Monday, March 2, 2009

Cultural Issues and Law Enforcement

I enjoy teaching. I have always believed that teaching is my calling. In the last few years, I have discovered the joy of teaching outside the classroom, through participating in community events and giving talks, particularly on cultural issues relating to Africans and Americans.

I speak to various gatherings and individuals, and the circle of my connections is growing all the time. Each invitation to speak gives me a chance to harness my knowledge and direct it to the needs of that particular occasion. Each invitation is a new challenge, which, nevertheless, I always welcome as an opportunity.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Faribault Correctional Facility. I am a member of the board of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, and I regularly talk about the differences between African and American culture. Faribault, like many other cities across the USA, is dealing with an influx of immigrants and refugees from such places as Somalia, Sudan, and Central America. Inevitably, numerous cultural issues crop up.

So, on February 26, I went to the Faribault Correctional Facility. The conference room was full of officers, staff, and other people. I started by outlining my view of the importance of understanding cultural differences, not only in order to broaden our knowledge of other cultures but also for our own survival and success in a world which is becoming increasingly interconnected--the proverbial global village.

I then dwelt on specific cultural issues that relate to law enforcement in a town such as Faribault. As a member of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, I am aware of the cultural issues facing that city. I find it easy to talk about the differences between African and American culture. I simply draw from my book and other writings.

The most interesting challenge, in my view, is how a law enforcement officer should deal with people who, acting in ways that are appropriate from their cultural standpoint, unwittingly end up violating American laws. I stressed the need for education. Newcomers should learn and follow the laws of the customs of the host country. Law enforcement personnel should also study the values of the newcomers, in order to have an accurate view of why they communicate, think, feel, act and behave the way they do. That, I argued, will save everyone from a lot of frustration, bad feelings, stress and other problems.


Jeff Msangi said...

I completely agree with you.We all must learn about other people's culture and vice versa.

I just wish you could have told us more about how this presentation went,the reactions from your audience and if there was a time for Q and As then some of that as well.Thanks

Mbele said...

You are right, Jeff, to mention that it would have been a good idea to share a little of what transpired.

I started with the premise that the culture we grow up in shapes our mindset and our view of the world. The way we do things in our culture seems normal to us, like walking. We define good behaviour, bad behaviour, respect and so on, using that cultural framework. This is true whether we are African, American, or Chinese.

The trouble starts when we go to another culture or when we encounter people of another culture. We all fall in the danger of looking at their ways and judging them as bad, offensive, disrespectful, funny, and so on. Other people are likely to make the same judgements about us.

So, we need to educate ourselves about others and they need to educate themselves about us. We cannot escape this, with the world rapidly becoming a global village. We are going to be bumping into one another all the time, wherever we are in the world, even in our home country or hometown.

In a typical American town or community, with an influx of, say, Latin American, East European, Asian, or African immigrants, such problems occur all the time. The Africans, typically, like to congregate anywhere and talk, even in the middle of the street, and even on what Americans call sidewalks. In Africa, this is just normal and we don't even think about it. In fact, being out there, in such a group, shows you are a good person.

But Americans complain when people block the sidewalk. They call the police. Now you can imagine: you are the police officer and you come to this group of Africans with the idea that they are breaking the law, while the Africans have no idea that they are doing anything wrong.

I gave such real-life situations, which are happening in the USA. My message was that the immigrants need to know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the host culture, and the locals also need to understand the foreigners. I told the police officers that such knowledge might save them a lot of stress as well, as they go about their daily duties. Education is the best way to deal with newcomers into a culture. After all, generally speaking, immigrants want to succeed--not to get into trouble--in their adopted country,

As you might suspect, I based my presentation on my articles and my book. I ranged widely, talking about such issues as the different ways children are raised in Africa compared to America. That is a big issue, since Americans think about supervising children, while back in Africa children are more free to run around.

We had many questions and answers. One of these centered around the issue of recruiting police officers from the ranks of the immigrants. I thought this would be a good idea, to help bridge the cultural divide.

The meeting lasted two hours and we covered a lot of ground. I cannot possibly write about it all here.

I felt, throughout, that the audience greatly appreciated it all. I also got, several days later, a note from the organizer, conveying the appreciation of the people who attended.