35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say by Maura Cullen

Nonfiction — print. Experts Academy Press, 2011. Originally published 2008. 141 pgs. Gift.

Subtitled “Surprising Things We Say That Widen the Diversity Gap”, Cullen’s book introduces readers to particularly harmful comments that have a negative impact despite their (mostly) positive intent. Comments that you’ve properly heard in everyday conversation; comments like “some of my best friends are (Black, White, Asian, etc)” or “I don’t see color” that are intended to put someone at ease but actually have the opposite impact.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Cullen speak before; she’s a staple at freshman orientation at my university. This year, in a quest to foster diversity and build more inclusive communities, any student in a leadership role on campus (peer adviser, resident adviser, orientation leader, peer learning assistant, etc.) has been assigned Cullen’s book as a primer and a follow-up discussion section.

My discussion section was this past Monday, but I’ve spent the past two weeks learning about Cullen’s ten core concepts from a variety of sources and speakers. Needless to say, by the time I got to her book, much of the information was largely repetitive. One of the other presenters I was introduced to last week did a much better job of explaining privledge. Yes, in some cases defining advantaged and disadvantaged groups is as simple as skin color, but some things like disability are not so black and white (excuse the terrible pun, please). There are people out there who walk around with hidden, nonphysical disabilities that encounter privileged everyday without someone even knowing.

I was also not a fan of many of her examples — hitting a person with a car is not the same thing as “verbal pollution” — and felt like her moral was repeated too often in so many words. Yes, it is important to watch what you say, but the best way to avoid this pitfalls is to stop trying to make every conversation about you. If my job on campus has taught me anything, it’s that listening is better than talking.

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