Since power is central to intercultural practice, ethics become a critical topic for interculturalists to grapple with. On one hand, taking a universal ethical stance is far too prescriptive, eliding cultural context and specificity. Yet, on the other hand, taking a position of cultural relativism, we bind ourselves from any ethical stance. Fearful we may offend; or worse yet, become what we work so hard to challenge—ethnocentric—we hesitate to address the hard ethical issues that are ubiquitous today and historically in intercultural relations.
While interculturalists seek to create understanding and build connections across cultural lines, our inattention to the ethics of power may unwittingly reproduce power structures that divide us. Since power is central to intercultural communication, our efforts to engage cultural difference are fraught with ethical considerations. Thus, for me, ethical intercultural praxis is an on-going situated process of self-other dialogue, reflection and action that is grounded in social justice. In this essay, I call on our courage to claim the ethical ground that supports and guides our work. Consider this short essay an invitation, an outstretched hand to step into the vibrant, indefinite space of ethical intercultural praxis where the focus is on continually “living the questions,” as Rilke would say. Here I trace a few questions— not to provide definitive answers—but to point to the issues that may open us to ethical intercultural praxis
Our cultural frames give definition, interpretation and evaluation to our worlds. Based on what is assumed to be “normal” within a culture, we consciously and unconsciously sift and process information, making meaning and often judgments through our frames. Cultural frames, while subject to change, are also historically rooted. The cultural frames of the intercultural field are rooted in Western, White perspectives, and colonial modes of thinking as well as in challenges to ethnocentric knowledge production. How does this frame impact the practical and theoretical approaches in the field? How does our cultural frame mediate our perceptions in ways that may be limiting? In what ways, am I/are we in a position of power and privilege that allows me/allows us to disregard others’ frames?
Our positionality or location within the intersecting web of socially constructed categories of culture, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality and physical abilities produce different experiences, understanding, and knowledge of ourselves and the world as well as varying access to material and symbolic resources. Positionality is a relational concept, which requires us to consider our access to power and privilege. The tendency within the intercultural field to ignore or gloss over how cultural differences and intercultural communication are inextricably interwoven with positionality, power and privilege does suggest a position of dominance. One of the pitfalls of privilege is the inclination to invisibilize or minimize the very systems of inequity that uphold power and confer privilege. The questions that arise for me are: How does my position within systems of power and privilege limit and enable my understanding of the situation? Who is not at the table, in the training room, in the research? Who is not represented in the training materials? Whose stories, histories, points of view are present or excluded in the classroom? How can I leverage the power I may have in a given situation to create greater equity and access?
A final set of questions to further live in the vibrant, open-ended space of ethical intercultural praxis is to consider why we are learning, teaching, training, researching and practicing intercultural communication. I often ask myself this question as well as students, participants in trainings, in research projects and community-based work. I have yet to hear a response that we are learning about the topic so we can become more effective at taking advantage of others. Nor have I heard anyone say we are gaining skills and strategies so we can be more efficient in exploiting those who are positioned with less power than us. Yet, I know this is happening as a result of our work. I am aware of examples in community-based work, corporate settings, universities and the military to name just a few where training and research in intercultural communication has been used for exploitative and dehumanizing purposes.
Intercultural communication, grounded in a social justice framework, can be a very effective means to struggle against inequities and work towards a more peaceful world. Yet we must continually ask who benefits from our work—in the short and long term. We need an ethical praxis grounded in social and economic justice—not some abstract universal notion of justice—rather, a living, breathing praxis situated in intercultural dialogue, reflection and nonviolent action.
Dr. Kathryn Sorrells is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Northridge. As a teacher and researcher, Kathryn combines approaches from critical, cultural studies and post-colonial perspectives to investigate issues of culture, gender, race and social justice, balancing both political and aesthetic dimensions. Kathryn has taught for fifteen years at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Sorrells is the recipient of numerous awards for founding and directing the Communicating Common Ground Project, which enables students to develop creative alternatives to intercultural and interethnic conflict. Dr. Sorrells is the author of Intercultural Communication: Globalization and Social Justice and has published a variety of articles related to intercultural communication, gender, and social justice.