialogue that might help all of us more consciously and effectively hold a space for issues of cultural diversity to show up in our practices. And I am most curious about what shift in consciousness would be required for all of us to see through diversity lenses all of the time.
So I would like to begin with a reminder of where mediation and cultural diversity overlap. Although I have yet to see a universally accepted definition of mediation, I suggest it always includes this: it is a guided process for understanding and reconciling different perspectives to help people reach common ground. Culture, a similarly elusive concept to define, is the stuff that informs our perspectives. It is that mostly unidentified and unexamined web of influences that cuts and grinds our lenses of perception from which we derive the “way things work around here.” Culture sets the context and rules within which the transactions at issue in a dispute take place. And diversity is a quality of being different. Diversity awareness is then about having that difference be a resource for creativity, dimension, meaning and richness. Where we differ is, obviously, also where we have conflict. Stopping the conflict is going to be either about making the difference go underground (controlling, disallowing, disfavoring, dis-empowering, disrespecting it) or else by accepting, even embracing, aspects of the difference to create and consider a pool of options for a solution that works for everyone concerned. It seems to me that mediation and cultural diversity awareness are fundamentally about the same thing: holding the paradox of “both/and” and holding a space for the dignity of acceptance and mutually empowering choice. From where we differ or are different, we come together to create wholeness and restore harmony.
How perfectly virtuous and utopian that sounds! What happens in the messy world of antagonism and violence-especially around volatile and painful issues of identity, belonging, domination and self determination that often characterize cultural diversity conflicts-seems impossibly distant from those concepts or that vision. Nevertheless, it is a vision that can inspire us and give us direction.
I notice a tendency in our culture and in our profession to separate out cultural diversity awareness from the rest of who we are and what we do. Separating it out may give it emphasis and a certain measure of legitimacy. The idea may be to place cultural diversity awareness securely within the realm of core competency items. The practice I have observed, however, is that cultural diversity awareness may be mentioned as a core competency piece but it is largely given lip service. In other words, it does not become a substantive “performance evaluation” item, not like awareness of tax law, environmental regulations or contractual norms do. Separating it out also invites those who would otherwise not be inclined to deal with it, to ignore it as a specialty that does not affect them. In the world of conflict resolution, our tenuous understanding of cultural diversity issues tends to become apparent in how we handle power imbalances.
I see the need for reintegrating cultural diversity awareness as an essential thread running through the weave of all our work and interactions. These are issues of how we interact with one another, the very core of what makes the mediation process different and meaningful. I also see the need to perceive these issues with greater depth and subtlety of inquiry. That is to say, there is more to cultural diversity than meets the eye. The dynamics, influences and consequences are not always black vs. white and obvious.
Perhaps it will help you to know where I am listening from. I live a “both/and” reality every day in a world that insists on “either/or.” One meaningful example of this is my physical presence. Someone encountering me for the first time sees a tall woman present in a fair-skinned body. I look like and am treated as a White woman. That makes it self evident that I am included in certain circles and excluded from others. However, in the world I am also from, that fact has historical and profound meaning. My immediate lineage is both German and African-American. The practice and consequences of “passing” in the United States have changed in my lifetime but have by no means become obsolete. Throughout history individuals who, based on their appearance, could choose to be White were wagering their legitimate inclusion in any community. To this day you are either White or Black. Only in recent years have people begun considering options for being both. Well, I am proudly both.
Consider the yin-yang symbol. The black and white patches are constantly revolving, each patch containing a patch of the other. Both patches are complementary and necessary partners interacting to form a higher synthesis, rather than being irreconcilable and eternally warring opposites.
In some way or other we all embody diversity. We all are the product of a rich ethnic, spiritual, linguistic, ideological, etc. heritage. And we all-at some time(s) in our lives-have suffered the experience of being disrespected, demonized, dehumanized, dis-empowered, trivialized, make invisible, or otherwise excluded and demeaned on the basis of seemingly arbitrary criteria. That experience which may have given us the greatest pain is also our greatest resource. It is the place from which we can meet with compassion. It is the place from which we can choose to listen with ears that hear the truth of another person’s experience and perspective.
We all know what it feels like to be respected; start from there. I have worked together with fellow mediators and parties who have posed the following challenge to me: “What can you possibly understand about my experience or that of my people?! You’re not like me and you’re not one of us. You have nothing to say about my, or our, experience.” To this I respond: Maybe you’re right. I cannot possibly know everything there is to know about the complexity of experience one individual has or a people have of racism or any other form of oppression, discrimination or separation. Maybe your perspective will change if you know that, despite what you think you see, I am one of you. But more than that, I am genuinely curious about your experience. I am prepared to listen to your story as you tell it so that I can understand enough to help you shift the situation you are struggling with now. I know from my own experience how important it is to get to the other side, whole. And if you speak from what is true for you and are open, then what I have learned and can share may help you.
The mantra that has consistently helped me in my practice is: breathe, be centered, listen. Listen for the music between the notes. Listen for words unspoken. Listen for the subtle levels of what is happening. Listen for guidance.
What you see is what you get. That is to say: what you perceive is what you may understand. And that is what you will work with.
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