As we hold difficult dialogues, let’s not model a presidential debate 

by Linda S. Wallace 

 Dear Cultural Coach:  

Why do we need cultural coaches? Why do we need silly people to tell us what to say and what to do? Things were easier before all these other people came to this country. 

– Make America Great 

Dear Make America Great: I hear you. You certainly are not alone in your thinking. Ever so often, I receive email from readers who don’t see much value in America’s racial, cultural and religious diversity. They long for days gone by.  

If America is to ever begin a productive dialogue on race, it must include as many people, and as many views, as possible in the conversation. We have left too many out of diversity sessions, and they are understandably upset. That is why they write hateful, anonymous posts online or, even worse, remain hidden until an elected official emerges on the national stage willing to voice their concerns. 

In this country, we have a right not to like others because they are uneducated, very pretty or a different color. However, we do not have a right to deny others basic human and civil rights.  

As the country grows more diverse, citizens have an obligation to find strategies for working across the widening rural and urban divides. The alternative is to divide up the country geographically by groups, which makes us easy prey.

In this year of great pain and heavy sorrow, committed diversity advocates have a duty to learn how to disagree in more productive ways. Dissent is helpful only to the extent it brings insights or clarity.  

When people write me to say this country is headed for ruin because there are too many ethnic groups, I respond sincerely: “Everyone has a right not to like diversity. But if we don’t embrace it, I fear we will be stuck in the past unable to focus on our shared future or our children’s needs. Let’s talk now to figure out how we all can prosper in a diverse nation.” 

As we hold these difficult conversations, let’s act as though we are not in a presidential debate. Specifically, that means listen, wait our turns and no name-calling or tantrums.  

 Dear Cultural Coach: 

 My father spoke accented English after immigrating to Canada in the 1920s. For those curious about his origins, he had a standard reply. To answer the question, “Where are you from?” he would retort, “Why do you ask?”” To “Where were you born?” he would reply, “In bed.” That usually ended the inquisition.  

 – Last Laugh 


Dear Last Laugh: 

 Humor works well in responding to cultural queries. Use it as often as you can. Whenever people ask questions that offend us, we have a choice. We can take offense and risk shutting down the dialogue. We can respond, as your father did, with a wink and a grin. And we can take a few minutes to educate our questioner and help him/her/them view the world through new eyes. If we never take time to educate others, how will they learn? After all, you can still graduate from many colleges without possessing any of these 21st-century cultural skills. 

Dear Cultural Coach: 

My partner and I actually find this scenario humorous. On many occasions, we’ve been asked by well-meaning straight folks if we know so-and-so because “he’s gay” or “she’s a lesbian.” Not likely, since we live in a major metropolitan city. But my partner came up with a great response, best delivered with a smile: “No, he (she) wasn’t at the last meeting.” 

 – Problem Solver 


Dear Problem Solver: 

This is a friendly way to make an important point: Special populations do not all think alike, act alike or know one another. As an African-American, I sometimes use your partner’s approach if someone asks me what “Black people think” or how they feel. I might smile and say, “I did not receive an invitation to the meeting in which blacks met and voted on this issue. My invitation must have been lost in the mail.” I always add, “I would be happy to share my opinion, however.” 

Whenever possible, leave the door to understanding wide open.  


(Linda S. Wallace is a freelance journalist and communication specialist, who helps clients develop cross-cultural messages for the workplace and the media. Readers are invited to submit questions on work or personal problems related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical differences. Address your questions to 


From the Web