Mel Watkins, a former New York Times reporter, shared a childhood memory that illuminates the simplicity involved in and consequences of cultural misunderstandings:

“While in junior high school in Ohio, I was once caught snickering and whispering to the only other black student in the class about the teacher’s rigidly formal explanation of a spiritual that we knew in a much less formal manner (much better than he, we thought). In short time, we were loudly reprimanded. But despite trying to hold back our laughter, a minute or so afterward we were at it again. At this point, the teacher, scarlet with anger, approached and, menacingly pointing his finger toward me, screamed in his most outraged voice, “You know, you irk me!”choosing not to see

The word irk, of course, was not a common term in my working-class home. I had never heard it before, and certainly had never heard anyone express rage in such a curiously restrained manner. If he had shouted that he was ‘pissed off,” I might well have understood and responded accordingly with timidity. Instead, I immediately fell into a fit of laughter that overwhelmed any fear that I might have had of the adult authority figure before me. It was only later, when I had been expelled from the class and given a failing grade that I began to understand …” (On The Real Side 18).

Watkins story is a humorous yet painful exchange and represent how assumptions related to age, class and culture can cause a message to be misunderstood resulting in a questionable punishment and possibly ill feelings that transcended a classroom. This is a sample scenario that would be discussed during a training session. A discussion of the previous incident would require that participants adhere to the following rules, that are used during all trainings.

Abstract Butterflies


  • Respect the power of the word –thus respect what others have to say
  • All voices should be heard
  • All must participate in the activities
  • All must consciously listen when an individual speaks
  • Do not assume another’s intention
  • Only discuss one’s own experiences–it is unacceptable to hide behind what, an unknown, ‘they’ said
  • Our goal is that all participants understand the points being made

Note: understanding is not the same as agreeing or disagreeing with an issue.

 “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” –Psalm 119:130

Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994: 18.


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