The Question of Race, Gender & Culture in Mediator Selection

By Butler, Fred D. | Dispute Resolution Journal, November-January 2000 | Go to article overview

The Question of Race, Gender & Culture in Mediator Selection


Butler, Fred D., Dispute Resolution Journal


When I consider the question of when race, gender, or culture should be a factor when choosing a mediator, I come up with this answer: When the parties believe that the consideration of the race, gender, or culture of the mediator would help resolve their dispute.

Mediators understand that while it is true that the process belongs to the mediator, the dispute and its resolution belongs to the parties. Therefore, the success of the mediation rests with the parties. It is this empowerment of the parties that makes the process work, and if the parties or their advocates believe that the race, sex, and gender of the mediator is important, then it is important.

Still, is it that simple? Some of us mediators, who were educated in the 1960s in community development concepts, remember theories about basic human needs. One that stands out for me is George Herbert Mead's hypothesis: "I am what you think I am."1 More often than not, these dynamics are at work as it relates to how the parties perceive the mediator.

A Realist's Point of View

America is a "racist" society and has for most of its existence been a sexist society. While the country and some of its communities have embraced the economic, cultural, and social contributions of individuals from other cultures and countries, most have not embraced these cultures as a whole.

Even those of goodwill, and those who are actively engaged with other cultures, don't always understand the nuances of other cultures. When you add language differences on top of this, it only increases the difficulty of understanding.

My partner of 12 years-who immigrated to this country from South America 19 years agoand I discuss this often. Sometimes we discuss the use of words that have different meanings for us because of the cultural and/or language differences (English is not her first language). We are motivated to bridge the gap. But imagine the struggle it must be for those who have no motivation to do so at all. Then magnify that when a conflict arises. Under those circumstances it becomes almost impossible to understand each other's cultural differences.

As far as the differences between female and male values are concerned, most of us have heard the expression "women are from Venus and men are from Mars," coined from the book of that title. While some may use this as a way to explain the differences that exist between men and women, others have used, and continue to use, the inherent differences to treat women like secondclass citizens.

One example of this insensitivity towards women is the way that victims of sexual assaults were treated in the past during investigations of sex crimes. Authorities did not appreciate the importance of having the victims interviewed and counseled by female investigators and/or therapists. Fortunately today that has changed, although problems do still exist.

I have handled disputes where uniformed female peace officers were involved in employment disputes. After identifying with me as another minority, they were able to relax so that they could communicate their real interest in the matter. They were able to express their fears and aspirations, and as a result, a healing process could begin.

One enigma is that black Americans and white Americans should be more culturally alike than any other group in this society because both of these groups have been here for over 400 years. For the most part, the American culture is the only one that most African-Americans know and the one that they helped shape. However, there is this belief, from both groups, that they are as different as night and day. It is the Mead dynamic-- I am who you think I am-that, in my opinion, drives these two races farther apart and forces them to be different.

There does exist this complex history of race, culture, and gender differences in the U.S. However, it is not something one should run away from, disregard, or worse, pretend doesn't exist. …

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