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An MSU instructor and a team of journalism students debunk stereotypes to increase understanding of cultural differences.

We live in an age in which people are hyper connected, with massive amounts of information about other cultures a click away, and yet the lives and backgrounds of our neighbors, coworkers, classmates and even friends often remain a mystery.

Despite our close proximity, there is still a lot people can learn about other cultures, races and religions.

That’s where Joe Grimm comes in. An instructor and visiting-editor-in-residence in MSU’s acclaimed School of Journalism, Grimm has made it his mission to bring people together, open lines of communication and help them see that people are not that different.

INSTILLING CULTURAL COMPETENCE

In Grimm’s aptly named Bias Busters class, students have been researching, writing and editing a series of books that pose questions—100 of them per book—that help people learn more about the people they interact with nearly every day, including those with a different skin color, language or culture—everything from the food they eat to the clothes they wear.

“The questions are basic and simple,” says Grimm, a former Detroit Free Press editor. “But they come from real people. They’re the questions people actually wonder about.”

Grimm and his students aren’t new to the publishing game. In the spring of 2012, students in a class he taught wrote and produced “The New Bullying,” a website, paperback and e-book available on Nook, Kindle, iPads and smartphones.

The latest in the series about cultural differences, released this past May, focuses on the cultures of Hispanics and Latinos and East Asians.

In these two books, the questions range from “what religions do Chinese people practice?” (Although China is officially atheist, many Chinese practice Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and others.) to “why do Asians eat so much rice?” (Most of the world’s rice is grown in Asia; it’s been a staple there for thousands of years.) to “how do Hispanics align politically?” (A majority consider themselves Democrats.)

Other books in the series include “500 Nations, 100 Questions: A Guide to Native America,” “100 Questions and Answers about Indian Americans,” “100 Questions and Answers about Arab Americans” and “100 Questions and Answers about Americans.”

The latter is designed to help international students better understand American language and culture. Questions from international students are put to Americans. For example, “what are appropriate ways to greet people in the United States?”(A simple “hello,’ “how are you” or “nice to meet you” usually work.) and “why are there so many guns in the United States?” (The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment protects gun ownership.)

MSU students did the bulk of the research for most of the books, interviewing people of different races, cultures and backgrounds and asking them what basic questions they routinely hear in everyday conversation. The goal: to replace guesses and stereotypes with accurate, authoritative answers.

“The questions are at the heart of the guide,” Grimm says. “We interview people to find out what questions they hear about themselves and what they wish others knew. Those drive our research. We respect the people we write about and the people who want to learn about them.”

All of the answers that are provided in the guides are verified through many sources, including the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and others.

REPORTING REALITY

The idea for the cultural competency books began more than 20 years ago when Grimm served as the recruiting and development editor for the Detroit Free Press. He recognized a need for reporters to know more about the different cultures they encounter on their beats, despite their best efforts to be unbiased.

Because the Detroit area has a large population of Arab Americans, Grimm created “100 Questions and Answers about Arab Americans.” The guide proved to be popular, so much so that reprints were necessary.

When Grimm moved to academia, he saw the books as an opportunity for students to hone a number of skills—interviewing, tracking down sources, and writing and editing.

“Journalistically, it’s excellent training to have people do cross-cultural interviews,” he says. “For them to publish something, have their work on Amazon, is a great thing.

“Although,” he adds, “the real goal is not just to produce books. The point is to create communities of people beyond MSU that understand each other better.”

The guides have proved particularly useful to journalism students and reporters, but also are helpful to college students in general, as the number of international students on American campuses tops one million, according to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

What’s next? Grimm says he’d like to see the books reprinted in languages other than English. He’s also planning on future students working on books about Chinese culture and Muslim Americans, the class’ first interfaith guide.

Individuals interested in Grimm’s books can contact him at jgrimm@msu.edu.
Follow the Bias Busters blog at news.jrn.msu.edu/culturalcompetence.

Bias Busters Interactive Quiz

Test your cultural competency.

The questions below are taken directly from the books written by Grimm’s Bias Busters students.

Bias Busters Interactive Quiz