The nature of what I do for a living is that a lot of people ask me “questions” disguised as a diversity question.
I deliberately use the word disguise because, more often than not, the “question” is an opinion about something mildly or greatly controversial, and the person wants to provoke a response or receive benediction of some sort.
What’s a real diversity question? For starters, it’s one where a person is genuinely puzzled about how to deal with or respond to a specific situation. Their life experience generally makes them feel ill equipped or completely unfamiliar with how to deal with the issue.
I love those questions. The specificity means that I can help the person do his own work to come up with a solution, approach or even attitude that makes an experience better and more productive.
An example is a friend who is white who asked me to help her figure out how to deal with a racist neighbor who made racist comments in her presence. Most of my friends of color would be irritated by how many of those questions I field weekly. But most of the time, depending on the person, their sincerity and how they go about asking me, I don’t mind.
But there are circumstances where I do mind, and with my column celebrating it’s six-year anniversary this month, my gift to myself is to list them:
1. Coming to me on the heels of a volatile, emotional news event and expecting me to explain the historical, cultural reaction “my” people are having to it — without doing it in a way that offends or makes them too uncomfortable.
2. Stating a fully formed political opinion to me and then saying something to the effect of “So, Miss Diversity Diva, what do you think?”
3. Deliberately provoking a diversity conversation at a time or place where the audience will be uncomfortable, and then holding it against me if I answer in a way that makes people uncomfortable. (I find that this happens frequently in social situations where I’m not in the majority demographic.)
4. Making a decision that you suspect will have strong negative reactions and responses from a “diversity” group and using a conversation with me as the basis for looking as if you researched or sought out counsel on the choice you’ve already made.
5. The open-ended “teach me” question where I’m expected to generically school you on why a certain group of people feels a certain way, especially a group of people that I’m not personally knowledgeable about.
If you ask me one of these non-diversity questions, chances are I will still try to answer it to the best of my ability. The only time I refuse to engage is when I know the person well enough to see a deliberate attempt to provoke an argument. Most of the time, people are not trying to do that.
Although this list is personal and, thus, subjective, my guess is that many who read this have co-workers, neighbors and friends who have a similar list of sandpaper reactions.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Seek first to understand rather than to be understood.” If you run a diversity enquiry through that analysis, you’ll figure out whether you’re asking a diversity question that elevates your knowledge.