Minority Interests

“Thanks… I think..” When A Compliment Is An Insult At The Same Time.

February 27, 2014 1 Comment

In the second of a four part series exploring hidden prejudice in the workplace we explore how comments intended as compliments can be deeply insulting.

A friend of mine is a high performer; he’s got a great job at a global company and has always performed well in not only his job but at school and university. At a recent work event he was told that he was really well read, open minded and liberal, “you’re different to the others”. He knew what they meant when they said “others”; it wasn’t the first time he had been complimented in this way.

Dr Koen Van Laer and Dr Maddy Janssens found that a subtle form of discrimination occurred when minority ethnic professionals were complimented but their ethnic group was marginalised.  As an individual, being told that you are smart, hardworking or talented will naturally feel like a compliment. Your opinion may change if the compliment is then qualified by a negative remark about a group that you belong to.

You are legitimate but your ethnic group is not

As a minority ethnic professional, particular observations can serve to legitimise you because you meet a higher standard that allows you to be “accepted”. Using the word “legitimate” in this way implies that you are somehow illegitimate. This isn’t a belief held by everyone but it is for those say things like:

“ If only more Asians were like you”

“You’re not like the other Nigerians”

“You speak incredibly well for a Chinese person”

These are real comments from minority ethnic professionals that I know. Far from making them feel accepted; they reinforced negative stereotypes associated with their ethnic groups.

Obama is a great example. He is characterised as being special, a unique individual. His remarkable path to the White House means that he is often placed in a class that separates him from the rest of the African American community that he clearly identifies with.  In Obama’s case the accolades help to legitimise him as the President of the United States, because he is exceptional “considering his background”.

The discrimination occurs because identifying you as a positive exception allows them to reveal their negative opinions about your ethnic group

Your exceptional qualities entitle you to be accepted because the implication is that your membership of an ethnic group may have prevented your achievements. These comments tend to be based on traditional stereotypes and of course are unjustified.

This is different from traditional forms of discrimination because the negative stereotypes about the group are not being applied to you as an individual.  They think that you are better not worse than the “others”!

Instead of being empowering, it is the opposite. It is disempowering because you are being confronted with negative attitudes about your ethnic group. This combination of positive and negative is what makes this form of discrimination subtle. This is a really ambiguous experience, but the surprised reactions and unnecessary compliments tend to give the game away. Keep this in mind, next time if this happens to you.

Or maybe, we’ve got it wrong and you really are in a class of your own.

Has this ever happened to you? How do you deal with this? Share your experiences below.

Image courtesy of  Zazzle


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