Minority Interests

When That Innocent Question About Your Culture Isn’t So Innocent

February 24, 2014 1 Comment

In the first of a four part series exploring hidden prejudice in the workplace we explore how discrimination can be so subtle that you may mistake it for genuine personal interest.

Not long ago, a friend of mine told me about a situation at work when a colleague asked him about some of his religious practices.  The colleague was curious and asked more and more questions. It was as if my friend was expected to be an authority on everything related to his ethnic culture. After a while he became exhausted with the questions and was left feeling uncomfortable. He says now if anyone asks him a lot of “cultural” questions he says he doesn’t know and politely tells them to look online.

Dr Koen Van Laer and Dr Maddy Janssens found that a subtle form of discrimination occurred when minority ethnic professionals were asked questions that exposed their differences in a way that reduced their entire identity to the differences being discussed.  In my friend’s example, it was as if his culture was being reduced to his religious practices.

The first few times this happens you may want to explain the cultural difference. This seems natural, especially if it is a colleague you work closely with, but it can be frustrating when minority ethnic professionals are judged on these differences.

The Normalising Gaze

These judgements can occur when the people asking the questions position themselves as normal, their questions about your culture therefore positions you as being not normal. In the workplace, this may leave you in situation where you feel that you are expected to qualify or justify why a particular behaviour associated with your culture is “normal” or acceptable.

These questions may not be about curiosity but about trying to understand if you as a minority ethnic professional fit a particular stereotype.  This has happened to me: I’ve been asked so many stupid questions, for example why it’s ok for rappers (and by some assumption all black people) to use the n word and it’s not ok for anyone else.  I was asked this question in a professional services organisation.

These questions tend to be around practices that are not always visible but may be associated with particular ethnic groups but it’s not hard to imagine how this works with visible cultural differences. It must get annoying for a man wearing a turban to repeatedly answer questions about how long his hair is or for a woman wearing a hijab to explain that she is not oppressed.

The discrimination occurs when the differences are forced to be exposed and then they are judged.

These on going and inconspicuous events are disempowering for minority ethnic professionals because they can create a hostile environment and are often not subject to any anti-discrimination regulations. This can have a negative impact on the day to day lives of minority ethnic professionals; in contrast members of the ethnic majority don’t have to subject the “exotic” parts of their identity to the Normalising Gaze.

The authors had a number of signals that it may be useful to keep an eye out for:

  • The questions about your background keep returning
  • The questions are often based on stereotypes
  • The questions were a test to see if you fit the stereotype or if you are “normal”
  • There may be a negative reaction to the differences.

This may happen to you regularly, but you’ve never thought about how it makes you feel. Alternatively this may never happen to you. Have you ever felt like an unelected spokesperson for your entire ethnic group?

Let me know your experiences and thoughts below

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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