By Roxanne Dube
I used to think that I knew how to engage with different cultures and races. Although raised in a pure laine French Canadian family in rural Quebec, I had convinced myself after years as a Canadian diplomat and as the loving mother of two mixed-raced Black boys, that I had cracked the nut. After all, I was a respectful, senior official who, surely, had climbed the ladder because I had a good judgment, knew how to engage with people, how to shift perspectives, how to adapt behaviour. Prejudices, biases, or worse, racism, were mostly with others, individualized in those I would see from time to time making ill-considered remarks or taking overtly discriminatory actions. Not in me.
That comforting internal narrative came to a crashing end on March 30th, 2015. On that fatal day, Jean, my 18-year-old son, was killed in Miami while attempting to steal marijuana. Near the scene, my other son, Marc, aged just 15, was arrested and charged with murder as an accomplice. It all happened only two months after we had moved from Ottawa to Miami where I had been appointed Canada’s Consul General in Florida.
When I asked myself how we got there, I was flabbergasted by my discoveries. The examination of my blind spots as a parent first and foremost, and then as a White parent of mixed-raced children, overwhelmed me. I had to contend with the painful fact that I had seen my boys as Oreo cookies, Black on the outside and White, like me, on the inside. After all, they were my sons, they had the same opportunities.
It did not take long for me to appreciate how delicate and critically important my mission in life had become. Connecting with my surviving son Marc – let alone saving him from years in prison — was now a question of life or death. I had lost Jean in part because I had not seen him for all that he was. It was now essential that I find the path to see Marc.
I became a student again and reviewed the work of American intercultural communication authors and researchers Milton Bennett and Mitch Hammer on intercultural development and with the support of DiversiPro, I found a path.
Through Hammer’s and Bennett’s profound understanding on how to acquire an inside-in and inside-out capability to shift perspective and adapt behaviour to cultural, racial differences and commonalities, I progressively – albeit painfully at the beginning – placed an unwavering attention to how I related to others, and not to how others related to me. It began with my relationship with my sons and then extended to other people different than me in general.
Eventually, I came to see the four looks that had shaped and distorted my view until then:
- Overly confident, I had looked at myself as having gotten to where I was as a professional because of hard work, being largely oblivious to the many invisible forces that had favored me and the likes of me, White women, along the way. My sympathy was mostly with me.
- Through revealing tests, I discovered that I was looking at others different than me with biases and prejudices, some conscious, some unconscious. All worth identifying.
- Through conversations with my son Marc, I had to admit that I had paid no attention to how these two looks – the one I gave to myself and the one I gave to others different than me, including those of his race – had contributed to make those different than me (who received these looks), feel alienated, othered, and with few levers to shake off this situation.
- Finally, I did not see the true difference in persons different than me – notably my sons. I was so inclined to find commonalities between my own experience and them and their actions that I missed those differences. Those who got along to get along with me, who made every effort to see the world through my eyes, and minimized their own experiences and differences, those are the ones I saw and welcomed more readily in my circle.
Underestimating how much my cultural background and race had influenced me, recognizing that I had not, to this point, been as interested in the cultural values and expectations of others as I thought, not knowing how to be tolerant of other cultures and stay true to my own values, I had navigated the world around me by being aloof, entitled, and judgemental to a degree – all under the cover of a well-behaved, seemingly engaging demeanor.
No wonder that Marc eventually told me: “You would not have understood Mom. You were in your White world.”
I was not alone in my obliviousness. Far from it. Research shows that most of us believe we are better at intercultural relationships than we are. Neurological research also shows that the more power we have, the less empathy towards others we tend to have.
As I became more self-aware of my own values and beliefs, I also applied myself to genuinely see the difference in others. It did not take long for me to appreciate that my narrative needed to open space for others, often marginalized, to re-shape the social discourse on race, on inclusion. The unpacking of the four looks and the intentional engagement with others different than me eventually revealed the path for an authentic connection with Marc, now a thriving young father and university-educated professional.
I am no longer afraid to navigate the intercultural journey, to say the wrong thing, to take the wrong decision, to take risks or to make it about me. In brief, I feel better equipped to engage with the rich diversity around me and to advance substantive equality.
It is a journey most empowering, especially when you thought as I did, that you had lost it all.
Roxanne Dubé is the author of Understanding at Last, a memoir published in December 2023 on the 2015 tragedy and her quest for meaning. An associate with DiversiPro, she is a former ambassador and the former dean of the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, the training arm of Canadian diplomats. She holds multiple international and national certifications in intercultural competence. Her book is available on Amazon.