Invisible Assumptions

In the years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, many thousands of Americans from all around the country mobilized to help with the rebuilding.

Even within the United States, there are many ways that we can cross boundaries and borders, especially those created by race and class. Coming into a community like New Orleans offers a good example of how our invisible assumptions can sometimes trip us up.

Consider this Story

A group of youth was dispatched to do outdoor work in an area of New Orleans with no restroom in close proximity. During the course of the day they took turns making trips to a nearby service station to use the facilities. A resident of the neighborhood who lived nearby came over to commend them on their efforts and, after realizing the difficulty they were having, offered the use of his family’s bathroom. His wife was ill and confined to the home. When one of the young women left the family’s bathroom, she commented to her companion waiting in line: “I’m not sure you want to use it — it’s not clean and it smells bad.”

Unfortunately, the homeowner heard the exchange. The group leader was embarrassed and tried to use this as a teachable moment. Both he and the group apologized to the homeowner.

Questions for Reflection

  • How were the hospitality assumptions of the guest different from those of the homeowner?
  • Do you think economic class plays a role in the scenario? Why or why not?
  • Customs — what some would call “manners” — are important in most cultures. Is there any way the group leader could have anticipated an exchange like this, and briefed the group in a way that could avoid the embarrassment of the guest and the homeowner?
  • What are some productive responses you could have provided if you had overheard the comment about the bathroom?


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