On the sunny afternoon of Sept. 16, students and faculty gathered in the Sykes Student Union Theater at West Chester University to hear a 2 p.m. lecture given by Dr. Maura Cullen, author, diversity consultant and speaker for over 500 universities and organizations.
Since graduating with a degree in Social Justice and Diversity Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1995, Dr. Cullen has garnered 30 years of experience simplifying the complex issues of diversity in an entertaining and educational manner with her dynamic seminars, workshops, and speaking engagements.
During her lecture entitled “35 Things Well-Intended People Say That Widen the Diversity Gap,” Dr. Cullen discussed, among many things: diversity, the importance of thinking before you speak, and how to engage in dialogue with those different from yourself.
Dr. Cullen’s highly-acclaimed book, “35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say: Surprising Things We Say That Widen The Diversity Gap,” formed the basis of her presentation.
The book’s central tenet is the notion of “intent versus impact” – a mainstay of intergroup dialogue.
While most of us are well intentioned in our interactions, at times we cannot perceive or understand the impact our words have on others.
Even with the best of intentions, we can and do end up harming others.
Despite the event’s small turnout, Cullen’s enthusiasm never wavered. She commenced the lecture with an energetic “good morning!” – challenging the audience to mirror her spirit. Cullen quickly delved into a small exercise that engaged the otherwise quiet audience.
“Think of a problem or challenge in your life. You don’t have to dig deep, just something simple. Share it with a stranger next to you. The only difference is, I want you to talk over each other as you speak. When you’re ready, share!”
After the growing tumultuousness of white noise mounted, Dr. Cullen interrupted, halting the audience’s clamor.
“How is this conversation like the conversations we have about diversity?” she asked.
Anonymous audience members loudly responded:
“It was awkward and uncomfortable!”
“I can’t hear what the other is saying!”
“We’re talking at each other, not with one another.”
Nodding her head, Cullen noted that sometimes we are unable to truly listen to the problems and perspectives of others because we are so wrapped up in ourselves, confined to see things only from our own point of view.
These interactive exercises of perspective were laced throughout Cullen’s talk to empirically illustrate her viewpoints on diversity.
The projected Powerpoint behind Cullen switched to a slide with the adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” written across.
She asked the audience if they agreed with the premise of this phrase before concluding herself that “words do hurt.”
In defense of her attitude coming off as “PC,” or politically correct, Dr. Cullen claimed that she simply doesn’t want to use words or make jokes that harm others.
“I cause enough unintentional harm already that I don’t need to do so on purpose.”
Cullen then proceeded to list the sorts of common phrases that would illicit said unintentional harm including “that’s so gay,” “that’s so retarded,” “I don’t see color,” “I know exactly how you feel,” and “some of my best friends are…” (fill in the blank). She recalled an anecdote to highlight the implicit problems within these phrases.
At a workshop Cullen headed many years back, a man of Middle Eastern descent spoke to the group about his disgruntlement regarding the extra screening he and his family often go through at airport security.
A white man responded, claiming that same thing occurs to him.
Although his intent was to empathize with the Middle Eastern man, Cullen asserts that this response served to nullify and devalue the other man’s oppression.
“Many of us go through extra screening. However, does that mean it’s for the same reasons, to the same frequency, of the same verocity? Maybe not… Do you see how intent is not as important as the impact?”
As the speech came to an end, Cullen turned focus to the more self-help oriented elements of her speech, focusing in on her idea of B.A.R (Breathe. Acknowledge. Focus).
Here, she advised how someone could handle their reaction to the accidental offenses previously listed.
Dr. Cullen suggested that, rather than automatically reacting with the anger you may feel towards any offending situation, instead consider the situation and reorient your feelings and the nature of your response.
To exemplify this notion, Cullen provided another anecdote of a man loudly proclaiming, during one of her workshops that Cullen is a sinner for being a lesbian.
Though insulting, Cullen attempted to establish common ground by responding, “although we couldn’t have more different opinions on this particular issue, there’s no reason we shouldn’t listen to one another.”
“The slightest thread of civility allows us to be connected. We can always at least be civil. It’s our best hope, a game changer. Practicing the principles of BAR has changed the quality of my life.”
The antithesis of “breathe, acknowledge, response” is “react, attack, breathe.”
According to Dr. Cullen, the latter is a defensive, egotistical action that only proves to make the conversations about yourself and not about attempting a proactive connection.
Cullen concluded her lecture with a final exercise.
She asked the audience to spin their fingers in a clockwise motion above their heads, then slowly lower their fingers until they were down by their sides.
In doing so, it appears as though the finger now twirls in the opposite direction, but nothing has actually changed besides a shift in perspective.
“It’s all about perspective,” Dr. Maura Cullen concluded.
“It never dawns on us that there’s more than one right way of seeing things.
The whole point, is for you to see as many different perspectives as possible to make connections.”
Dimitri Kandilanaftis is a third-year student majoring in communications with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at DK838967@wcupa.edu.