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Six Questions to Avoid Asking People of Color


Six Questions to Avoid Asking People of Color

Question marks

Valerie Everett/Flickr.com

Some people dismiss racial sensitivity as mere political correctness, but taking care with your words and refraining from asking minorities certain questions has a range of benefits. It not only can help your cross-cultural relationships succeed, it can also help you avoid unwittingly offending acquaintances. To boot, companies with staffers skilled in racial sensitivity are less likely to be hit with racial discrimination lawsuits than others. As the United States grows increasingly more multicultural, it’s in your best interest to know which topics not to broach with people from diverse racial backgrounds. People of color routinely find themselves on the receiving end of questions they find intrusive, insulting and ignorant. Here are six such questions to avoid.

Can I Touch Your Hair?

African Americans in particular have expressed concern about how often they field this question from non-blacks. Many African Americans have tightly coiled or curly hair not found on the heads of most whites, Asians, etc., but the uniqueness of “black” hair does not give strangers the right to put their hands on it. The average American of any race would be taken aback if a stranger asked to touch her. The situation is no different for blacks. African Americans generally find it rude when strangers ask to touch their hair. As Renee Martin of the blog Womanist Musings explained, “I am not an animal at a petting zoo. I will not be your path to the exotic. Even worse than the ones that ask, are those that assume that they have right to touch me without permission. …My blackness and your curiosity does not give you the right to touch me.”

Where Are You From?

The appropriateness of this question depends on its intent. If you’re in Los Angeles and want to know if someone is a native Angeleno, it’s perfectly fine. However, if you’re posing the question to someone who’s Asian or Latino with the intent of determining whether or not the person is a U.S. citizen, it’s inappropriate. Many Asians and Hispanics come from families that have lived in the U.S. for generations, so the assumption that such a person can’t be American-born is ignorant. If the person is an immigrant, however, she’ll likely mention that at some point if she’s a friend of yours. If the two of you are not friends, what difference does it make to you where the individual was born? Many people of color find this question problematic because it’s often been posed to them by individuals with a xenophobic streak who regard non-whites as perpetual foreigners in the U.S.

What Are You?

If you can’t distinguish a person’s ethnicity just by looking at him, it does not give you the right to ask what the individual’s background is. Ask yourself why you need to know the racial makeup of a perfect stranger or of an acquaintance you barely know. Is it to help you categorize the person? Is it because you think you’ve guessed the person’s ethnicity correctly and want to know if you’re right? Is it because you want to make sure you don’t talk trash about the person’s ethnic group in his presence? None of these reasons make it okay to probe into another person’s racial background. If the individual wants you to know what his racial background is, he’ll let you know. If the individual is a friend, he’ll let you know because most friends discuss their families and cultural traditions with each other. Biracial people especially take offense to being asked, “What are you?” They report that the question tends to make them feel that others view them as “freaks of nature.”

Are You the Help?

Men and women of color can be found at every rung of the socioeconomic ladder. They work as corporate executives, politicians, teachers and so forth. Yet, it’s still commonplace for strangers to assume that they’re “the help.” Minorities of both sexes report that strangers often mistake them for workers in stores. Mothers of biracial children frequently complain that passersby ask if they’re nannies. Men of color say they have been mistaken for valets. In fact, noted cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz penned an essay in early 2012 about how a white woman in Beverly Hills, Calif., tried to get him to valet her car after he left a restaurant. “You’ve heard this story a thousand times before; it’s a Latino cliché. Or is it a tradition?” Alcaraz asked. “Anglo person assumes brown person is a worker, there to serve them.” Alcaraz points out that he was not dressed as a valet would be nor was he standing behind the valet stand, but the woman still mistook him for such. Asking or assuming that black or brown people are “the help” reveals that people of color are widely stereotyped as existing at the bottom of the totem pole. In reality, minorities work in a range of professions and find it insulting to be mistaken as “the help” when they’ve worked hard to break into fields outside of the domestic sphere.

Are You So-And-So?

Contrary to popular belief, all people of color don’t look alike. Still, minorities frequently complain that they’re mistaken for others who share their ethnicity on a routine basis. For example, two Asian-American men in a workplace say that their coworkers constantly mix them up. One may be shorter, older or heavier than the other, but their coworkers behave as if the two men are indistinguishable. They’re not. They’re not relatives. They’re not friends. They may not even be the same ethnicity. Just because two people share the same racial background does not make it okay for you to behave as if you can’t be bothered to tell them apart. Look them in the face and get to know them.

Do You Know So-And-So?

Don’t assume that all minorities know each other. If there are three black families in your neighborhood, that doesn’t mean that these families are friends or even know that the other two families exist. Too often minorities say they are asked if they know others who share their ethnic background—be it at work, school or elsewhere. While minority groups may belong to certain places of worship or cultural organizations that put them in contact with each other, many people of color do not belong to such networks and would be no more likely to know a random black or brown person passing by than a white person would.

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