Cultural Sensitivity: A Bridge for Deeper Communication

Cultural Sensitivity:
A Bridge for Deeper Communication

You can’t take a person anywhere unless you begin the 
journey where they are
Cultural sensitivity, for the storyteller, is about this place of embarkation, and the depth of the journey into the listener’s world or into uncharted waters. Saul Alinsky, one of the greatest community organizers of the past century, always told his minions, “Don’t bring a ham and cheese sandwich to a meeting at the Jewish Community Center.” If you begin an interaction by offending a group’s cultural sensibilities, chances are they won’t travel anywhere with you in the driver’s seat.

Translation: when telling stories to children, first offer mirrors of their lives before taking them through windows. The mirrors are the parts of stories in which they see themselves reflected.  The windows are those invitations into possibility.

Begin with Mirrors
If you begin with mirrors, you are beginning the journey where your listeners live. Stories that have an ethnic, social, emotional, physical, or cognitive resonance with listeners’ lives establish a bridge of cultural understanding.

In order to effect this you will need to know who your listeners are. Ask your host. Get information that will enable you to make culturally sensitive choices. For instance, you might not want to start a telling in an Armenian community with a Turkish folk tale, given the history of the two countries. You might well be able to close your program with it, but in the beginning you need to create a bridge of common understanding.

I was once hired to share stories on the subject of rice with third graders in Lowell, MA. These students, primarily first generation Americans from Cambodia, came from a culture where the smell of rice first touched their senses early in the morning and lingered to kiss them good night as they fell asleep. Many of their parents had emerged from an agrarian, Buddhist, Pol Pot-shocked culture based in rice. In order to draw these students’ hearts and minds into the world of story, I had to immerse my heart and mind in their world. Ultimately, this lead me to learn that stories from Cambodian culture have a very different shape and sensibility from ours. I also learned the Khmer words (and pronunciation) for rice grinder, and enjoyed spotting a young face lit up in recognition.

More Mirrors
When you are sharing a folk tale that you know like the back of your hand, and the heroine is meeting the man of her dreams, you look into the sea of faces that are living this story with you. Sometimes those faces, unlike the characters in this particular tale, are Asian, African-American or Hispanic. The race of your handsome hero suddenly becomes Asian, or African American, or Hispanic. You didn’t plan it that way. You’ve never told it that way before, but looking out you want this sea of faces to see a heroine whom they recognize, and this heroine will lead them through new windows of learning.

When we tell stories for the purpose of drawing our listeners into specific cultures beyond their own we have a responsibility to the tale’s origin.  I once heard a brilliant teller share a story about a little Jewish “shtetel.”  After the show, I gently shared that word was “Shtetel.”  The next time he told the story he said “small Jewish village.”  What a shame to lose the flavor and original language  because the teller was insecure with pronunciation. We are drawn toward ‘white breading’ stories.  That is, reshaping them for the ease of the listener, rather than maintaining the integrity of shape and detail that make the story a representative of the culture it emerges from. If you want to tell a story to teach about the culture or origin then it is incumbent upon you to understand that tale as it resonated within the world that bore it.  It’s shape, events, objects and characters might all  feel uncomfortable.  There is usually a good reason for all of them.  You are better able to communicate the tale once you understand the ‘why’ for each of them.  (And pronounce the words correctly!)

There is one caveat to this guideline.  Many members of our first nations have asked those who came later to not tell their sacred tales.  The native cultures of the Americas are numerous and each is unique.  Some tellers have studied with elders and story keepers of various nations and have been honored with their stories.  If you are not among these, then it is best to share the trickster tales and lighter motifs which have emerged from ‘the people.’  Folks get very prickly about this, but I have never heard a Russian, Italian, or Korean, say ‘Please don’t tell our stories.’  Thus, when I hear it from more than a few Native Americans, I believe it’s a request worth respecting

In today’s America the separation of church and state is becoming less and less defined. In a democracy, part of the responsibility of the state is education, and yet, schools are continually pressed to respond to the theological teachings of specific religious groups among their populations.

Jehovah’s Witness will not allow their children to listen to stories of ghosts and goblins. Fundamentalist Christians, whose large organizations powerfully effect the choice of textbooks in many school systems, want the biblical story of creation taught as history instead of the “theory” of evolution. The Assembly of God worked to ban storyteller Nancy Duncan’s work because she portrays the ancient Russian folkloric witch Baba Yaga. They convinced many principals that she was advocating witchcraft, the occult, and cannibalism! (Baba Yaga eats the ‘bad’ Russian children.)

The list of points of view is endless, and every group claims the high ground. Whether you agree with them or not is not the point. While you are not obliged to represent any given religious theology within the public schools, you can’t ignore the background and belief systems of your audience: you can’t take a person anywhere unless you begin the journey where they are.

This means that when I am working in Utah, I begin with stories that have a biblical resonance. When working in Nancy Duncan’s old stomping ground, the first stories I tell will be about family and community values, using characters that audiences are familiar with. I might end with Baba Yaga, or 5 versions of the creation of earth and it’s people,  but only if I feel a deep connection with the listeners.

Cultural sensitivity is about our ability to understand the world of our listeners, create a mirror for them, and then a window to new worlds.