Teaching Cultural Empathy: Stereotypes, World Views and Cultural Difference

By Seth Dixon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Geography, Rhode Island College

Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”
—Amartya Sen

I am torn about how to teach these two ideas about cultures and societies all around the world:

  1. People and cultures are different all over the world.
  2. People and cultures are the same all over the world.

These points may seem like a contradiction, but when put into proper context they teach important truths about culture. There is great richness and diversity to the languages, religions, food systems and other customs around the world. The world is often referred to as a great tapestry or mosaic, where the details are integral parts of making a much greater, beautiful work of art. People around the world are all different.

And yet, despite the cultural differences, most students can identify common societal traits that are a part of the human experience. Although English and Igbo (a language used in West Africa) sound radically different, they are both used to share messages of love and friendship on the one hand, and to debate and deceive on the other. Societies all around the world have people who are working to feed their families, finding new ways to make money, are excited to get new clothes, and just want to be happy in their own community. People around the world are all the same.

Teaching these ideas in tandem helps students appreciate the diversity of cultures in the world and also see the common threads of humanity.

The Middle East is often portrayed in the news as distinctly different, exotic, and “other”—culturally incomprehensible to Western sensibilities. In particular, movies, video games, and TV shows disproportionately portray Muslims as the enemy, the terrorist, or the villain. If students don’t know anything else about a region, it is easy to see how they might stereotype the people who live there based on the scant pieces of information they have.

A Muslim child: do you see the differences from children in your region?  Do you see the similarities?

A Muslim child: how is his life different from that of kids in your neighborhood?  How is his life just like that of in your city? Photo by Damien Halleux Radermecker CC BY-SA 3.0

So how can we, as educators, help student relate to the lives of people from other regions, religions, or ethnic groups? How can we help our students relate to people from other places, who speak other languages and adhere to a different religious creed than their own? One resource that I’ve found to be helpful is this video which shows common threads of the human experience, while also highlighting some of the regional peculiarities.

In 2013, I learned about a TV series that can help to teach these concepts.  Pakistan has a new animated TV series called the Burka Avenger (listen to this NPR podcast for an overview); some are hailing the Burka Avenger as Pakistan’s answer to Wonder Woman, fighting for the rights of the oppressed. There has also been a lot of criticism concerning the role of the burka juxtaposed with the role of a heroine. For many, the burka is seen as a symbol of female oppression. These critics think that a heroine shouldn’t be donning the clothing of the oppressed. (My personal opinion is that it’s the logical masked outfit for a female superhero trying to be incognito in the tribal villages of Pakistan).

I find this pairing of traditional gender norms and clothing, coupled with pop culture’s superhero motifs, to be a fantastic demonstration of how cultures mesh together. Globalization doesn’t mean all cultures are the same; we often see highly localized and distinct regional twists on global themes. While sharing context about the challenges and differences might seem incredibly foreign, telling the story in a popular medium makes their issues easier to relate to.

This TED talk is another resource to use to help students relate more to people from other places. This video cleverly discusses the cultural processes of globalization by examining two examples from the Islamic world (read transcript here). The examples of the TV station 4Shbab and the comic book series The 99 show that all global cultural interactions don’t have to result in a homogenous “melting pot.” Local cultures are becoming influenced more and more by global forces; this serves as an opportunity to let our students relate more to the people from other places.

So often our perspective—the way that we think about the world and organize spatial information—shapes what we think is reality. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, just because one thing is true (in a certain context) doesn’t mean that the opposite isn’t also true.

Still confused? Watch the first minute of this clip:

Questions to Ponder:

What does the speaker in the TED talk mean when she refers to cultural interactions as a mesh (as opposed to a clash or mash) of civilizations?

What other examples of cultural meshes can you think of?

What are some examples of how our cultural framework shapes how we see the world?

More Resources from National Geographic Education

Explorer Profile: Aziz Abu Sarah, peace activist, is working to create bridges between Israelis and Palestinians.

Collection: JERUSALEM Discover why this tiny piece of land is sacred to three major religions through the stories of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families who call Jerusalem home.

Find Seth on social using @ProfessorDixon. Each week, we’ll be featuring his latest ideas on this blog as well as on @NatGeoEducation.

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