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Talking with NPR's Code Switch blog on the thin line between insult and innocent question

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When talk turns to questions about race, where does the thin line lie between insult and innocent mistake?



That’s the most interesting question that emerged when NPR’s Twitter account for its project exploring race and society, @NPRCode Switch, began tweeting about awkward questions on race with the hashtag #theyasked. (their latest project, a survey on the attitudes of black Americans, found 36 percent of them felt they had experinced a few negative encounters each year connected o race issues.)

Some of the questions were horrifying for anyone with an ounce of sense. “#Theyasked what it was like for me to grow up on welfare,” tweeted Benet Wilson, head of the National Association of Black Journalists digital task force. “I have NO ideas. All blacks didn’t grow up on welfare, kids.”

Other tweets, immortalized by the Code Switch folks on their blog, came from Asians who were asked if they eat dog, Latinos asked if they use utensils and black people fielding weird queries about their hair.

The messages got at something that’s often tough to describe; the daily friction of being a minority who stands out. People, sometimes known to you, sometimes not, can drop questions with terribly insulting premises at their heart.

After a day of this – I remember a moment years ago at a previous job where five people in my newsroom mistook me for the only other African American male in the newsroom – it’s easy to snap and get upset. Publishing a list of the often stupid inquiries is a great way to let off steam and a subtle way to let others know to step off.

Still, I recall asking my own stupid questions across race lines, once upon a time. I wondered if white people’s hair smelled funny after a shower; if there were any black people in Canada; if there were any black Catholics. And these were just the questions I asked publicly.

As somebody who has spent the last six months talking on my book Race-Baiter, which encourages adventurous dialog across race lines, I’ve realized this is a two-step process.

If you want people to talk freely, you have to give them the leeway to make mistakes in good faith without being criticized or parodied.

That’s why I tweeted: "Much as I'm rolling over dumb questions @nprcodeswitch exposes on , I also hate to criticize attempts to dialogue, even if clumsy."

In figuring how to write about racial issues, I use a few guidelines to judge the line between insult and innocent mistake:

History: Does the person have a history of insulting race-based statements (Don Imus, Eric Bolling) or is this an isolated error?

Is the person really trying to understand something, or just posing a question to make a point?

Attitude: Are they open to hearing why their actions might be ill-advised? Or are they so locked in their own perspective, you can’t have a dialog?

Much as I want to call out people who traffic in ignorance, the most important element of talking across race is creating a space where people of good conscience and positive intent can ask stupid questions and learn from them.

If you’re thinking about how hard it is to figure that out, welcome to the world of most people of color – where separating good natured ignorance from undercover hate may be the biggest challenge of all.

All that said, here's a good example below of what not to do:

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 9:55am]


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