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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Interracial Friendship: Think Before You Ask

Image found at: http://lifewithbrucebackman.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/communication-difficult-for-men.jpg

I think our recent discussion about interracial friendship has struck a collective nerve because I’ve never received as many emails and comments as I have about this topic. So, while the topic is larger than hair and identity, I’ll keep blogging about it! The interesting thing is that many of the comments reflect discomfort about WHAT to say. Because of that, folks may not say anything. On the other hand, a lack of thoughtfulness can cause people to make hurtful comments. Below I’ve copied what I hope is an insightful exchange about how we can learn to talk about our differences. The conversation took place last night / this morning:

Blog reader: Thank you for sharing. You know I've struggled over the years of what questions to ask and how to ask questions. Your post about teaching children to ask questions reminds me of the many times my students are whispering among themselves. It turns out they are just afraid to ask me a question about me that is "racially" based. I think if we continue to remain afraid to ask questions about each other then we prevent moving forward and beyond race.

Tina: Agreed, thanks for your comment. There is a way to ask questions. All too often people ask very ignorant, hurtful questions and cause incredible damage. My point is not to never ask questions but to educate yourself and be sensitive when you do ask questions. Also, it would help to ask questions of people with whom you share a bond. It is inappropriate for a stranger to ask me, "Is that your real hair?" That is private and none of their business. Plus, if they got to know me they'd soon learn about my hair for one and many other things. See the difference? I think people just haul off and say / ask things without thinking through the repercussions.

After a few additional moments of reflection, I added this:

Tina: something else just struck me. When we value someone and want to ask questions, we prepare our questions beforehand. For example, if I want to ask Fred, my parents, my sisters, friends, my boss, a student something, I don't just let whatever comes to my mind come out (usually!). This is because I want my question to be thoughtful. I think part of what rubs me the wrong way is that many of the ignorant questions I've been asked reflect a lack of preparation and forethought. In such a situation am I being valued as a person or merely being viewed as a curiosity to be explored? I can tell you that it feels like the latter. I also don't see a need to move beyond race. Would we say move beyond gender? I don't think so. If what you mean is that we need to get to a point where people are judged based on their behavior, character, etc. I agree wholeheartedly. But, I am opposed to the notion of a post-racial society as I just don't think that will ever exist. Why might God have created different hues in the first place? They are beautiful we just have to learn how to value each other.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from people who have alternative points of view. I think sharing our unique opinions will help us develop a community of understanding. God knows we need that in this society where vitriol often rules the day.


  1. Yes I agree that we should really reflect on questions that we ask as adults. My response was really geared more as a response to the post about the little girl asking the question. Having taught k-6 for +8 years in very opposite areas, rural and urban, I've come to realize I can not expect all children to have had the experiences I had as a chid. Without these experiences how can they begin understanding of the world as I do as an adult. I am frustrated often that parents don't provide mulitcultural or educational experiences, but then I realize many provide only what they were provided as a child. Which leads to what I think frustarates you too, parents. I work daily not to direct my frustarations with parents on to the students. Children reflect what they learn, so our job as adults is to help them learn and be the one who changes their lives. You are right that we as adults have a job to help others appreciate the differences God created among us, but first we must begin with ourselves.

  2. Tina,

    I guess I'm concerned by this topic a little bit. I read the blog about children asking questions, which I think is acceptable. But, I'm a little puzzled as to why adults would have questions.

    Let me explain. First, children are very inquisitive. They are constantly in search of knowledge and basic understandings about life. Hence, asking questions or differentiating between two things, helps them make sense of their world. Without this ability, children will not be able to learn right/wrong, appropriate/inappropriate. While asking, "if you are black?" may seem like a harmful question, I think given the context, it may have just been an exploratory question that could have been a teachable moment, not only for your kids, but for the person asking the question.

    However, I think question asking should be only be for children. I have no idea why adults are asking questions that aren't even relevant, such as "Is that your real hair?" That question is loaded and not even important. Questions like that, I feel, are inappropriate. As an adult, we should ask questions that are appropriate given the context. I dislike when people assume "you do things differently" because of your skin color. I dislike assumptions that are made, and then carried out through questions. Specifically questions that originate from stereotypes, which I think most adults seek to confirm/disconfirm through question asking. People should think first, "Am I asking a question that is based upon a stereotype?," "Am I making assumptions?," "Is this question relevant?" IF not, the question should not be asked.

    Just my two :)

  3. Hi CSimpson and J-Squared! Thanks so much for your comments. I've been getting a ton of comments on this topic and I'd love to figure out a way to have a more formal conversation. Stay tuned, as your comments are so good I will likely post them in my blog! Thanks so much!

    J-Squared, a quick question: do your comments mean that adults should just know better? how do you address the fact that even in 2011 many people grow up in segregated environments and may not know much about peoples of other ethnicities? of course, i'm talking about substantive, thoughtful questions NOT "is that your real hair"? your thoughts?