Diversity Challenge: Ask “Why?”

Hands touching a globeI recently read an essay by an African-American woman I know (I’ll call her “Autumn”) about a time when she was the only minority in a room of white friends. The whites started talking about the use of the “N” word in their families growing up. They weren’t advocating the use of the word.  In fact, they were talking about how appalling it had been and how their families had evolved in the intervening decades.

Autumn wrote about how embarrassed and uncomfortable she was during the conversation, and how reluctant she was to voice her discomfort. After the event, Autumn agonized for days over whether to say anything to her friends.

She finally told one of them. He said he hadn’t meant to hurt her. That response didn’t satisfy Autumn.

She told another friend. She felt much better when that friend acknowledged the pain Autumn had felt, and described a situation when she herself had felt singled out and humiliated.

As I read Autumn’s article, I felt uneasy myself. I couldn’t quite grasp the point of the essay. It was clear the conversation had had a deep emotional impact on Autumn, and she had needed someone to recognize her pain. But I couldn’t understand why the remarks by her friends had hurt so much.

Had she felt her friends were using the “N” word toward her? But they obviously had been disparaging toward people who used it. Why would friends expressing disapproval of the word feel like a threat to her? As a white, I couldn’t understand why she felt humiliated by the simple verbalization of the word.

Had she felt invisible as her white friends talked? Had their vocalization of the word, even in a disparaging way, somehow belittled an African-American’s gut-level hatred of its use in any context? The whites’ perspective on use of the “N” word would naturally be different than Autumn’s. An open inclusion of her would probably have enriched everyone’s understanding of the impact of the word.

I will never know why Autumn felt the way she did. I found that to be a failing in her essay. But clearly, it has haunted me, and caused me to reflect on what she wrote. So maybe it was a successful article, despite my initial reaction.

Regardless of its strength as a piece of writing, Autumn’s essay was a good reminder of the difficulties of talking about race – and, indeed, about any dimension of diversity – in our culture. We come to these issues with our whole life’s experience. Some of these experiences are individual, some are passed on to us through families and groups we belong to, such as church and school.

In every case, our capacity for understanding ourselves and each other is enhanced if we can ask, respectfully, “Why do you feel the way you do? Tell me; I’m listening.”



Filed under Diversity, Human Resources, Writing

3 responses to “Diversity Challenge: Ask “Why?”

  1. Sometimes ears willing to listen and really hear, are a most healing blessing.

  2. There are a TON of points you touch on in your brief post – thank you for sharing it (perhaps a lengthier discussion via email would be interesting some day – I don’t want to drone on and on in your comments section). You’re absolutely right in saying that we each approach a topic like conversations about race from our own lens and experiences, and as a white person, I will never, ever know what it’s like to be a person of color. One place that a lot of diversity and inclusion training sessions begin is with Peggy McIntosh’s work on white privilege (here’s a link to her article from 1989: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html).

    Race, racism, prejudice, power dynamics – these are all tricky subjects to talk about in the natural flow of conversation and there is a lot of room for offense or hurt feelings. I’ve found it helpful to have structure when engaging in such conversations – some ground rules so to speak – that everyone agrees to. Otherwise, what begins as a seemingly benign attempt to share thoughts or really understand others can quickly grow into something very unintended (and often not in a good way).

    • Brian,
      I agree with everything you said. Part of my frustration in the situation I described was finding the permission to engage in the conversation with Autumn that I wanted to have. We weren’t close enough to have it come up naturally, nor for me to go out of my way in raising it.
      But to start the dialogues on race that we need to have in our society, we need to find ways to s tructure the conversations, as you say.
      Thank you.

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