As the corona virus pandemic, police violence, and social justice crises swirl around us, SIETAR USA is working on using what we are learning from the crisis—while we are still in it. Even with the harsh partisan atmosphere, there is some hope for positive outcomes. It appears that Congress might pass a police reform bill. Despite initial negative prospects, some common ground where compromise can happen is beginning to open. The Opinion article by guest columnist Marc Brenman, a retired civil rights investigator for the U.S. Department of Education, is especially timely and offers concrete suggestions for reducing police violence.
Masks have become an important part of our daily lives and they help save lives. But there is still too much resistance to wearing masks in the United States and I believe that interculturalists might be able to offer some helpful ways to approach the issue of masks. We know that masks mean different things across the globe. We can introduce people to the many perspectives on masks and mask wearing that are part of the world. An office worker in Kyoto wears a mask to help protect her co-workers. An elder in a Southwest Pueblo wears a mask to participate in a ritual dance or ceremony. In West Africa, masks are considered to “connect the wearer (and by extension the rest of the community) to ancestors who represent stories and guide moral behavior” (Silberstein, Art insight, p.11). Those are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of stories about the meaning of masks across cultures.
What does that have to do with us? We have all probably run into people (maybe even in our own social circle or family) who refuse to wear a mask in public. Telling stories of different ways masks are regarded and used has a chance of getting people interested and engaged in talking about masks in a less judgmental way. And in the process, it could neutralize a tense situation so that we could get the message across that masks help save lives. It’s also an opportunity to help people reframe the mask-wearing experience.
We often teach reframing to make a scary experience in an unfamiliar culture more neutral and even positive. My sister worked in a bank for many years. She said that if someone walked into the bank wearing a mask, she’d be reaching for the emergency button to call the police. A very negative reaction to a mask but realistic just months ago. Masks in the context of the old West were associated with bank robbers, bad guys out to get ranchers’ hard-earned money.
So not only can we talk about reframing but also context. In the context of the theater, masks are a metaphor for taking on a role—putting on the face of a different person. There is a psychological theory regarding masks that people in society wear a mask to portray emotions that are more socially acceptable than the ones they are actually feeling. In theater, comedy and tragedy masks are a metaphor for the actors portraying the emotions of their character adding richness to the play and keeping the plot moving.
There is a hint of a positive outcome regarding masks. As mask-wearing becomes more common, there is reported easing of the public judgment experienced by Muslim women who wear their traditional face coverings in Wester society. Some Muslim women report that they are no longer being given dirty looks—perhaps because they don’t stand as out so much as different. I happen to like different but unfortunately, not everyone does.
As you might guess, I like masks. I will give the last word on masks for now, to Tyler Cowen “What can we do to convince people that a mask-laden society, while it will feel weird and indeed be weird, can be made stable and beneficial through our own self-awareness? While there is no simple answer to that question, mask advocates should recognize that they have been treading into unusual cultural territory, and should not be surprised by unusual public responses” (San Diego Union Tribune, July 5, 2020, p. B-11).
Until September this will be the last issue while we take a summer break. We are taking a month off to work on the conference, the webinars, the special Thiagi workshop and other things SIETAR USA is exploring to be able to provide good service to our community of intercultural and DEI professionals. And be sure to read the Bookmarks column. It made me think about the movie in a whole different way. Read more about the list of things we will be working on this summer in each of the articles in this issue. Watch for both Thiagi’s workshop registration and the conference registration to open! Thiagi’s workshop is excellent preparation for the conference, so sign up to see how you can use his Live Online Learning Activities to expand and encourage interaction in your session.
I wish you a happy, safe, healthy summer,
President SIETAR USA