Written by rohithamruthur@gmail.com

Cultural Literacy vs. Cultural Sensitivity

Many people in this day and age preach cultural sensitivity and even have seminars, courses, and workshops dedicated to teaching this matter. They believe that through preaching this idea, people will become more sensitive and realize that we are different but that in the end, we are all still human beings. Plenty of efforts all over the world are directed toward this idea. However, when people hear that their workplace is mandating attendance at a cultural sensitivity workshop coming up, many people roll their eyes.

The Lost Geographer preaches cultural literacy. What is cultural literacy? What is the difference? Is one better than the other? Let us find out.

Cultural Sensitivity

Looking at the dictionary definition of the word sensitivity taken from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, we get that it refers to “an awareness and understanding of the feelings of other people”. It means that you are aware and understand that other people are different. This isn’t news to anybody. We are all unique human beings coming from unique cultures. That is a well-known fact. Of course we are going to feel differently about different things.

Through mere awareness and understanding, cultural sensitivity unintentionally states that we must be simply tolerant of others and tolerate their different behavior, as if they are some sort of inferior group of people. It basically implies that “these people are less than us, but it’s not their own fault, so just tolerate their behavior and be sensitive toward them.” This is a subconscious thought, nobody would outright say this. But this is the underlying idea behind cultural sensitivity.

Cultural Literacy

What is the dictionary definition of literacy? Literacy is “knowledge that relates to a specified subject.” It is a deep comprehension. When you are literate, you know about the subject. You are well-versed in it. You wanted to know about it. That’s why you went out and learned about it. It is a part of your daily life and you use what you know from this subject and can apply it to tasks in your life. And humans have an endless thirst for knowledge. Nobody is ever fully culturally literate – this implies that he or she knows everything which, as we know, is impossible no matter how highly you regard yourself. However, it is a goal we can work toward and you continue to build your knowledge base when you follow the path of cultural literacy.

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The Clear Winner

Cultural sensitivity, though its intentions are good, refers to haphazard interactions with others. As mentioned above, this assumes that the other groups are inferior and therefore you must be simply sensitive rather than curious in dealing with them. A lot of it is common sense and does not dive deep into the idea of understanding why and how there are differences between cultures rather than simply knowing that there are differences.

Cultural literacy refers to a never-ending process that can bring out benefits that many people are not aware of. Being culturally literate means that you are willing to learn about the culture and are genuinely interested. It shows a respect for the other culture as if they are on the same level as you.

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If you simply tolerate somebody, they can see it and will not go out of their way to get to know you. They might even manipulate you into doing things for them due to the guilt associated with not being “sensitive”. They always have the option of making you guilty because you were told it was “wrong” to make this person unhappy, even if what they were asking for was totally unreasonable and outlandish.

Instead, if you are culturally literate and truly interested in what this group of people have to say, then there is a very good chance that they will return the favor. By seeing that you are truly interested in them, they will want to know more about you and your way of life. It’s simple human nature and psychology. This is true open-mindedness. Neither party has any preconceived notions, they just open up their mind and let the information and knowledge flow through.

Maybe these cultural sensitivity workshops should be re-branded as cultural literacy workshops, yes?

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