We saw 2020 challenge us by reflecting on how we do many things.

We became more cautious for our loved ones. Saw how scary wildfires can be. Suffered setbacks on our career paths. Most notably, we witnessed the prejudice that still lives in our society. The death of George Floyd and many others during the year demonstrated a broken system that needs to reevaluate, step up and have more cultural awareness.

Getting to the basics

The United States has always been looked at as the land of opportunity.  For years, people from different walks of life have come to make significant contributions to society and for themselves.  However, we have seen time and time again conflicts arise due to a fear of what we do not know. From the early days of US history dating back to slavery and segregation, to modern day killings by police and separations of refugee children from their parents. It seems this mindset still takes hold on communities that are already underprivileged.

There have been efforts made to improve and educate us as a society on how to be more knowledgeable, understanding, and accepting. From education and recreation to career and traveling outside one’s zip code, many aspects of our lives are looking to reach a state where one can be more empathetic of where we each come from.  This causes us to become less judgmental and more genuinely interested in getting to know each other better.

As diverse as our country is, we remain fearful of others because we do not allow ourselves to be exposed to outside of what we know or have been brought up with.  By following this pattern of behavior we rob ourselves of the beauty and lessons learned that other cultures can teach us – sometimes in our own backyard.

The importance of Cultural Awareness

When one thinks of cultural awareness, they usually assume it is simply knowing where someone else was born and raised or what their racial background is. But, it is much more than that.  Cultural awareness stems from cultural knowledge. This is knowing about some characteristics, history, values, beliefs and behaviors of another ethnic or cultural group. When we begin gaining this knowledge is when awareness occurs. This awareness is a deeper form of how we understand other groups, where we are open to changing cultural ideas and attitudes. 

In the workplace we are seeing more and more organizations striving to achieve cultural competence. Not only are people starting to be culturally aware, but are becoming sensitive to the differences that exist between cultures without assigning judgment towards them. In doing so, they reach this level of competence that actually works to build better outcomes in all scenarios, both professional and personal.

As someone who is the son of an immigrant parent, I was brought up to welcome diversity and see its benefit.

Even within our country it is not hard to find pockets of different subcultures. I have family members throughout California, and now in the Midwest and the South. Each time I have traveled to see them I was immersed in a lifestyle and attitude that was different from what I was used to.  Did it feel uncomfortable? You bet it did. Did I feel outside my comfort zone? Definitely.  However, it is through these experiences that I grow as a person. I expand from what I know and welcome someone else’s ideas and philosophies into my life. 

When I was completing my post-bacc diploma program at UCLA, three-fourths of my cohort were international students.

I was beyond excited and I couldn’t help myself from asking them questions. I wanted to gain insights on their perspective from where they grew up and life here in the States. Other students in the program, although Americans, were transplants to Los Angeles from all over the country. My interest in learning about their upbringing was just as energized. I cherished the times we all got to meet up for local coffee and happy hours. We would have in depth conversations discussing their attitudes toward daily aspects of life. It could be be on education, love, wellness, hospitality or ambition.  Each conversation I learned something new about another part of the world, creating a greater sense of awareness and curiosity.  Being aware of life through other’s eyes instills a centeredness that boosts tolerance, social capital, and confidence.

What many fail to understand is that by being open-minded and inclusive you learn important life lessons that may benefit you in the process. I’m not saying you have to have people in your circle that do not support your growth. Rather, to become genuinely curious about each other’s backgrounds. They say if you want to come across as interesting, be interested in others.

Where we can go from here

We have seen the harsh reality that division lies steadily in the fabric of our society. As disappointing as it may be, we also see more and more engaged citizens looking to do better. Social media, when done right, is a powerful tool that can gather kindness, compassion and empathy to make a difference. It has helped a 15 year-old girl with Asperger syndrome from Sweden become the climate activist of this generation. It has helped organize the largest rally for racial equality with the BLM movement. 

The American experience means many things to many people. Everyone has a right to express their view on what it means to them, so long as it preserves another person’s integrity, safety and well-being. Instead of sticking to what you know and allowing conflict with others who may look, sound or dress differently than you, be open to the possibilities each person can bring.

We all have circumstances that develop us. Maybe a father of four is working 2 jobs; not because he did not see the importance of getting an education. But, because he didn’t have the support to get started in the first place and put the needs of family before his own. Maybe the Midwest farmer sounds a little different when they speak, but that does not mean they are less capable or intelligent than the next person. And maybe the Hispanic kid who likes to surf does so because he simply enjoyed summers by the beach.

As we look to become more culturally aware in a post-2020 world, we are reminded this can be practiced wherever we are.

Culture is defined as the shared traits, beliefs and norms of a group.  Let us reflect and learn how to appreciate the diverse talents, beauty and purpose each one of us brings to the table. Talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to. Listen to music you don’t usually listen to. Read about a topic that you don’t know anything about.  Taste a food you have never tried before.  It’s what can lead to successful businesses, beautiful friendships, and everlasting romances.  As we continue picking up the pieces in 2021, let’s be aware and united once again.


Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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