The Ethics of Intercultural Change

Dr. Deborah Orlowski

A number of years ago I had a conversation with a gentleman who was a noted leader in the field of transformative learning. I asked him if we had any responsibility for the people we work with. He stated our responsibility is for starting the process of transformation. What happens after that isn’t our concern.  I argued our goal is to help our clients and students see the world in a different way and there may come a time when the person we’re working with has an “aha!” moment which could completely change him or her, often with great disruption and not a little bit of pain. Shouldn’t we be there, especially since we know the likelihood of what might happen next? He still said no.  I disagreed and I still disagree.

Let me use myself as an example. While in college, my Black roommate left a book she was reading for a class on the Harlem Renaissance on a table. I picked it up and was, in turn, enthralled and enraged.  I’ve always loved good literature and I found myself holding an anthology of amazing writing. Then I realized, not only had I not heard of the author I was reading, but I hadn’t heard of any of the authors in the book. How could this be?  I went to excellent schools and read all the time, yet I’d never heard of these men and women.  I was angry, thinking, “If I didn’t know about these writers, what else don’t I know? What else has been hidden from me?” Exploring the answer to those questions changed my world because I began to believe that my entire life was filled with lies about history, literature, government … just about everything. I “discovered” the contributions and work of hundreds of People of Color who altered our country every bit as much as Betsy Ross or Ernest Hemmingway. My worldview changed, and in doing so, so did my life. I found myself between two worlds. I no longer belonged to my former life, but I hadn’t yet discovered friends, colleagues or support in a new one. 

Something similar happened to a physician I knew who realized, after a revealing conversation with his daughters, that the women in his life believed he was terribly sexist. It started a long transformative process. At the time this process started, he was already a well established, nationally known entity, but even for him, colleagues abandoned him, doors closed and opportunities were lost. Some friends turned on him. People questioned his integrity. Because he was who he was, both as a person and professionally, he continued his journey, ultimately winning a national award for his support of women. But what if he had been younger, someone starting out in the field?  What repercussions could his decision have had?

Whenever someone’s worldview changes, they are subjected to what I call “The Mobile Effect.” Think of a mobile over a baby’s bed.  If you hit one part of it, the entire thing shakes. People’s lives are like that mobile. They are a fragile, intertwined network of friends, family, community, beliefs and values. When we work with someone to help them understand that “getting down to business” isn’t necessarily the most effective way to interact with a businessman from Spain. Or that yes, there is such a thing as racial profiling. Or that wearing hijab is often a preference, we are asking that person to question his or her beliefs and behaviors.  In a conversation with me, Lee Mun Wah likened that to asking someone to jump over a chasm without them knowing what’s on the other side.  As professionals, we know because we’ve done it. We know the dangers and the benefits.  But our clients and students have no idea.  They are going into this process blind, trusting us.  As professionals we understand that once a person starts to realize that there are millions of Muslim women who don’t see wearing hajib as a form of oppression, that person may start to look at Islam differently.  If he or she does that, they may start to change their opinions and feelings about many things. And then what happens? If their friends believe that hajib is oppression, but they see that as religious expression, or no different from a nun’s habit, what happens to their relationships?  We as professionals know that process. But those we work with don’t.

So the question remains.  Do we have a responsibility to be there emotionally or psychologically for those people we work with when we do intercultural work?  Our jobs are culture, not psyche. And maybe this is what the expert I questioned was saying.  People’s psychological health is not our business.  But I can’t help thinking about a tragic story I heard at the Denver SIETAR conference where a poorly training Japanese businessman committed suicide because he didn’t understand how U.S. business works and, in his mind, shamed his company and country. That is an extreme example. But, as interculturalists when we know our work could potentially put someone in the “mobile effect” don’t we have some responsibility to them? And if we really want people to change, to be more competent, doesn’t it behoove us to not just walk away and let them fend for themselves?  Afterall, given the choice between everything I know and believe and changing for some reason I don’t fully understand yet, how many of us would be willing to change? Interculturalists know what’s on the other side of that chasm.  We know the territory as one is leaping. Shouldn’t we figure out how to stay with the jumpers, mid-leap, until they join us on the other side?


Deborah Orlowski, Ph.D. is the Senior Learning Specialist at Human Resource Development at the University of Michigan.  Her areas of expertise include: conflict resolution, improving communication and teamwork, leadership development, and personal styles identification. In the past she served as a faculty member in the off-campus program at Central Michigan University, teaching a graduate level class, Multiculturalism and Diversity in the Workplace and undergraduate level Women and Politics.  A graduate of Wayne State University’s Multicultural Experiences in Leadership Development (MELD) program and New Detroit’s Cultural Immersion program, she holds a B.A. in sociology from the University of Michigan, an M.P.A. from Eastern Michigan University and a Ph.D from the California Institute of Integral Studies.  She is a member of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR); the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) and sits on the board of Jazzistry, a music/history educational program.

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