By JEFFREY L. SEGLIN
Q: I grew up in Puerto Rico and am now attending college in New York. Since arriving, I’ve noticed the level of sensitivity to other cultures is sometimes very low. I’ve witnessed, for example, a student making fun of others because of their accents. This student calls it “joking around” and thinks it’s OK. I don’t think it’s OK, but I don’t know how to react. What should I do? — Caro S., Purchase, New York
A: It’s one thing to try to help a student by pointing out a word he’s mispronounced while speaking in a language foreign to him. Though it might feel awkward, it’s actually an act of kindness to try to save someone from future embarrassment.
But making fun of the way someone talks is no laughing matter. Such behavior is never OK, and you shouldn’t go along with jokes that make light of other cultures or perpetuate stereotypes.
In his book Integrity, Yale law professor Stephen Carter writes that showing integrity, or strong moral values, requires three steps: recognizing the issue, acting to address the issue, and stating openly what you’ve done — and why.
You’ve already established the issue. Now the right thing to do is to act on it by speaking up the next time your classmate makes fun of someone’s accent. Make it clear that you find the “jokes” offensive and would like them to stop.
Granted, it’s not always easy to stand up to someone who’s behaving badly. If other classmates find the behavior offensive — and they should — enlist their help in responding similarly when the classmate starts the accent jokes.
If each of you make it clear that no one’s laughing — and why —you’ll be sending a strong message to the person being ridiculed that you stand with him or her and that such behavior has no place on your campus.
Do you have questions about the right thing to do? Send them to: email@example.com.
(Jeffrey L. Seglin is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, he covers ethical issues in his blog: www.jeffreyseglin.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin.)