Up Close and Personal – My Inside-Out Journey

Diana L. Stephens Uncategorized Leave a Comment

I sometimes wonder how a white girl like me ended up on a lifelong path advocating for equity and inclusion for all human beings. How is it that as a young woman, having no awareness or insight into my own whiteness, I ended up championing the rights of minorities? What forces were operating beneath the surface that bonded me for life as an ally seeking justice, fairness, and equal rights for all humanity?

Perhaps it was the experience of suffering that connected me with those who looked so unlike me. Maybe it was the wisdom of a black woman shining a light on my authentic self. Schooling helped shape my social justice beliefs even though I was part of white flight and had no classmates of color. In junior high, reading The Diary of Anne Frank pierced my heart with the pain of injustice, intolerance, and annihilation. Certainly the era of my birth contributed. When you are inspired by beloved thought leaders and live through their assassinations it changes who you are. President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy held visions of a world that spoke to my soul. They advocated a way of being in the world with unity, dignity, and love. They professed a mindset based in celebrating the beautiful gifts we each bring to the world. Their cause was a movement based in the principles of a living democracy, a movement that spoke to my life purpose. Bigotry and hate took these great men away, and suddenly loss and grief flooded my heart leaving hopes and dreams gasping for air. These circumstances fueled an identity crisis. Who was I and where did I belong? If I spoke my truth, would I too be annihilated from the people I loved?

Therapy promised answers. I learned much from a female African American therapist who revealed the intimacies of her struggles. She was a quiet activist, encouraging me to be her voice, knowing my whiteness could reach audiences that her blackness could not. Her stories deepened my resolve to speak out against racism and oppression. I committed my life in service of self-discovery, cultivating emotional freedom, and guiding others in the realization of full potential living.

For more than two decades I found myself personally and professionally thriving in a multicultural, non-profit agency serving diverse communities. My personal beliefs and professional life was in synch. I was fulfilling the vision of a life well lived, being part of something greater than myself. There was pride in being a first generation college graduate, and satisfaction in a meaningful career. I believed I was doing good work, helping people heal relationships, cope with loss, navigate grief, and fulfill their life dreams. I was teaching about diversity, or more specifically about racism, eager to work with colleagues and students, pointing out attitudes and behaviors that perpetuated racial injustices. I was determined to be part of the solution for a more just society. From my perspective, identifying injustices and taking action to change others were the ways of achieving equity and inclusiveness. Little did I know I was fostering the very injustices I sought to eradicate. I was looking outward – not examining my own whiteness, thus I was living life unaware of my own privilege, power, and entitlements. These were my experiences of yesteryear, contributing to my inside-out journey today.

My perspectives changed when new professional opportunities led me to academia. Education was crucial – through my Master’s and Doctoral studies a new worldview emerged and deeper insights were cultivated. I have been honored and humbled to serve as a teacher, school counselor, professor, and consultant. Through coursework and professional development, I was introduced to the framework of Cultural Proficiency. Therein I found the home I have long sought, the place within my own being that seeks to understand how we, the people ,work together to embody the principles espoused in the Constitution and Declarations of Independence.

What have I learned through this inside-out journey? I have challenged myself to examine my early “successes” through the inside out lens of Cultural Proficiency. This has led me to question “Was I really doing good work for humanity?” or “Was I perpetuating dominant culture myths about success?” While I am sure there were individuals who benefitted from my past service, I now understand others suffered. Beneath the surface I was contributing to the institutional practices of racism, heterosexism, and many other forms of oppression. Though acting with good intentions, ignorance belied my grandest efforts.

Why do I say this? I have been groomed in white culture, its part of the DNA of my childhood and early adulthood. It will take a lifetime to understand the full impact of this aculturation and to dismantle the vestiges of my implicit biases, assumptions, and perspectives. I have been taught and cultivated a false façade of success, as lived in the majority culture. Trained to believe I held the answers to help others, my goal was to provide the solution to their troubles. It didn’t occur to me years ago that my beliefs were highly suspect, and that I was perpetuating myths born of institutional racism. I was operating from what I now term a missionary consciousness, reaching out to another to show them “the way”. It feels quite arrogant as I think of it today. What is “the way”? The white person’s way? The way of the majority group?

As I embrace my whiteness, and learn to appreciate the gifts and blessings of my culture, I am ever mindful of my moral responsibility to account for the tragedies perpetuated by the myths of white dominance and supremacy. I am compelled to continue the deep dive of understanding and resolving the majority culture stranglehold on students of color and special needs. This has been a journey, moving through early days of guilt and anger, processing what it means to be white. I have emerged from feelings of shame and self-judgment to deep understanding of the complexities involved in dismantling oppression of all forms.

How has my transformative way of being in this world come about? Awareness was the first step in my unfolding. The life-long Tools of Cultural Proficiency help me uncover unhealthy aculturation with resolve to learn and practice culturally competent ways of being in the world. The Tools provide me a language, a mindset, a continuum, and an action plan. Understanding barriers is part of my internal work. I am part of the dominant culture and I am served in a different way than those who are not part of white culture. It is imperative that I understand what that means in my daily life, in my cross-cultural relationships, and in my work. I recognize that culture is a part of who we are and informs our values, beliefs, and behavior. Cultural competence is the pathway to resolving educational gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. Affirming cultural assets enriches our lives with equitable and inclusive outcomes. A life lived without cultural understanding is an unexamined life doomed to perpetuate injustices.

I think about my own thinking (metacognition) and from these thoughts I strive to deepen my social, emotional, and cultural awareness. However, I have discovered that I can only travel so far by myself. It is the richness of authentic conversations that uncover my barriers and deepen my ability to sustain cross-cultural relationships with shared respect, regard, and empathy for one another.

In cross-cultural conversations I learn more about myself and about others through the stories we share. My growth is tied to the willingness of others to converse with me. Seeing whiteness from their perspective shines a light on how I am perceived by others. Conversations help to surface my assumptions and biases, providing a wellspring of new ways of being and interacting with others. The art of managing our differences and adapting to diversity is all about relationships – how we form them, how we nurture them, and how we impede their development.

So, what have I learned from my inside-out journey? This work takes courage, commitment, and a loving, forgiving heart. . The willingness to sit in the fire of discomfort with vulnerability and openness provides the pathway of co-creating a world of equity and inclusion.

My inside-out life journey is best summed up in the words of Poet and Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
I invite you to join the Cultural Proficiency conversation. Together, we can be part of the paradigm shift, joining the growing movement of educators, committed to equitable and inclusive services for each and every student.

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