Diversity Challenges are an Inside Job

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Black or African-American, Native American or Indian, Mexican or Hispanic, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, or Queer.

What words do you use to describe people? The answer – it depends.

Some people would say that political correctness (PC) around diversity has confused our society in such a way that we now have a hard time talking to each other. I would disagree.

The communication walls that have been built around us are of our own making. We have chosen to put those walls up – PC didn’t dictate how high the walls had to be or how restrictive they should be. Each of us decided that for ourselves. Often the decision is not a forthright one, but more of a sub-conscious decision. Usually one of protection against embarrassment or because of a fear of change.

So, how do we get past the “it depends” answer and just know what to say and when to say it?

  1. We need to accept that America is much more diverse than it has ever been.

The first course of action is to realize that the America we have today is more diverse than at any other time in history. We have a country where the percentage of White (Non-Hispanic) Americans stands at 63%. This is the lowest percentage of our history.

Why is that important? In today’s America the vast majority of people complaining about our society being PC are White people. Often, the complaint is fear based. The underlying fear is that something will be said that will make me look racist, homophobic, sexist, or some other punishing word for using a non-PC word or phrase.

My husband and I had to endure this lesson early on. He is Black and I am White, we have four children. When they started preschool, each of them had to go through the learning process of how to describe themselves and their friends. When describing a new friend, the conversation would invariably enter this tit-for-tat session:

Child: He’s brown like me.

Husband: No, he’s black like you, not brown.

Child: Well, I’m not black. You are Black, mom is White, I am Brown.

Eventually, my husband and I had to realize that this world they are living in is much different than the one we lived in. They are not battling for their civil rights or which restaurant they can eat in. They have the opportunity to call their skin color whatever they want to call it. We realized that allowing them to do so opened up their mind to all the possibilities that lay ahead of them. Our realization is that this is a very new world to both of us.

I can tell you this much. When I’ve slipped up and used a word or phrase that I shouldn’t have. Someone has let me know and sometimes it was my children. I don’t take it as a failure or as rudeness by the person telling me this – I take it as a learning experience. That conversation is now in my learning bank and it helps me navigate this diverse terrain. Without having the concept of PC we would not be having these conversations. Without these conversations we would not be breaking down any walls.

So, our first objective is to give ourselves a break. We are not living in our parent’s world. We haven’t been taught all of the rules of all the cultures we interact with. There will be a learning curve. That’s OK.

2. Expand your friend circle.

The most valuable resource in a nation that is growing more diverse is a diverse friendship circle. When deciding what words or terms are the most appropriate, a safe space is critical. These are difficult conversations and they can’t just happen with anyone. Trust and love must be woven into the relationships in order for the lessons to stick.

If you look around and all your friends speak the same language, come from the same social economic groups, have the same heritage, or are of the same race – you may want to broaden your horizons. I remember the first time I heard the word “Queer” used in a sentence. It was in a conversation among my friends. When the word was used, I knew it was safe to ask – “Why would you use that word, isn’t it offensive?” Come to find out it isn’t. I had no clue that the word Queer meant a person questioning their gender identity. Without having that conversation in this group that piece of PC knowledge would not be in my learning bank.

Outside professionals can also be very helpful in these conversations. I’ve had many good talks with my children’s teachers. In preschool I was corrected by a teacher who said the term “mentally retarded” is old-school and limiting to others. Today, we use the terms cognitively challenged or differing abilities to describe some of the students. Imagine the number of times I would have created a wall between myself and other students had I not learned that lesson?

3. Actively listen to yourself talk.

One of the greatest pieces of advice I received was to listen to the words and phrases that I use. It was also a humbling experience. In order to listen to myself, I had to admit that living as a White person in the United States gave me a sense of privilege that others do not feel; it didn’t matter that it was an unconscious superiority. This privilege gave me the right to address people without thinking about their feelings or activities. That was a sobering thought for me and it is one that many people have a very difficult time confronting. However, it is one that we must broach in order to understand how to communicate in a diverse world.

When you actively listen to your own speech it will become easier to actively listen, and sometimes question, the language of others. What phrases do you use unconsciously? What are the meanings of the your words; do they have the same meaning across cultures and experiences?

For instance, in this current presidential election cycle we often hear the slogan – Make America Great Again. Whose sense of “greatness” are we speaking about? What made the last generation of America greater than this America? That is a huge question in a diverse America.

4. Stop being afraid to grow your knowledge bank.

 In our house it does not matter if I use the word Black or African-American. Yet, I know that using the words interchangeably can be offensive; therefore, in the general public I use the term African-American.

Ask questions of those in your friend circle. How do they interpret words that you use, are there some that are more offensive than others? You will find that these conversations are difficult at first, but in the long run provide a rich discussion of many social topics. For example, Native American means the groups of people who are indigenous to the North American continent. Indians, on the other hand, are people from the country of India. Mexican is fine if you are talking about a person who is actually from Mexico, but Hispanic describes those people who are from Spanish speaking countries.

I believe that one of the greatest lessons we can learn while living in this diverse country is the art of communication. The term, “politically correct”, may not be the best representation of respectful word usage, but lets not allow the media or politicians to use the term as a scapegoat. Being PC doesn’t necessarily mean we cannot communicate across societal walls – walls which we have personally created. It simply means breaking down barriers in a respectful manner.

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