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IV. Potential Cross-Cultural Pitfalls and Dangers

The key to progress toward adaptation of restorative justice frameworks is increased sensitivity to cross-cultural issues and dynamics that affect restorative justice programs and the administration of justice itself. Often the cultural backgrounds of victim, offender, and program staff member are different, and these differences can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings, or, worse, revictimization of the victim.

This document's opening scenario demonstrates a brief exchange between people of different cultural backgrounds that left each participant feeling misunderstood, dissatisfied, and doubtful of the mediation's efforts to "humanize" the justice system.

A great danger when speaking of cross-cultural aspects is overgeneralization. There are as many differences within cultures as between cultures. For example, significant customs, communication styles, and world views distinguish the rural White from the urban White, the upper-class Black from the lower-class Black, the Mexican Latino from the Puerto Rican Latino, the reservation American Indian from the nonreservation American Indian. Differences within cultures are discussed later in this section, but first we consider variations across cultures.

Differences between persons raised and living in unlike cultural settings are often reflected in communication styles, typically in the way points of view are communicated; consider the potential pitfalls in interpreting another's nonverbal communication. The following section draws considerably from research-based findings reported by D.W. Sue and D. Sue in Counseling the Culturally Different (1990).

Differences in Communication Styles

Proximity. Cultural experience may dictate how close to each other people stand when they converse. Generally, Latin Americans, Africans, Black Americans, Indonesians, Arabs, South Americans, and the French are more comfortable speaking with less distance between them than White Americans. In mediation or conversation, the White staff person is often seen backing away, possibly feeling confronted or attacked. The Latino victim will appear to be chasing the White American mediator across the room, believing the mediator to be aloof or thinking, "He believes he's too good for me." Both participants are misreading cues based on their cultural experiences and taking actions that will only reinforce misunderstandings. Another example of distance preference is the desire by many White Americans to keep a desk or table between themselves and the people they are talking to. In contrast, some Eskimos prefer sitting side by side when talking of intimate matters to sitting across from each other.

Body movements. Body movements often speak louder than words. Posture, smiling, eye contact, laughing, gestures, and many other movements communicate. How these nonverbal signals are interpreted may vary greatly from culture to culture. Asians may be puzzled and offended by a White mediator who wants to express herself with facial grimaces and smiles. The White mediator may conclude that the Asian, who has been taught to tightly control expressing his feelings, has no emotion. Thus, an individual raised to value control of emotions may not shed tears for having burgled a home but may be feeling remorse.

How many times have mental health professionals interpreted failure to make eye contact to mean avoidance of an issue, poor self-confidence, submissiveness, or guilt and shame? In many traditional American-Indian cultures it is disrespectful to look an elder in the eye. In the classroom, American-Indian students often fail to look at the professor when speaking; many prefer not to speak at all. Blacks make more frequent eye contact when speaking than when listening, which leads some practitioners to describe their Black clients as resistant or disinterested. Whites, on the other hand, tend to make eye contact more when listening than when speaking. It is not difficult to conclude that these variations in making eye contact may contribute to misunderstandings during mediation.

Paralanguage. Paralanguage or other vocal cues, such as hesitations, inflections, silences, volume or timbre of voice, and pace of speaking, also provide ample opportunities for misinterpretation across cultures. Rural Americans tend to talk at a slower pace than their urban counterparts. Put a Northern Minnesota farmer in the same room with a New York City taxicab driver and they may have difficulty having a conversation, not because they do not share common interests or are not curious about each other but because they do not have the patience to work at communicating. The New Yorker could feel that an eternity had gone by before the Minnesotan had completed a thought. The latter would have difficulty listening to the fast-paced patter of the former.

In American-Indian culture, silence is valued as sacred. Each person must have the opportunity to reflect, to translate thoughts into words, and to shape the words not only before taking a turn at speaking, but while speaking. White Americans often feel uncomfortable with silence. The French might regard silence as a sign of agreement. To an Asian, silence may be considered a token of respect or politeness.

Related somewhat to pace and silence is hesitation. For persons who speak rapidly and feel uncomfortable with silence, hesitation on the part of another is a cue to begin speaking. To the one who hesitates, such an action might be taken not as an interruption but as an intentional, grievous insult.

Asians are given to speaking softly; many find U.S. speakers to be brash and loud. Arabs, on the other hand, may find U.S. speakers to be soft-spoken. The Arab prefers a higher volume.

Persons of Asian descent may find U.S. Americans to be too direct, blunt, and frank. The former will go to great lengths not to hurt feelings; the latter is often unaware when feelings have been hurt.

Density of language. Density of language also differs among speakers from different cultural backgrounds. Blacks tend to be sparse and concise. Often, in exchanges among Blacks, many shared codes are used, requiring little further information. Even the simple phrase "uh, huh" is loaded with meaning when taken in the context of the social situation. To outsiders, Blacks may appear terse or disinterested. Asians and American Indians will often use many more words to say the same thing as their White colleagues. The poetry of the story may be more important than the content (and may actually be the point of the story). Much patience is required of Blacks and Whites to understand what is being said when conversing with American Indians or Asians. One can readily see potential communication problems that might arise in mediations involving members of different cultural groups.

Looking at these communication styles through a somewhat different lens, Sue and Sue (1990) regard American-Indian, Asian-American, and Hispanic manners of expression to be understated and indirect; the manner of Whites is considered objective and task-oriented; Blacks' manners are regarded as affective, emotional, and interpersonal. Blacks will interrupt or take a turn at speaking when they can. Whites will nod to indicate listening or agreement. American Indians and Asians seldom provide cues to encourage the speaker; they listen without significant nonverbal engagement.

Differences Among Cultures

In addition to the potential pitfalls based on different communication styles, other factors based on cultural differences cast a shadow over attempts to build restorative justice programs. For example, the dominant U.S. White culture may emphasize individualism, competition, taking action, rational linear thinking, and "Christian principles and a Protestant work ethic," but these are not values shared by all Whites, let alone persons of other cultures. Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians are likely to place more emphasis on the community fabric and kinship networks than on the place of the individual. American Indians further cherish the place of the individual within the context of the entire natural world, without which the individual has no value.

Persons from religious perspectives other than Christianity, which emphasizes "individual salvation," may see the individual as equal to all living things, as on a journey toward individual fulfillment, or even as insignificant in the total scheme of existence.

This is not to suggest that any one world view is the correct one. It is simply noting that differing world views often clash (too often literally in the case of wars) and may threaten to undermine attempts at repairing wrongs caused by crime.

Perhaps, broader than the scope of this work, it might be worthwhile to consider how the concept of justice varies across cultures. In traditional American-Indian culture, not only is the personal relation-ship damaged by criminal behavior but also the communal or tribal relationship, and likely even the relationship of the individual to the universe, is damaged, for violations within the tribal context may be regarded as a ripping of the fabric that holds everything together. How can restoration of justice be promoted without knowing how the various participants within a given conflict understand and value justice?

Differences Within Cultures

As noted above, significant dangers involved in discussing cross-cultural differences are overgeneralizing cultural differences and overlooking intracultural differences. It is important to recognize that subcultures exist within larger cultures. Some cultural characteristics may be shared by most Whites, yet Whites raised in poor, rural Appalachia may have different values, mannerisms, and communication patterns than Whites raised in San Francisco. Likewise, middle- and upper-class Blacks of Los Angeles will share certain characteristics with Blacks raised in the blighted areas of south Los Angeles, yet will vary considerably in values, mannerisms, and communication patterns. The same can be said of Asians raised in dense inner-city conclaves versus those who move to smalltown America, or of Utes raised on a reservation far from the urban world compared with Utes raised in the fast pace of a metropolis.

Race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, rural or urban residence, and many other defining characteristics shape how an individual views the world and his or her place in that world. These factors influence whether there is a propensity to blame the offender, the victim, or the community for crime and whether participants come to a "justice program" seeking revenge or repair, desiring to act or to be acted upon, or expecting hope or defeat.

Opportunities for restorative justice can only be enhanced when those who work in justice programs make the time and expend the energy to understand cultural differences and related communication problems.

Racism as a Subset of Cultural Conflict

While race and culture are intertwined, they are not one and the same. As indicated above, speech patterns, intensity of communication, interpretation of nonverbal cues, and many other nuances of interaction are influenced by the mix of race and culture. Although it would be a mistake, for example, to assume that Blacks from different social classes and different regions of the culture communicate and handle conflict in the same ways, the fact of being Black is likely a—if not the—key determining factor in how they perceive the world and how others perceive them.

The extent to which Blacks are aware of being overtly or covertly subjected to prejudice and discrimination because of the color of their skin influences their communication and efforts at conflict resolution with persons of other races. Previous experiences of individual or institutional racism affect the role Blacks play in any interaction: whether they are open or on guard, passive or aggressive.

The impact of racism is a potential contextual variable in restorative justice programs in which participants are of different races. Where there is an imbalance of political power associated with race, one may expect to find resources for schools, recreation, police, and so on to be weighted in favor of the group with the most political clout. In the United States, this often means that Whites have more resources, since representatives of their racial group are most often in positions of political power. It would be erroneous, however, to assume that there are not also consequences of racism felt in localities where, for example, Blacks have more political power than Hispanics, or Hispanics have more political power than American Indians, or Asians have more political power than Whites. Racism is not the prerogative of persons of only one skin color.

Staff, paid or volunteer, need to analyze closely their own behaviors to determine to what extent racism may be subtly apparent in their nonverbal behaviors or assumptions about the worlds of the victim and the offender. For example, do nonverbal actions such as folding one's arms, scooting a chair backward, or shuffling papers indicate discomfort and a desire to be somewhere else? Each of these behaviors may simply be an acceptable part of communication or they may be suggestive of prejudice. Do we assume that the American-Indian youth offender sitting before us comes from a broken family of alcoholics, is lazy, and has no goals? These descriptors may, in fact, describe a particular youth. But when they are assumed because of the youth's skin color, they represent a racist attitude. Actions taken based on those assumptions, such as withholding educational services because the youth is believed to be lazy or failing to acknowledge the strengths of the existing family structure because "it's not normal," are signs of racial discrimination.

Program staff must not only examine their own beliefs and actions, but also be alert to the embedded racial biases of offenders and victims. Racism may be a justification used by the offender for committing the crime. Racism may influence why the victim wants not an "ounce of flesh" but a "pound of flesh." When racist assumptions or accusations are likely to occur between offender and victim, the mediator must act as an interpreter or a buffer during premeetings and during any face-to-face encounters, be they as part of mediation, community boards, or other restorative justice programs.

Although race cannot be equated with culture, it can be such a powerful determining factor of communication and interaction patterns that it should not be ignored when sorting out cultural differences.

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Multicultural Implications of Restorative Justice:
Potential Pitfalls and Dangers
April 2000
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