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Challenges of Intercultural Relationships

For many, establishing relationships with persons from cultures different from ourselves can be challenging. One of the challenges is learning new customs and traditions. This can be a fun and exciting experience to have because you are learning something new about another member of the world. A second challenge of relating with persons different from us is identifying fears, prejudices, and stereotypes that not only guide our social interactions and contribute to misinformation about members of various cultural groups, but help to perpetuate various social inequities. In order to help you gain a better understanding of what to expect when interacting with persons that are culturally different from yourself, we have provided some information about typical reactions among students who pursue relationships with persons different from themselves (Bourassa, 1991). While the following information can not be generalized to all students, it is our hope that you can see some of yourself and your experiences in the following information, know that you are not alone in your experiences, and feel encouraged in your efforts to make personal changes.

Uncertainty and Confusion
It is common for many students who represent the majority culture (i.e., whites, heterosexuals, Christians) to feel uncertain about how to interpret and respond to the attitudes and behaviors of some students who are culturally different. For example, white students' offers to help or get to know students of color are often met with suspicion and anger. A similar reaction can be observed among members of the gay and lesbian community who are approached by heterosexuals wanting to assist with advancing the rights of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Understanding the historical legacy of a particular minority group in this country and being persistent are two approaches that will help alleviate the confusion.

Fear and Discomfort
Many students may feel awkward and uncomfortable interacting with persons from different cultural groups because of limited exposure to members of those groups. Those students who do interact with persons from different cultures may find themselves outside of their comfort zone. Clearly it's easier to interact with persons from your own cultural group because that is most familiar to you. Other contributors to the feeling of discomfort typically revolve around doing or saying the "wrong" thing and being labeled a racist, sexist, homophobe, etc... Exploring the source of the discomfort with trusted others and recognizing that the intensity of the discomfort will eventually subside could help you to deal with it.

Misunderstanding and Denial
Many students have preconceived notions about members of other groups. This in and of itself is not as problematic as rigidly holding on to those notions. When students aren't open to exploring their beliefs about another cultural group, misunderstandings will eventually occur. For example, students who deny the existence of discrimination often have a limited understanding of its nature and the effects it has on its intended targets. Thus, when derogatory jokes are made about a particular group of people it is dismissed as harmless by those same persons while the victims experience them as painful. A willingness to be open to the perspectives of others and a sincere attempt to empathize with the experiences of others can prevent most misunderstandings before they happen.

Being a Cultural Ally
Students who are actively exploring their own prejudices and stereotypes, consistently engage in activities that challenge the assumptions and information they have about others, and are forming alliances with culturally different groups to eliminate the various forms of discrimination that exist are cultural allies. These students may become frustrated with their peers who do not share the same beliefs and commitment to activism as themselves. They may feel alienated and ostracized by members of their own cultural group because they are perceived as "traitors." They may also feel that their efforts are unappreciated by members of minority groups. Being a cultural ally is a challenging role. If you choose to take on this role, you should expect to experience discontent from a variety of sources, but don't feel discouraged. While being a cultural ally is hard work with few rewards, those rewards are invaluable.