Race in the Workplace: Questions to Avoid

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When you are a person of color — any color — safety is an illusion. It can be easy at times to forget that you are “other,” that you don’t look like your peers or colleagues, because, I mean, we’re all individuals; therefore, we all look different in some respect, right?

Well … wrong. Sure, it’s correct to say that in most respects, but when your ethnicity is not particularly ambiguous and you look distinctly from another part of the world, you might forget about your appearance, but the people you interact and work with might not. After all, while you don’t look at yourself, they do, and for some, that’s enough to remind them that your eggshell is a different color, despite having the same yolk on the inside.

"While you don’t look at yourself, they do, and for some, that’s enough to remind them that your eggshell is a different color."

However, that’s not to say that our differences should be ignored, or even necessarily celebrated. It’s vital to understand that there are certain lines of conversation and certain questions that, even with the best of intentions and despite genuine curiosity, are uncomfortable and ostracizing. Culture can and should be talked about — our variations are what make America great and provide an endless source of learning in our communities. But there is a right and wrong way to become educated on the ways of others, so here are a few things not to say or ask, with suggestions on how certain queries can be shifted from offensive to innocuous.

1. 'What Are You?'

Although it’s an extremely personal question, it’s actually a very impersonal way of looking at an individual. It immediately establishes a sense of otherness and points out someone’s physicality as an instant label, whether or not that person defines or identifies themselves as being from a certain ethnicity. No matter how well-intended it is, this is not a good conversation starter, and makes it very uncomfortable for the person of color to have to answer. They’re trapped to either appear rude by dodging it or disclose information that doesn’t really have bearing on their everyday work. After all, it shouldn’t make a difference what their ancestral makeup is, so there is no relevance to this question in a professional setting. Why bother asking?

2. 'Where Are You From?'

The simple answer, for someone white or white-presenting, is typically a town or a state, and they think nothing of responding to this. But for many Black, Indigenous, and people of color, that answer is simply not good enough, and questioners insist on digging deeper, even if the person they are asking was born in the United States. Answering with a domestic location, however, often results in follow-ups like, “No, where are you really from?” “I mean, where is your family from?” or just a dismissive, “You know what I mean.” None of those follow-up questions is acceptable. Again, in a workplace, knowing details like this about an individual, when not freely given in context of a personal interaction, only serves to unlock or justify biases and establish a sense of “other,” and detracts from the environment.  

3. 'I Have an XYZ Friend ...'

Before anyone offers a story about a friend who appears to be from the same corner of the world to those with whom they are speaking, they should consider first why disclosing that ethnicity is relevant to the story. Are they about to recount something that goes against a stereotype, or reinforces one? Are they curious to have behavior explained or justified to them? Are they prying about the Black, Indigenous, or person of color’s personal habits or life? Or are they trying to virtue-signal by showing off that they have diversity in their social circle? If not, “I have a friend” should be sufficient enough to start their narrative, without having to specify that this friend of theirs is of whatever other culture. After all, if that is something they track, are they even really, truly a friend?

4. 'Why Do XYX People Do XYZ? Do You?'

This is an imminently racist question for a wide range of reasons. First of all, not all Black, Indigenous, or person of color are tied into their communities. Secondly, even if they were active in their community, one person should not serve as a representative for everyone else within it, and that role should never be appointed by someone outside of it. Additionally, this kind of question is never about the actual act or thought process being made the subject of the question. It’s typically a poorly disguised way to share complaints and stereotypes about a group of people, lightly veiled as curiosity. And following up with a direct question — as is often the case — of the Black, Indigenous, or person of color the asker is speaking to, asking them to either refute the stereotype or reinforce it is again an aggressive reminder of otherness.

5. 'Oh, Not You — You’re Not Like Those XYZ People.'

Often meant as a compliment, it ought to be recognized that it's not. Sure, everyone knows that there are negative perceptions to nearly every race and creed. However, by pointing out that the Black, Indigenous, or person of color does not embody those traits show that there was an initial expectation that the person they are speaking to was assumed to have them, and then separates them from their community, even as the gesture is made to accept them into the commenter’s community. Even jokingly, to say “you’re so white” is an erasure of their culture and heritage and a nod to the perceived superiority, showing inherent “whiteness” as a more desirable trait. This is subtle racism that is societal, and only when those preconceived notions are retired can we progress.

In other words, as a rule of thumb, before one asks a personal question, ask yourself first, “Would I even think about asking this to a white colleague?” Because although sharing personal details is how we as humans connect and bond, there is a right and wrong way to do it, and being cornered or forced into sharing those details will always cause more harm than good — especially in a workplace.

Tags: BIPOC, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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Su-Jit Lin

Su-Jit Lin is a food, travel, wellness, shopping, and lifestyle writer who is passionate about writing stories that help. See Full Bio

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