Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Invisibility, Ignorance and Education

By Jean Mavrelis - 11.16.2010

Minorities are tired of being asked questions so they can be culturally categorized, and then left to continue their invisibility at work.

I’m wondering, what causes this need to put someone in a box? Is it just a white thing? And if so, why the need to know?

I think curiosity is a human thing, but minorities have learned that it feels bad to be objectified, and so curb their curiosity in order to be respectful.

White folks often become defensive, “It’s an ice breaker; it’s an overture to get to know someone.”

But is it really?

For all our talk in the mainstream about being “color blind” or treating others simply as individuals, why do we want to know the ethnic or cultural category before engaging a person who is not mainstream-looking?

I read a fiction story once about a couple who named their infant “baby x” and refused to tell anyone the gender of the baby, which left adults at a loss in terms of how to interact with the infant.

What does this say about our ability to interact with humans as individuals rather than as members of groups?

From the minority perspective, it’s objectifying to ask the kinds of questions in the cartoon, and reflects an incredible sense of entitlement on the part of the asker, as if they have a right to demand personal information.

White folks ask me, “Then how do I start a conversation?”

The answer, “What would you say to a white person?”

I always advise this: instead of trying to start a relationship by asking personal questions (as white women often do), or by joking about difference (as white men often do), be helpful with the career of a colleague who is is of a different group.

And when the person is ready, they may then even start to share more about themselves.

If not, then you can know that they, like everyone, appreciates help that really helps.

And also know that you did the right thing.

3 Responses so far

This,to me, seems like so much blather. Sorry to say so but you make what it so simple over complicated, even though simplified.
The only point that needs to be made is that we are all of “one” race. The “Human” race.
The most personal question I have ever had a stranger ask me was “How are you?”. Always an appropriate opening question I would think. Even in the world of big business it is allowable I would think.
If you truely care about listening to the response it makes for a good opening and the person responding will know you care if you show you are listening,
A very simple act can lead to further business talk or getting to know you conversation on a personal level,
The only thing you really have to remember is that we are all “kin under the skin”.
Thats just my opinion. Basic humanity 101.

Oh yes, and a smile never hurts either.

People who say they are “color blind” often don’t realize that they judge people on their cultural communication style. Cultures that have a more direct style than our own appear “rude”, those who are more indirect may appear “weak, lacking initiative”. Understanding cultural communication style helps us avoid these judgments that all of us make without realizing something cultural is going on.

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