Will the "Real" People of Color Please Stand Up?

At ProGroup, we have a belief that the more you know about diversity and inclusion, the more you don't know. This has always been a truism for me, and more so as I continue to meet people of diverse backgrounds and heritage.

Because it's human nature to want to categorize people, we find ourselves - with good intent - labeling entire groups and trying to use appropriate terms. It's "Asian," not "Oriental."

"Black" over "African American," according to recent research. A few years ago "American Indian" replaced "Native American." Some say "white"; others "European American." Never use "ladies"; always use "women," unless you are in the South and then it's okay with some women. Latino may soon replace Hispanic, but for some, it may evolve into "Mexican American." And, when referring to sexual orientation, it's "gay males," "lesbians," or "GLBT", which sometimes becomes "LGBT," depending on whom you are talking to. That's what I know today. It gets very confusing and hard to remember what is "right."

Despite the fact that universities and the media have created their own list of "standard" terminology, usage has changed over time and probably will continue to evolve, leaving us with no list we can be sure of. Historically, controlling groups have had the authority to label or name other groups. Today, ethnic and cultural groups demand the power to name themselves.

What makes this hard is that people don't fit neatly into one box. This is becoming even more apparent as our country becomes more multicultural and multiethnic. The 2000 Census reported that 5.5% of respondents checked "multiracial." Individuals in the focus groups we conduct are more sensitive than ever about being categorized and then labeled.

In the early 1980s, someone somewhere decided that in order to be inclusive and avoid the negativity associated with the term "minority," "people of color" should be adopted. This allowed us to be okay about "clumping" everyone together. But even with this terminology, corporations divide "people of color" into various affinity groups and employee resource and network groups to learn about and understand the communities they represent. Then, they count people by demographic group to show progress in diversity. Difficult, isn't it?

I was struck by this dilemma even more as I listened to Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, president of Bennett College for Women, close the Chief Diversity Officer's Summit earlier this spring. In her inspiring style and thoughtful commentary, Dr. Cole asked us to consider how very different we are within our differences. She challenged us not to try to make things too easy by putting people in Column A or Column B and believing that everyone in that column has the same attributes. To illustrate her point, Dr. Cole referred to one of the presenters, Bonnie St. John, who is a Paralympic Medal-winning skier. She asked us, "In what column would you put 'our sister' Bonnie, who is one-legged, black, a woman, and an athlete?" Dr. Cole asked us to get beyond trying to categorize people and recognize that we are all unique individuals with unique characteristics and distinct perspectives.

In the office recently, ProGroup's ever popular and talented vice president, Tony Orange, was telling us about a training session he conducted where a male participant - a manager - followed him during a break and asked him, "Tony, what do I call you? Do I refer to you as black? Do I say Tony is the black guy in the group? I don't want to be offensive. I just don't know." As always, Tony exhibited great understanding and demonstrated Change Agent behavior. He discussed how you would start by referring to him by name. "I'm Tony." Tony went on to say, "Then, you might ask the individual, as you have done today, what is your preference? Everyone will be different." During the course of this conversation, Tony explained that for him it would be okay to refer to him as black if he was in a crowd and you wanted to point him out to others. "But," Tony continued coaching, "the real issue is whether you treat me differently because of the label." The manager wanted a rule from Tony and an easy answer. Instead, the manager got wisdom. There is no rule book.

We work with several clients who are actively recruiting to increase their diversity representation. In their process, they refer to "diversity applicants," "underrepresented minorities," "diversity hires," and "minority candidates," and they are resistant to change this practice because they believe they won't be able to measure their progress. Consider what it would be like to be hired carrying one of these descriptors, these labels. You may not know you even have a label on . . . or, would you? I remember an old training exercise that I experienced where an adhesive label with the name of a category of people was placed on my forehead. I couldn't see what it said. I had to wear the label all afternoon as people reacted positively or negatively toward me. When I finally peeled it off, I could still feel it hours later.

Human nature... fascinating isn't it? I was with some people at dinner recently and we noticed that our waiter's name on his nametag was 16 letters long. A colleague asked, "How do you say your name?" The waiter proudly pronounced his full name and then apologetically said, "Just call me 'Dickey.' That is what they call me here." We asked, "Do you like the shortened name?" He replied, "No, but it is easier for them. I'm getting used to it."

It's not easy anymore. One day soon, "people of color" will be replaced by someone's new preferred label. As we try to exhibit behaviors of respect and appreciation, let's be conscious of how we use labels and names in our desire to make things simple.

Resist "clumping." It's tempting, but if you consciously work to learn about the whole person and get beyond putting that individual in a group, you may be surprised. All (fill in the blank) are not alike.

Put the extra energy into learning about people, especially their names. One researcher said that your name is the most important word in the English language. Multiply that by all the languages around the world. When you pronounce someone's name correctly, it means a lot-and that's coming from someone whose last name, "Marofsky," has been pronounced and spelled in some pretty crazy ways.

Notice how individuals refer to themselves and use their term. Then, don't assume that the next person will prefer the same label.

Give yourself grace. You won't always know what is correct and you may make a mistake in someone's eyes. Apologize with appreciation and then ask what term the individual prefers.

Ask in order to learn. What a great way to make human connections that make a difference around diversity! Go back to our wise man, Tony, and get beyond the surface stuff to really understand who others are and what they need. In case you don't know, there is no such thing as political correctness.

Source : ProGroup

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