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Who Are You?

By DR. JAMES CALLEROZ WHITE
Head of Louisville Collegiate School
Your Voice Contributor 

This past weekend I had the opportunity to host a seminar on inclusion and cultural competency as it pertains to working with students in schools. One of the goals of the seminar was for us to get to know ourselves because, as the seminar’s leaders put it, “It is very difficult to start the process of getting to know and understand others if you do not first spend some time getting to know yourself.”

We did an exercise in which we were asked the same question over and over again, but we had to give different and more specific answers each time. The question was simple, “Who are you?” The answers came more slowly and became progressively more complex. Beginning with roles, I am male, I am African American, I am a father, husband, brother, uncle, son, but I am also a first-generation college graduate, an educator who loves the work,  an athlete (defined more liberally than when I was in my teens and 20s). I love to laugh, I am competitive, and I value people who are direct and tell the truth.

So why was this exercise so profound for me? It caused me to examine how I sometimes make assumptions based on superficial observations. The proverbial “tip of the iceberg” is where most of our interactions, assumptions and, at times, prejudices find their beginnings. If we are not careful and thoughtful about our interactions, assumptions and prejudices, we may find ourselves missing out on the very best part of who people actually are. The deepest understanding of who people are lies beneath the observable part of the iceberg.

We make similar assumptions based on glib observations of places, too. I heard a lot about West Louisville when I first came to town. Had I allowed my thoughts and actions to be influenced by what I had heard, I would have missed out on what was underneath the surface of the iceberg. The history of West Louisville is a virtual who’s who of influential individuals and families that have shaped the economic, social and political landscape of this wonderful city. The things that I was told about West Louisville were just the tip of the iceberg, but the true beauty of West Louisville is well below the surface. I have not been here long enough to be swayed by the news reports, and so maybe I am naïve. But I would like to think that it is just my way of asking West Louisville, “Who are you?,” and allowing room for the answer to be more than what I was told and certainly more than what many expect.

Looking below the surface and beyond our initial assumptions does not always come naturally or easily. It is much easier to make a quick judgment than to take the time to see more deeply and for yourself. That whole “do not judge a book by its cover” axiom, while simplistic, is pretty sound thinking. It is much harder to talk badly about a person or place if you have taken the time to examine it more deeply and begin to feel the connection that comes with understanding. We need to ask “Who are you?” and to wait patiently with an open mind and listening ears to the answer because in doing this, if we are lucky, we might just learn something about ourselves.