Courageous Ignorance

Why defend my multicultural credentials? Because it justifies my most important recommendation: Ask.

Accidental Learning

Asking about another person’s experiences is the first essential step toward preventing prejudice and racism. If we assume, based only on what we see, that another person’s perspective is limited or predictable, then we have created a problem where there wasn’t one. If, on the other hand, we have the courage to recognize our own ignorance, to remind ourselves that we must ask, “What is this like for you?” then we have created an opportunity for boosting our multicultural IQ.

One of the most beautiful learning experiences of this type that I ever witnessed was serendipitous. Camp professionals are trained to engineer social connections, but this one just happened. It was

Sometimes, the most effective leadership is the one that gets out of the way.  © Can Stock Photo Inc. / monkeybusiness

Sometimes, the most effective leadership is the one that gets out of the way.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / monkeybusiness

during a rest hour in my second summer as a full-fledged cabin leader. I asked my group of 12-year-olds to be in their bunk beds and quiet. They and I all needed some sleep. (At least I did.) The cabin was hot and stuffy on that early July day … and as I began to drift off, I heard singing. No, not singing, exactly. More like chanting.

As a YMCA camp, Belknap is Christian in its orientation, but with 30 percent of the campers being Jewish, we put the “Judeo” in the Y’s Judeo-Christian value proposition. (By the way, 40 percent of our campers identify as Christian, and the remaining 30 percent say they are not religiously affiliated.) In any case, I knew enough to realize that one of the campers, Noah, was chanting his Torah reading for his Bar Mitzvah.

I thought about asking Noah to be quiet, but the heat and my drowsiness left me feeling paralyzed, which was a good thing because just then another boy, Jed, asked Noah what he was reading. Noah went on to explain his text, what a Bar Mitzvah was, and why it was important to him. His obvious dedication, combined with his scintillating discussion of the party component (with plenty of money, girls, and presents) had the entire cabin ready to convert to Judaism.

Asking Matters

When I finally did summon the energy to roll over and prop myself up on an elbow, I was amazed at what I saw. The eight other boys were huddled around Noah, full of questions and their own comments about their religious backgrounds or lack thereof. The discussion wandered from Judaism and Noah’s Bar Mitzvah to Christianity and the birch cross in the outdoor chapel at camp. One boy, Scott, even admitted that he didn’t know what Easter was supposed to celebrate, besides chocolate bunnies and jellybeans. A few other boys stared at him, incredulous. “Well,” he probed, “is someone going to tell me or not? It can’t just be about candy. We already have Halloween … and that can’t be a religious holiday.”

I found myself wondering how poorly this discussion on comparative religions might have gone if I had suggested something different besides “In your bunk beds and quiet” for rest hour. What if I had said, “Today for rest hour, we are going to talk about our religious heritage and any questions we have about religious holidays”? Sometimes, the most effective leadership is the one that gets out of the way. I was suddenly grateful that I hadn’t shushed Noah when I heard him starting to chant.

What promoted understanding in my cabin during the summer of 1987 is the same approach that has always promoted understanding: courageous ignorance. One person—previously, Jed—needs to be  brave enough to admit he or she doesn’t  know everything about another person’s experience. The courageously ignorant person then needs to ask, “What is this like for you?” or “What does this mean for you?” or “What is important about this for you?” or “What is your experience of this like?”

In Noah’s case, he might have suffered some form of racial microaggression if Jed had asked, “What’s that weird stuff you’re singing?” Implication: What you’re saying is not mainstream or familiar to me, and so it must be inferior or bad.

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