I have this really cool friend I know from dancing and keep in touch with via the BookFace. She is a master at the open-ended question that gets everyone to answer. I've never seen her equal.
The other day, she came out with a question aimed at "people of color". Now normally, I don't readily subscribe to a label like that, but in this case, I decided to reply since I tend to participate in discussions on racism when they are sincere attempts at discussion. And since I liked some of what I wrote I am reposting it here on my blog.
Here was my initial reply:
The only time I ever felt bad about how others treated me on race was elementary school, where all Asians were "Chinese". Some people think that once you know a person's race that's all you need to know about them. That's a long time ago now and though I don't feel upset when I encounter it these days, I do feel a bit of pity for how small the world is for some.
So... to feel heard better? Here's my answer (and if you're my friend, there's really no opportunity for improvement because I already get this from you)
Look at me as a person: an individual, not as a representative of any class, race, or group. I don't fit cleanly into any of those. Only boring people do.
Continue to ask me questions as if there weren't any labels already attached to me. There are always more pleasant surprises to find.
Later in the thread, someone else posted a reply which brought up a question which is a peeve for a lot of people: "Where are you REALLY from?". If you're not white, you've heard this one. (Hell, maybe you hear it when you're a caucasoid as well).
I replied that I answer with:
I was born in America and I tend to answer "New York", when people ask me about country of origin. This usually leads down a path where I describe the country "my parents came from".
To which my friend further stated a possible motive for the peeve-inducing question and then asked my opinion on what ways I would suggest to ask about the larger topic:
"I think the question people are trying to ask is if you identify with a longer family heritage other than just American. Most of my Asian friends are 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation Americans which is a lot shorter time than me and, honestly, way more interesting. I have no idea how long my family has been here...
Is there a way that someone can ask about your heritage or family customs without making you feel like an outsider or like you are being put in a neat, stereotypical box?"
I wrote a lengthy reply which includes a list of questions that I would ask in order to inquire about the nature of a person's relationship to the culture they come from. And I looked for a pattern among the questions. The pattern was that that most of my questions take care to ask the inquiree about their own personal experiences with their culture and upbringing.
Honest questions asked with an authentic desire for inquiry are usually pretty disarming. Especially if the inquiry is about the inquiree. So you have an advantage here that doesn't come naturally to a lot of people. That being said, I would dare to say this to everyone:
There is no shame in asking questions if the intent is one of richer connection. Yes you might fail. You may give offense. But wouldn't you rather fail in trying than fail because you gave up?
All of that being said, let me warn you about "way more interesting". It's possible that a person's family history is more interesting to you than it is to them. The importance of family to them may be different than you expect. The advice I have here is to make no assumptions. Make as few assumptions about a person's relationship to the culture they come from as you would about what a person's religion might mean about their beliefs and habits.
If you wanted me to be more specific about what way a person could ask questions to explore interest, I guess I would ask these questions in this order (assuming I have a friendly relationship with a person such that they'd chat 1:1 with me):
- What's your family life like? Are you close now? Do you want to be?
- What was it like growing up with your parents? Were they strict? Supportive? Affectionate? Formal?
- How many siblings do you have? Did you get along?
- What are the biggest celebrations you remember having as a kid? What kind of food was involved? What did you like best about it? What didn't you like?
- What traditions do you want to keep from the way you grew up which most Americans don't do? What traditions do you think are kind of backward that you hope most Americans never start doing?
- What's the best advice your dad/mom ever gave you?
- What do you admire most about your parents? grandparents?
- What values do you think are underrated in America (Canada)? What do we take for granted?
- What traditions have you taken on that are *NOT* from your culture/parents?
I think you could ask these of any person of any color and you will have an interesting discussion. Though really, the person you're talking to might feel interviewed by the end unless you find a way to make a conversation of it.
I am noticing that most of my questions take care to ask the inquiree about their own personal experiences with and opinion about their culture and upbringing. And they are less about the inquirer's notions about what it's like to be [insert culture here]. (again... This is something you do rather naturally)
My questions also respect that there are always things to love and hate in any culture.
One last comment... my family is much more interesting to me now than when I was younger. So you might be surprised if you should ever revisit these questions with a close friend. For me personally, the story has changed as life and time have worked to wear down my many rough edges as a person.