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Am I Culturally Insensitive? A Personal Reflection

January 20, 2016, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

Have you ever wondered if you’re culturally insensitive or racist? Having grown up in a Baha’i family, I was raised with Baha’u’llah’s words that the human family is like the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch, and the waves of one sea. Like many others, my family moved from country to country in order to assist with the needs of the Faith and I grew up with these words of Abdu’l-Baha ringing so true:

The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord. […] Think of [people of different races] as different coloured roses growing in the beautiful garden of humanity, and rejoice to be among them.

Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 53

Racism with a capital “R” was not something that I consciously experienced in my daily life but it is such a complex topic, with a vast array of manifestations and biases. It can sometimes be deep-seated and unconscious. Recently, I have noticed that more subtle forms of prejudice and racism are becoming mainstream topics of conversation. Concepts such as white privilege, cultural appropriation, the racist roots of some common English words and phrases, Islamophobia, and xenophobia are really hot topics.

Because of my upbringing my home, my wardrobe, my favourite dishes, my taste in books and music and art are diverse and defy borders but it wasn’t until recently that I stopped to consider the way I think, act and dress. Do I do, say, or wear anything that is racist? Or that is culturally insensitive? Do I manifest any forms of racism, no matter how subtle?

Racism in all its forms is truly to be feared. The Universal House of Justice wrote:

Racism, one of the most baneful and persistent evils, is a major barrier to peace. Its practice perpetrates too outrageous a violation of the dignity of human beings to be countenanced under any pretext. Racism retards the unfoldment of the boundless potentialities of its victims, corrupts its perpetrators, and blights human progress.

Universal House of Justice, Promise of World Peace, p. 9

The Universal House of Justice also said:

…what Baha’u’llah has done for us all is to provide a standard by which to determine what is pleasing in God’s sight, thereby freeing us to maintain those elements of diversity which are unique to our different cultures. The adoption of this divine standard enables each people to be confident in the permissibility of what it can retain from its past.

23 June 1995, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, retrieved from: http://bahai-library.com/compilation_cultural_diversity_maturity

So while it’s more than fine for me to have a mix and matched aesthetic from all over the world, it is important that this taste does not counter Baha’i teachings of equality and respect. For example, I should truly learn about the cultures that these items represent and make sure none of them have sacred significance that I have trivialized. I need to be wise and tolerant to the idea that my possession of something or my love of something is less important than ensuring that I am being respectful and culturally sensitive. The Universal House of Justice said:

Of course, many cultural elements everywhere inevitably will disappear or be merged with related ones from their societies, yet the totality will achieve that promised diversity within world unity. We can expect much cultural diversity in the long period before the emergence of a world commonwealth of nations in the Golden Age of Baha’u’llah’s new world order. Much wisdom and tolerance will be required, and much time must elapse until the advent of that great day.

25 July 1988, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly retrieved from: http://bahai-library.com/compilation_cultural_diversity_maturity

In short, I need to ask myself, does my [insert object such as Mauritian shirt, jar of Kimchi in the fridge, or sweater with Aboriginal designs] promote unity? The Universal House of Justice also stated:

A distinctively Baha’i culture will welcome an infinite diversity in regard to secondary characteristics, but also firmly uphold unity in regard to fundamental principles; thereby achieving a vigorous complementarity. For example, in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, we find the following intriguing statement:

“What a blessing that will be–when all shall come together, even as once separate torrents, rivers and streams, running brooks and single drops, when collected together in one place will form a mighty sea. And to such a degree will the inherent unity of all prevail, that the traditions, rules, customs and distinctions in the fanciful life of these populations will be effaced and vanish away like isolated drops, once the great sea of oneness doth leap and surge and roll.”

The point is not to minimize differences, nor to make of unity and diversity a false dichotomy, but ever to keep in mind that the Baha’i standard is very high and grounded in divine love.

13 February 1996, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, retrieved from: http://bahai-library.com/compilation_cultural_diversity_maturity

We can also uproot any prejudices we have by striving to have diverse friends from all walks of life in order to embody Abdu’l-Baha’s words that we “make all men your friends” 1. By forging strong and diverse relationships, we ensure that we are exposed to a rich variety of ideas that keep us on our toes and prevent us from being complacent. It’s never a wrong time to ask yourself, am I promoting unity?


Footnotes & Citations
  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 54[]
Posted by

Sonjel Vreeland

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she's driving at night.
Sonjel Vreeland

Discussion 2 Comments

This is powerful. Thank you for sharing. God Bless.

Kristen Young

Kristen Young (January 1, 2016 at 2:37 AM)

How does a fish know if it is wet?

Will Naylor

Will Naylor (January 1, 2016 at 2:57 PM)

Leave a Reply to Kristen Young Cancel reply

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