The last month was an eye-opening one for me. I had a few workshops where the issue of diversity came up. Being a student of cultures, I am keenly interested in how folks from other countries (including North Dakota) fare in the land of 10,000 Swedes. Before continuing, I should make clear that I respect all cultures and backgrounds, enough so that I prefer to talk turkey instead of dancing around issues, or pretending that they don’t exist. So if you are looking for a politically correct tap dance about diversity, better read something else.
At one point during workshops about diversity I usually have small group discussions where the participants list every diverse group they can think of that they encounter in the workplace. Once we list their results on the big white dry-erase board (and what workplace would be complete without a big white dry-erase board?) it is fascinating to see the diversity in the list of diversity. Besides the expected qualities of ethnicity and country of origin, people recognize economic status, schooling, birth order, even hair color as conditions that would affect one’s outlook on the world-hence the ability to work together.
At one workshop I wrote BLACK-NEGRO-AFRICAN AMERICAN on the board and asked the group to determine which was the correct term to use. Obviously, the term Negro was tossed out immediately. Anthropologists in the last two centuries used the term Negroid to classify people of African ancestry, but the inaccuracy of the term, couple with culturally harsh overtones, took it out of common use some time ago. One man in the workshop who was a recent immigrant to the U.S., however, asked, “Then why do they still call it the “United Negro College Fund?” No one had an answer other than, “Some things are slower and harder to change than others.” As you can imagine, the rest of the debate wasn’t as easy to resolve. “Not all black people are from Africa.” “Saying ‘black’ is not recognizing culture, just color.” “Well I’m called ‘white.’ Why is that okay?” “Why don’t we use ‘Anglo’?” “Anglo means you’re from England. I’m white, but my ancestry is from Russia, so I’m not Anglo.”
Just as that debate was reaching its peak, I wrote on the board LATINO vs. HISPANIC. Yes, I was a trouble maker as a child too. If you think the debate over Black vs. African American was intense, I could have left the room, had a Tremendous Twelve Breakfast at Perkins (eggs over easy) and come made it back with time to spare before the group was done. For some reason, clients don’t like me skipping out in the middle of workshops for a Tremendous Twelve. I haven’t checked to see if a Denny’s breakfast holds the same restriction.
History lesson, the term Hispanic was created during the Nixon administration. Needing to devise another race classification (to date, the only options were “White” “Negro” and “Other”), the Office of Management and Budget created the term Hispanic. The term was intended to be an accurate representation of people with ancestry of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Central and South America, Cuba, etc. Latino came into use some time later as an attempt to more accurately represent culture and language, but here’s the problem. After discussing at length which term was most appropriate, the group could find no consensus. It seemed for every argument there was a counter argument. Some people had facts, “Hispanic is accurate only if you’re from Spain.” Other people had other facts, “Not true, only if you are from a Spanish speaking country.” And for every “fact” there was a counter. One woman said, “I asked one woman what she preferred and she said, ‘I’m from Columbia, so call me Columbian. But how am I supposed to know what country everyone is from before I talk to them. That would be like running up to every white person and asking, ‘Excuse me, are you from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, or Italy?’”
Once we added ASIAN vs. ORIENTAL to the list we saw that this exercise could take us into next year, and I was pretty sure the client wanted the employees to get back to their jobs sometime before then. So I broke the debate up and asked the group why the discussion was even important. Some answers came back as, “Because it’s important to recognize culture respectfully.” and “Using appropriate terms is more accurate.” But the real answer came after all these politically correct versions were spent, “I just want to know what to call someone so I don’t get yelled at anymore.”
When I asked one woman why she used the term Hispanic, she said, “I used Latino for a long time until some guy yelled at me and said, ‘I’m Hispanic.’ Now I’m just waiting for a Hispanic guy to yell and me and say, ‘I’m not Hispanic. I’m Latino.” In fact, throughout the workshops over the past month, there were quite a few people of color (I hope it’s still okay to use that phrase). I asked the black/African America attendees which term they preferred. They said they didn’t care. I asked the Latino/Hispanic people what they preferred, and the answers were split down the middle. I asked an Asian man which he preferred, and he said Asian or Oriental didn’t matter to him either way. Another woman said, “I’m not a rug, so I’m not Oriental.”
What it came down to was, most of the white attendees said their choice of racial terms was corrected far more frequently by other whites than by the ethnic person they were speaking to or about. Why? They just don’t want to get it wrong. They are tired of being yelled at. The fact that the attendees put so much energy toward determining the correct terms spoke volumes about how much they cared about respecting those they worked with. The problem is, the fear of getting it wrong has prevented many of them from really relaxing and enjoying each other as co-workers and teammates. So much so that the workshop was the first time many of them had even asked, “Hey, does that term bother you? Or am I over-thinking the issue?”
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all relax, talk to each other, and simply ask? Personally, I don’t care which term I use, I just don’t want to insult anyone. I’ll call you whatever you want-Latino, Black, Anglomerican, AfriMexican, or Asiamaican, just tell me what to say and I’ll say it. If, down the road, we discover that the term has some historical inaccuracy or harsh meaning, I’ll be happy to switch. In the meantime, you can call me white.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.