two girls of different nationality | cultural insensitivity

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—Bethany C.*, University of Hawaii at Manoa

We all know the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But sometimes words do hurt, and it can be hard to know how to handle that.

When someone insults your culture, the initial response is often to lash out in anger. I know it hurts—I’ve also personally had cultural insults thrown my way. But the best way to manage ignorance is to rise above it.

Some people say ignorant things about other cultures because they lack information about people who come from a different background than them. They simply don’t know better. Others know what they’re doing and want to cause harm to you. Either way, showing grace is the answer. 

How to show grace in the face of hurtful comments

One option is to not say anything or respond in any way to the insult and the insulter. Simply walk away. This may be most appropriate when you don’t know the person and will never see or hear from them again.

If this is someone you know or will have to interact with again, consider talking to them about the insult. If you’re able to stay calm, you can tell the person that what they said was offensive and you want them to stop. If they’re open to it, you can try explaining the reasons behind why it’s insulting, but in my experience, trying to educate them isn’t always worth it (and it’s not your job). Simply tell them you don’t want them to do it again. If that feels too uncomfortable, you can have a friend speak with them who can be a neutral ally to explain to the person that their actions are hurtful and kindly ask them to stop.

Most importantly, try not to let the insults get to you. Don’t take it personally and never, ever start to believe anything that they say. You know your culture and all the wonderful things it stands for, and that’s the most important thing that matters.

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