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Books that teach cultural sensitivity and awareness are flying off the shelves these days. That’s probably because cultural sensitivity and awareness are hot topics right now. The racial discord that the United States is experiencing is at an all-time high. The communities of people of color are tired of taking second chair to their White counterparts.
What is cultural awareness?
By definition, cultural awareness is the recognition of the nuances of one’s own culture and other cultures. Simply put, it’s being aware of the cultural differences of people from other countries or other backgrounds. There are numerous ethnic groups in the United States and around the world. Being aware of the diverse populations that exist is one of the first steps in cultural competency.
Cultural diversity is what makes our world so special. However, the lack of cultural sensitivity makes it difficult for people to look past their own biases. We must recognize and accept that improving our cultural knowledge is an important step in being a more culturally sensitive and aware society
The problem with the lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness
One of the debates that well-meaning White people and people of color often have is that White people say, “but I do not see color,” or “I am colorblind.” But, people of color want others to know that we want to be seen. We want to be celebrated, and we want equal footing. Every culture should shine. To that end, I have compiled a list of books that can help get those hard conversations started. Books that can teach cultural sensitivity and awareness. This list is short compared to the number of books out there. Do not dismiss a book that isn’t on this list. There are fiction and nonfiction works that can get these conversations started. Additionally, these books may help you find answers to some questions that you may have about race and racism.
It is important to feel free enough to ask questions when you want to know more about a culture. I promise a well-intended question used to reduce your ignorance will be met with much more kindness than a misguided quip that further diminishes your counterpart. So, here’s my list of recommended books that teach cultural sensitivity and awareness.
Books that Teach Cultural Sensitivity and Awareness
This book by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva takes some of those well-meaning arguments and explains their challenges and inaccuracies. Some of these well-meaning arguments were designed to keep people of color happy. They were begun by people who were not so well-meaning to appease the minority population. This commentary was designed so that others could remain “othered,” and the majority could remain in charge. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is a James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Sociology.
Honky is written from a White perspective, which makes people wonder how it can help cultural sensitivity and awareness. It tells Dalton Conley’s point of view as a White child in a poor, predominantly minority neighborhood. Conley knew that even though he was in the same neighborhood, he had privileges that his friends of color did not enjoy. He wrote his story to tell theirs. If you are struggling with beginning the conversation, this book might help you see the world from a perspective similar to your own.
Ibram X. Kendi is an award-winning, New York Times Best Selling Author. He talks about race from his own perspective, but he starts to have hard conversations. The book is not just about not being racist. It is about being an advocate for equality. Much of the problem that people of color are still having with the White community is that they are not actively working to stop systemic racism. It does not matter if I adopt Black children, have a Latina boyfriend, or Asian best friends if I do not recognize when people are being disrespectful. Stopping racism also moves beyond one or two communities. Kendi urges readers to actively seek better policies, legislation, and conditions for everyone.
I read this book a few years ago, and it really stuck with me. The book is told from two perspectives—Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton. Thompson-Cannino mistakenly accuses Cotton of rape in Alamance County, North Carolina, and much of the book is the two telling their experiences and stories. Cotton was convicted, but he was eventually exonerated. The two became friends in the process of examining the truth. The system was stacked against Cotton from the beginning, and it was like moving mountains to get his case reopened and reexamined. While this book was not written to increase cultural sensitivity or awareness, it makes readers aware of the genuine systemic racism that people of color face.
Jennifer L. Eberhardt is a psychology professor at Stanford University. Eberhardt exposes the ways that racism and cultural bias seeps into our everyday worlds. Readers have the opportunity to understand the microaggressions that people of color and other cultures notice every day. One thing that people do not realize is that sometimes the bias is against people from other cultures but look like them. Using specific archaic terminology or slang can make people from other parts of the world feel slighted and hurt.
Ijeoma Oluo discusses what others have often wanted to talk about but do not know what to do. From the time we are children, we become curious about other people and their cultures. However, sometimes the way that we approach them is harmful or offensive. Most people do not purposely offend other people, so they are sometimes at a loss for what to do. Oluo helps readers bridge those gaps. Curiosity is okay, but offending another person is not only humiliating them, but it is also devastating to the offender, especially when the offense was unintended.
One of Toni Morrison’s greatest novels is both heartbreaking and eye-opening. The heroine in this story finds her blackness ugly and searches for whiteness. Morrison’s book was published in 1970, but it takes place in post-war America. Since this is a fiction book, it is not necessarily a clear commentary on all of the horrors that others face, but it is easy to see where Pecola gets her inferiority complex.
Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua edited a collection of works by women of color. You may be wondering how this can increase cultural awareness and sensitivity. Well, these works are glimpses into the lives of these women and specifically details the things that they face as women of color. Sometimes racism is paired with ageism and sexism. The diversity represented in these pages from more than forty years ago still captures the reader’s attention. It illuminates the difficulties these women have faced.
Tommy Orange tells a story of twelve Native Americans traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. These twelve people of the same culture are diverse in who they are. They are also a different culture from the vast majority of the US. There There is a unique novel by a celebrated Native American, and his story helps readers appreciate the complexities of other cultures.
This novel by Angie Thomas takes one of the most challenging scenarios that Black children face today and fictionalizes it. While the characters do not exist, this story has played out over and over. George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor have all been killed by police officers. Their stories may have different beginnings, but they all have the same endings. In this book, Thomas introduces Carter and Khalil in these all too familiar circumstances.
Carol Anderson exposes the ways that White America has purposefully set out to marginalize anyone of color, but especially Black Americans. She flips the script on times that the progress was supposedly in favor of Black Americans and shows how they are often orchestrated by White Americans to continue to hold back people of color.
Robin DiAngelo confronts a complicated conversation that is missing from diversity talks. The problem is that many people get defensive when faced with their own prejudices. Some of those prejudices come from unintended and ignorant places, but we can all accept that we have misinformed prejudices and work to change them. People of the privileged class have trouble talking about any adversity “below” their station. They have difficulty realizing that different is not below.
The second Toni Morrison book on this list is a starkly different book than The Bluest Eye. The Origin of Others explores why people segregate themselves and why they create others. She explores why people are quick to make one group or another higher or lower. Morrison also documents past racial events that people often bury and forget. She has not forgotten and wants others to remember, as well. Her assertion of Black Lives Matter reminds readers that if the phrase is too short, add “too” not only. Black Lives Matter, too.
Note: Some of these books are available in Audible! Have you tried Audible? If not, you can try it for free here.
Other ways to increase cultural sensitivity and awareness
Cultural Sensitivity Training
The purpose of cultural sensitivity training is to raise awareness of different groups with diverse backgrounds. It focuses on the differences in words, gestures, body language, and different experiences in different cultures. Another goal of cultural sensitivity training is to help participants become more aware of people of different cultures, economic backgrounds. You should leave with a basic understanding of the different life experiences of people of different backgrounds.
Another way to bring awareness to different cultural backgrounds is through diversity training. Diversity training is a great way to focus on the concept of cultural competence and has been one of the most effective ways to increase the conversations about cultural issues in local communities and in the world.
Several organizations have implemented some type of training that helps to focus on cultural identity. In fact, companies are now expected to improve their efforts to provide training to bring awareness to the importance of cultural competence.
If you are not a part of a professional organization that provides diversity training, there are online options available. The Product Company lists several options for diversity and inclusion training programs.
Everyday life is often one of the best teachers. You are very likely to come into contact with people of all cultures, which is often a great way to learn about different people. Use those opportunities as a chance to engage in purposeful conversations with people of different cultures. Also, it’s important to be careful not to ignore differences among people. Our differences are what make us so unique.
Another tip is to focus on yourself. What stereotypes have you accepted, even unconsciously? What privileges do you enjoy? Being more aware of yourself is key to understanding and being more sensitive to various cultures.
Engage in conversations with your children
In today’s climate, it has become increasingly more important to have conversations about race with children. Increased exposure to social media and the news has made it much more difficult to censor the information children have access to. That often leaves parents scrambling for responses to impromptu questions that children may have or searching for comforting words to respond to emotions that children may be experiencing. Normalizing conversations about race is essential for meaningful progress in improving race relations in our communities.
You might find it difficult to know how to begin conversations about race. My advice to you is to do some research so that your approach can be planned out carefully. Search for literature that will help you determine which topics and points are appropriate for the age level of your child(ren).
After you’ve done some research, find ways to begin having conversations about race, even with very young children. Your conversation does not have to be formal to be effective. For example, your child may notice and point out that a person is different from him. If they verbally express that difference, acknowledge it! You could respond by saying something like, “Yes, people are different. People come in all different shades, but we are all the same on the inside. That’s what makes us so unique.” Be careful to stress that there is nothing wrong with being different and keep your remarks genuine and positive.
Children learn more from what they see than from what they hear. Therefore, you should be mindful of your actions and responses to situations related to race. Your child is watching your interactions with people of other races. Do you treat these people with respect? Does what you’re saying about race match what you’re doing when you are in situations dealing with people of other races? For example, if you are in a room with people who are being derogatory towards people of other races, how do you respond? Think about the example that you are setting for your child.
Diversify your reading. Check out literature written by people of color. There is no magic potion for being to becoming more culturally accepting. We often have cultural, racial, and physical prejudices that have been ingrained in us for our entire lives. These books can help you break those thoughts. We should let go of the past misinformation and open our eyes and minds to how we can create a future of equality.
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