What Not To Say To A Mixed-Race Colleague

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Asking a colleague of mixed-race 'What are you?' might not be the most appropriate way to strike up a conversation. Luke Visconti, co-founder of DiversityInc magazine, and Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, a consultant for KPMG, share their advice on avoiding questions that can offend, even when asked with the best of intentions.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now for a little education about dealing with diversity on the job. Do you ever feel like your diverse workplace is a minefield filled with opportunities to unintentionally offend and annoy your coworkers? Do you ever wish you had a road map to guide you through that difficult terrain? Well, now you do. DiversityInc magazine has been running a series of articles about things you just should not say to workers of diverse backgrounds. And the magazine inspired us and is helping us to bring you our own series.

Today we want to talk about things you just should not say to mixed-race colleagues. Back with us is Luke Visconti. He's the co-founder of DiversityInc. Also with us is Kathy Hopinkah Hannan. She's the Midwest area managing partner for tax services with the consulting firm KPMG. Welcome to you both, thanks for joining us.

Ms. KATHY HOPINKAH HANNAN (KPMG): Happy to be here.

Mr. LUKE VISCONTI (DiversityInc): Hi, it's good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, look, we had several conversations with these lists of offensive or ill-considered comments that people are sometimes subjected to because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. There are definitely some recurring themes here. Number one and number two on the list are, what are you and what's your nationality? It just isn't clear to me under what circumstances people say things like this to a colleague. What would be the occasion? And if you'd remind us again of why that's disturbing.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, I think that people say these things when they feel they have the imprimatur of being in the majority culture, that people are constantly seeking to define tribe. What tribe are you? Are you in my tribe? And I think people say this in a way of trying to shape their world and define who everybody else is around them relative to who they are.

MARTIN: Well, sometimes I think people would say they're just looking for a point of connection. You don't buy that.

Mr. VISCONTI: No, it depends on the tone. I would tell you that even amongst white people, if you go, for example, to horse country here in New Jersey, a very affluent area, you'll be asked, so where are your people from? These Italian-American - look it. And you'll get that question and the question - and I'll translate it for you, is you don't look like you belong here, I don't like that you're here and would you please explain how you got into this party?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VISCONTI: That's what it is.

MARTIN: What do you say?

Mr. VISCONTI: I told them I'm from New Jersey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VISCONTI: That usually gives them a flummox because then they go, well, oh, but where in New Jersey or how in New Jersey. And then, you know, I usually tease them for a while, then I let them know a bigger story.

MARTIN: Kathy, there are a couple of things on this list that on the one hand it's funny, on the other hand, not funny at all. Number two on this list is, you're all beautiful, you make beautiful babies. And the other one is, are you X, or Y, or which side are you more on?

Ms. HANNAN: Yeah, this - the first comment is something that you would tend to think, well, people will think that's really a - it's a comment, but if it's done in a business environment, it takes away from what you're there for.

MARTIN: What are some of the things on the list that have been said to you? Like the, what are you? Has anyone ever said that to you?

Ms. HANNAN: Yes, they have said, what are you? And then they say you don't necessarily look that. And I found, you know, when there was a comment in anything, even outside of the work environment about work ethic, people would say, oh, that's - that must be the Slovak side. Or if I was angry about something or made it clear that I was dissatisfied, it's, be careful, she's on the warpath today.

MARTIN: Oh no, stop it. Stop it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And just so I could clarify, what is your heritage, and why would people say that to you?

Ms. HANNAN: I'm half Native-american, Ho-chunk, my father was full-blooded Ho-chunk, and my mother was full-blooded Slovak.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. HANNAN: So I am the half-breed, and I would get those comments, also: Oh, you must love that song by Cher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I didn't know she was Slovak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HANNAN: Right.

MARTIN: There are a couple of things on the list that seem intended to make people more couple or to compliment them. Number six, you're the future. Number eight, well we're all mixed, anyway. What's so terrible, Luke?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think that it isn't the person's role to either assume, and it's not the imprimatur of the person asking the question to make those kinds of statements. I just find it offensive. It's not the kind of thing that you should be having a conversation about, especially in a business environment.

MARTIN: Kathy, do you feel, as a - you're a senior executive woman, and I would imagine you've been, at times, perhaps the first woman to hold some of the positions that you have held. Do you feel that sometimes this discussion around ethnicity is a way to exoticize you in a way, to make you more of an object and less of a leader?

Ms. HANNAN: I found that more outside of the firm, in people looking in, and even some acquaintances saying that oh, you're a woman, and you're Native-american - was there any question on whether you succeed? And I find that very insulting. Again, it goes back to the comment I had made earlier in terms of marginalizing your abilities and your skills and your intelligence. So I again find that, you know, somewhat troubling.

Ms. VISCONTI: It's a way of making an exception out of you so that you can then tolerate the fact that there aren't 50 percent women in your category in all of the firms out there, not just - you happen to work for a phenomenal firm that's exceptionally fair to its employees. But when you think about it, really you're the rule.

MARTIN: How do you handle this, Kathy, personally because as, you know, we've discussed previously, there are - sometimes people will say well, I didn't mean anything by it, or I was just making conversation. I'm just looking for a connection. Why are you being so defensive?

Ms. HANNAN: I'm pretty straightforward, and I do address the issue. Now, I don't come back at it in a very combative nature in any way, but I try to make people see the insensitivity that is in the comment so that they don't make that mistake again, and by and large, people understand. It's just, you have to address the issues because I think a lot of insensitivities, if you will, are born out of, you know, either ignorance or insecurity.

MARTIN: Well, give me some language. How would you address it? Everybody isn't as quick on their feet as you might be.

Ms. HANNAN: Well, I may have a bit of a humor with it initially and say what am I? I'm a human being. What are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HANNAN: And what do you mean by that exactly? But I do find it interesting today that, I think after "Dances With Wolves" came out, how many people come up to me and say I'm Native-american. You know, my grandmother was one-eightieth Cherokee. And everybody now wants to relate more. So I think that's a good thing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about things you should not say to mixed-race colleagues. And our guests are Luke Visconti, the co-founder of DiversityInc, and Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, the Midwest managing partner for the tax practice group of the consulting firm KPMG.

Whenever we've done one of these segments about things you shouldn't say, we inevitably get a response from some listeners who say, well, you seem to be shutting off conversation. Here I'm just trying to understand, and here you're making me feel bad because I don't know all these things. Luke, what do you say to that?

Mr. VISCONTI: Yeah, I think it's all in the way it's phrased and the depth of conversation. When you know somebody for a while, or they bring something into the conversation, then I think it's acceptable to discuss it, but - for example, if I were African-American, and I sat down with a white executive, I would say so when are the centuries of oppression going to end, or when do you think this country's going to get around to treating, you know, mostly black school districts the same as mostly white school districts? You wouldn't start a conversation like that.

You know, you might get there over dinner after you've known the person for a while and you're both interested in these subjects, but to come to the table and start off with these kinds of questions, which are intrusive and imply a license to ask them I believe is offensive. And it's a way of separating people so that you can then deal the cards accordingly to what you separated.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about this whole - the whole question - in fact, I'd be interested to hear from each of you. Kathy, you were saying that if it opens dialogue, then it's a good opportunity to educate and inform.

Our president is biracial. His mother was white American, his father was from Kenya. He doesn't talk that much about it. He has talked about it. I think a lot of people would say he had to talk more about it than he should have had to over the course of the campaign, but he did. Do you think that that kind of dialogue is helpful?

Ms. HANNAN: I think it's a real balance because you certainly - you know, he's the president of the United States. There are so many issues, and if we just keep dwelling on the race issue, it again marginalizes everything else that has to be discussed and accomplished.

So I'm all for continuing the dialogue, but I absolutely agree with what - and you can tell when people initially are being condescending, and sometimes it certainly is, or it's patronizing probably more than condescending, and it shouldn't be something that you lead with in a discussion.

MARTIN: Luke, final thought?

Mr. VISCONTI: We had been getting a lot of e-mails about President Obama, saying well he's really Arab, and he's really this, and they would describe his genealogy. And I finally slammed the lid on it by saying first of all, I use the Cornel West identification model, which is: I face Uptown dressed in a business suit in New York, and if I can catch a cab, I'm white. If I can't catch a cab, I'm black. And I think Barack Obama's black under that guideline, number one.

And number two, why don't you let the man describe himself, and who are you to go in and insert your opinion into all of this? That's the negative side.

The positive side that I see for our country is we are now very used to seeing the leader of the free world being African-American but a mixed-race man, and that is going to help all of us and lower the threshold of that's amazing, you're mixed. You know, that kind of conversation is going to become, I think, less and less common because it's not going to be appropriate, and everybody's going to know it.

MARTIN: And you know what? He never has to catch a cab anymore.

Mr. VISCONTI: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Luke Visconti is the co-founder of DiversityInc. He joined us from WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Kathy Hopinkah Hannan is the Midwest area managing partner for the tax practice at the consulting firm, KPMG. She joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HANNAN: Thank you so much, Michel.

Mr. VISCONTI: Thanks, Michel.

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