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Acknowledge, Accept or Participate?

At Diwali recently, I came home and, to my delight, discovered that my neighbours, who are not Hindu, had gone to the trouble of buying a Diwali card for me. By this thoughtful gesture, the very same neighbours to whom I occasionally wave and exchange a word or two of pleasantries have been transformed into neighbours 'who care'.

I reflected on the impact of this gesture - a small difference that made a big difference. I understood that my neighbours had gone beyond acknowledging or even just accepting to participating in my life. Whilst they may not have the usual Diwali related paraphernalia, they were nevertheless celebrating Diwali. My neighbours' active participation was no different to sending a friend a birthday card; not just 'acknowledging' but actually celebrating someone's special day.

I am convinced that our greatest strength as human beings is our ability to adapt and participate to different and new situations. I recently attended a Black History Month show at my local theatre. The audience, though diverse, was represented mainly by African Caribbean communities. Some acts included jokes (which I didn't understand) that had the audience howling with laughter. Friends later asked if I felt excluded by these jokes which might be difficult to 'translate' to someone not raised in a particular culture.

I realised that I hadn't felt excluded by the show - I hadn't gone to accept all aspects of African Caribbean culture; rather, I was participating in a culture made authentic by its differences. It was a fantastic event and I felt privileged to have been involved in another culture. It has been said that jokes represent how people living in UK, but originating elsewhere, classify and represent their experiences and I could see that this was so.

Britain is renowned for, and indeed celebrates, being a multi-cultural country. Wikipedia describes 'multicultural' as immigrants / others preserving their cultures within different cultures interacting peacefully within one nation'. Kevin Bloor writes (The Definitive Guide to Political Ideologies) of multiculturalism as a society "at ease with the rich tapestry of human life and the desire amongst people to express their identity in the manner they see fit'.

The slow, steady effect of promoting diversity has led to a 'step beyond' - the interaction between cultures providing opportunities for participation within different cultures. Lord Macpherson's 1999 Report considered a revised national school curriculum to promote cultural diversity and help prevent racism, Schools have actively promoted religious celebrations for some years, resulting in a well informed (in this at least) younger generation who are more comfortable with cultural / religious beliefs and / or celebrations. For this generation, many of whom have friends and / or partners from other backgrounds, they are able to participate rather than simply acknowledging and accepting others. Some of this has - to those willing to take an interest - extended to their parents. A senior manager told me a few years ago that his children were teaching him about different faiths as they understood Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah far more than him. He envied his children's exposure to the richness of difference.

Large supermarkets (Tesco, Asda and others) recognise, in addition to permanently providing say kosher foods, the benefit of Hanukkah / Eid / Diwali designated aisles. Whilst cynics may argue that this is 'all about the money' and designed to maximise profits by enticing minority groups into their shops, these large retailers, irrespective of the intention, have gone beyond the 'acknowledge, accept' model to participating in these celebrations of differences.

When I was a child, Diwali was celebrated behind closed doors and not discussed in the playground, I already felt (and was) different, and didn't want to emphasise this by talking about my home life. I now do feel that Britain is 'my home' and that I am welcome here. I can buy whatever I want from a supermarket and am greeted by a sales assistant with a lapel badge saying 'Happy Diwali!'

At work, there is the generosity of colleagues explaining their own, and participating in other cultures - Muslim colleagues inviting colleagues to an Eid party, a Hindu colleague explaining the intricacies of being introduced to prospective parties and Gay colleagues discussing the importance of Gay Pride week. The team ethos of genuine interest/participation in the different cultures promotes respect and trust.

These levels of participation has liberated individuals, groups and communities and given them confidence to express their authenticity fully; this allows them to truly and wholeheartedly express their differences.

Ruth Benedict described, as far back as 1934, cultural behaviour as a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action. Within each culture, there come into being characteristics purposes not necessarily shared by other groups. Benedict argued that, over time, these patterns change as a consequence of human creativity. The (inter) participation of different cultures creates a ground of hope and promotes an equally, culturally enriched coexistence.

Life is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it's about experience, it's about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting that what is obvious...

'I embrace emerging experience, I participate in discovery, I am a butterfly, I am not a butterfly collector, I want the experience of the butterfly' William Stafford

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