[This week’s post is a guest appearance by my colleague Tama Seavey, Independent Consultant, who I met through my LinkedIn group, Diversity & Inclusiveness Hotline. Tama made some very insightful, compassionate comments there, so I invited her to share her voice on my blog. Enjoy, and please comment! ~Susana]
Cross-cultural communication can be challenging. There are often different interpretations of tone of voice, body language, common expressions and the worries about not offending others. White people particularly struggle with determining ways in which to have meaningful dialogue with people of color and are often puzzled when their attempts are not met with openness. I’ve worked with many diverse work groups over the years helping them to communicate more effectively across cultural lines. Below are some of the more important tips for White people that have proved helpful to them.
1. Be genuine & sincere. Remember that there are reservations on both sides of the cultural divide. A sincere, genuine approach is helpful in breaking down the barriers. Try to stay away from “implied” phrases hoping that the other party will “pick up” on your true intent as is sometimes the common communication mode in the White community. This type of approach leads to a sense that you are less than genuine and less than sincere and have an ulterior, ultimately judgmental agenda. Genuine and sincere also means to ask questions — not with the position that you already know the answer but are just trying to see if the other party will agree with you. If you’d like to know how a person of color sees a situation or what their experience has been ask clearly, directly and sincerely.
2. Assume complexity at the outset. Cross-cultural communication is complex — not only do White people have assumptions and experiences all their own but so do people of color who have experienced “life burnings” (as I call them) in an attempt to be accepted and heard. People of color can experience as much hesitancy in their attempts for genuine conversation as White people do. Their reasons are different though. So there can be complexity in the exchange. White people need to appreciate that direct dialogue is very often much more emotionally and professionally costly to people of color to have — so in the assumption of complexity there needs to also be respect and a sense of protection for people of color to be able to communicate more honestly with Whites.
3. Value what is being said to you. One of the surest way to shut down a cross-cultural dialogue is for whites to ask for a person of color’s experience and then turn around and tell them that that they don’t see it that way. Well, of course not — how could you? This simple act shows a devaluing and diminishing of the person of color’s experience. The reality is that all of us have very different experiences. Be welcoming and valuing of what you are told.
4. Manage your biases, prejudices and judgments. This can be a struggle. However, realize that they do come across in dialogue and body language. Work on biases and ask for help in doing so. No one works through bias and prejudice in isolation of their own thought process. Talking about them — as part of the normal human condition, asking for help to see situations and assumptions more broadly and communicating across racial lines is extremely important. If, as a White person, you are not certain that you know, then it is wise to ask for input. If, as a White person, you believe you have all the answers, then this clearly shows a sense of superiority that your entitlement and privilege has given to you — it’s a “sense of superiority” position that will effectively shut down cross-cultural dialogue.
5. For many White people, their first ventures into cross-cultural dialogue can sometimes be filled with large barriers related to “class consciousness” in use of language. White people will even go so far as to blame other biases they are experiencing on classism as opposed to racist or prejudicial attitudes. Whatever the reason, there are judgments made on the flow of a conversation — whether proper English is used, how a sentence is structured, if what is said is commonly thought of as slang. The judgments come across in the dialogue — correcting someone else’s grammar, re-languaging the discussion so as to point out to the person of color their obvious error of speech, etc. The same can occur with dialogues that happen in written form. I’ve seen White people shut completely down to important messages and wince because the message may have come in the form of bad grammar. So it is terribly important for White people to think a little more broadly in terms of what things they are evaluating in the exchange and what labels they are placing on those evaluations. There are many, many valuable contributions and important information to be learned in exchanges between Whites and people of color that goes unnoticed, is not valued or respected because of negative judgment calls on the language form used.
Of course, we all have to work on our communication. Being heard and valued is a struggle for all people. Remembering that one form of communication based on just one style narrows the ability to communicate cross-culturally and can establish unwanted barriers.
** These tips are serious with a touch of sassy! They are not meant to imply that there are only two kinds of White people (“good” and “bad”), nor that all Good White People will agree with these tips (but they should! 🙂 ) nor that all White People who disagree with these tips are bad (well, maybe a little! 🙂 ). These tips are intended to help any and all Recovering Racists like me who (a) have good intentions (hence the “good”), (b) didn’t ask for the privilege that comes with white skin and European DNA and think that privilege is unfair, (b) recognize they have tremendous blindspots and ignorance due to that privilege and the power that comes with it, and (d) own their responsibility to end racism (that still exists today) regardless of what their European ancestors did or did not do during the previous history of the United States. These tips are also not just for Good White People, but also for People of Color Suffering from Internalized Oppression. All tips are based on actual scenarios I have experienced myself, been asked about by curious White people, or been told about by others who experienced them directly.