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Diplomatic Relations:'Ambassadors' Field Questions about Race, Ethnicity and Stereotypes


L.A. Johnson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 7, 2007

"Why don't blacks just get over slavery and move on?"

George Booker frequently has been asked this question, usually in casual conversations, such as lunchtime chats with co-workers. And when people ask, he tries to explain.

"If you start a race and both parties are starting from the same starting point, let the best man or woman win," says Mr. Booker, 47, a corrections officer from Penn Hills. "But if you're already hindered in the race by the legacy of discrimination ... It's not a fair race. ... Beyond the [centuries of] labor that was free, there was a lot of land that was stolen." Some people respect his viewpoint, he says. Others don't.

The Post-Gazette asked readers to share stories of times they've been ethnic or racial "ambassadors" -- been asked to represent, explain or field questions about their ethnicity or race. And share readers did, often citing well-intended, though sometimes annoying and insensitive comments, questions and prejudicial assumptions others have made about them because of their ethnicity or race.

The assumptions begin as soon as someone believes they can place another person into a particular box. American culture defines and categorizes people by biology -- white, black, Asian or Latino, says Laurence Glasco, Ph.D., an associate professor who teaches about race and ethnicity in the University of Pittsburgh's history department.

"Society and culture tell us we're supposed to think of ourselves and other people and other races in a certain way, and the way that society defines it isn't the way that reality is," he says.

Words that hurt

When Gloria Gizzi-Hassett was a little girl during World War II, she didn't understand why her Italian parents were ostracized and slurred. "It wasn't until years and years later that I realized the fact that Mussolini, the fascist dictator in Italy, was at war with us in the second world war," says Mrs. Gizzi-Hassett, 74, of the South Side. Whether Mussolini sympathizers or not, many Italians were viewed suspiciously during World War II, she says."The memories of being called those names still haunt me," she says.

When Patricia Documet's now adult son was 6, he took a standardized test in school. "I'm so glad he got a good score even though he is Hispanic," his teacher told her. "She was patronizing, even though she was well-meaning," says Dr. Documet, a physician and assistant professor in the behavioral and community health sciences department in Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health. When she replayed the conversation in her head, she was angry with herself for not having said something to the teacher. Since then, she has handled similar situations differently. Years ago, a former neighbor heard her speaking Spanish to family -- in her own yard -- and said, "Speak English, you're in America, now!" She told him she always has been in America. Her native Peru is in America, she says, just South America.

Elizabeth Stork has naturally blond hair. "When people learn that I am Jewish, they often say, 'You don't look Jewish,' " says Dr. Stork, an assistant professor who teaches multicultural perspectives in Robert Morris University's Organizational Studies School of Adult and Continuing Education. "There are blond Jews," she tells them. She shuts down conversations when people make derogatory comments about Jewish people. "This might be as simple as someone saying, 'Jew him down,' when talking about negotiating a price," she says. And whenever people generalize saying, "Jews do this or that," she tells them, "I'm Jewish. If you are curious about something, you could ask me about what Jews do, although I can't possibly speak for all Jews."

Simple as black or white

American culture arbitrarily creates biology-based race definitions, Dr. Glasco says. Jewish people, for example, once were considered a separate race and now they're considered white. "Culture says you're either black or white," Dr. Glasco says. "Obviously, people aren't either black or white. There's a whole range of colors and a whole range of backgrounds, and because we have this rule, you have to be one or the other."

Heather Curry feels she's a bridge, straddling a racial divide in society and in her own family. Her father is white. Her mother is black. "What are you?" people often ask Ms. Curry, 18, of Erie. "I feel like I'm being asked, 'What planet are you from?' or like I have a bad Halloween costume on," she says. "When someone asks me, 'What are you?' I try to keep their point of view in mind, but it still comes off as offensive sometimes." Her responses to the question include "human," "a girl," "biracial" and "half black and half white." "It depends on how people asked," says Ms. Curry, a Point Park University freshman majoring in advertising. She even has felt picked apart by family on both sides. "The black side of my family thinks I'm more white because I talk properly, but the white side of my family thinks I'm ghetto if I get [African] braids," she says.

When she has dated white guys, her mother has expressed concern about the young man's parents being accepting of her because she's biracial. And in some cases, a boyfriend's parents have disapproved of their son dating her. When she has dated black guys, some of her white relatives have been uncomfortable with it. "I think both sides are waiting for me to choose and society wants me to choose and I don't want to," Ms. Curry says. "I connect with both and I don't connect with one more than the other."

'Do you speak English?'

For years, Steve Chiang tried to maintain a good Halloween spirit with the hundreds of trick-or-treaters who graced his front door, but for a couple of years, some children kept asking him the same question: "Do you speak English?"

"Sometimes the question would come after we've exchanged some pleasantries or at least my urging, 'Aren't you going to say trick or treat?' " says Mr. Chiang, 31, of Morningside. "What language do they think I was speaking?" This year he didn't give out candy, although he still put up Halloween decorations. Mr. Chiang, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when he was 12, considers the Halloween incidents mild annoyances. "I don't feel I'm as discriminated against as other minorities are," he says. American society doesn't seem to have the same negative stereotypes of Asian-Americans as it does of other minorities. "They see Asians as being the nerdy, studious types who go to CMU," says Mr. Chiang, who adds he is an architect who attended Carnegie Mellon University. "You shouldn't assume I'm good at math. I'm not good at math. I'm not a doctor," he says. "Are positive stereotypes a good thing? I don't know." He doesn't take offense when people ask him questions about Asian cultures and answers the questions if he can.

Dealing with the majority

Questions posed to "ambassadors" are grounded in the questioner's reality, says Larry E. Davis, Ph.D., director of the Center on Race and Social Problems and dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. Just last week, a woman asked Dr. Davis, who is black, whether he was dean of the "whole" School of Social Work. He knew why she was asking, he says, because it is uncommon for a black person to be dean of a school at the university. "This woman, I'm sure, meant no offense," Dr. Davis says. "She was just questioning, testing her reality."

Because they're immersed in the majority culture, those who find themselves in the "ambassador" role have to remember they often know more about that culture than the majority culture knows about them, he says. "It's better to attribute these things to ignorance rather than malice," Dr. Davis says. "It's not like they elect to have these biases or absence of information from their experience."

That's why Cheri L. Thomas counts to 10, takes a deep breath and answers such questions about Native Americans, thinking, "At least they're asking the question and not choosing to cruise on by in life, ignorant." While discussing a favorite wine with a blind date a few years ago, her companion told her, "You only have whiskey and water to drink on the reservation." She quickly assured him that potables are plentiful and varied on the reservation. "He seemed genuinely surprised that Native Americans have access to nonalcoholic items such as milk, juice, Gatorade and carbonated beverages," said Ms. Thomas, 38, of Los Angeles.

She has grown weary of the "Dances With Wolves" mentality and people's ignorance of the diversity among Native American tribes. "I am often asked if any of our [Quinault] tribal members still use wigwams," says Ms. Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission. "Since we are not buffalo hunters or plains dwellers and live in the Olympic National Rainforest area [in Washington state], our shelters were wooden longhouses."

People continue to misunderstand each other because they often look at others and assume "you're like me or not like me," says Beverly Goodwin, a professor and director of doctoral studies in Indiana University of Pennsylvania's psychology department.

"Individuals think they know me based on what they think they know about me," she says. "Usually, what they know is I'm African-American, and they think that explains it all." On more than one occasion at grocery stores, cashiers have turned to her after totaling her items and asked for her food stamps. "Excuse me?" she has said, giving them a chance to rethink their assumption. However, when they've simply repeated the question, Dr. Goodwin has told them she's paying by check.

Separate worlds

Despite the country's diversity, these questions still persist. "We shop in the same stores and go to the same university, but we live and play and worship in very separate worlds," Pitt's Dr. Glasco says. "We live so separate and so insulated from each other that we have these strange ideas about one another that can only be overcome by getting to know each other."

Since 9/11, Iraqi-born Abdullah Alkhuzai has had a difficult time. "People look at me really weird," says Mr. Alkhuzai, 35, of the South Hills. "A lot of people were cussing me [saying] ... Are you a terrorist?' "

He has stood in line at the airport and seen all the people around him disappear. "Some people judge people by their looks and that is not right," he says. He and his wife have moved because of harassment. "People on my old street didn't like me," he says. "They were against me because I'm Iraqi. Nobody said to me, 'What's going on? What have you been through?' They called the FBI on me."

Mr. Alkhuzai, a Shiite Muslim who fought against Saddam Hussein's regime, came to the United States in 1994 as a war refugee. Under Saddam's rule, he was beaten, imprisoned, stabbed, electrocuted, starved, interrogated and deprived of medical attention and still managed to escape. He sued Saddam Hussein and his regime for cruel and inhuman treatment and in 2004 won $88 million in damages, though he hasn't yet received any money. He loves the United States and says many people have been kind to him, but others view him with suspicion. "Sometimes, you can't explain to them and they stay with their anger," he says. "Sometimes, I have the chance to explain to them about [me]."

When Lorraine Brown started work at a local bank nearly 20 years ago, she was the only African-American in the entire company. Early in her tenure, a female colleague approached her. "I'm so glad you work here," the woman said. "I wonder if you can tell me how to fry chicken?" "She assumed, because I'm African-American, that I can fry chicken," says Ms. Brown, 59, of East Liberty. "I felt very insulted." Ms. Brown explained to the woman that when she wants fried chicken, she buys it from fast-food restaurants or grocery stores, but she doesn't make it herself.

True 'ambassadors'

An "ambassador" moment is an opportunity to educate people and not make them so uncomfortable that they'll never again talk to a person who is different from them, experts say. In that vein, Phillip Milano runs the Web site "Y? The National Forum On People's Differences" at www.yforum.com/column.html and writes the "Dare to Ask" column for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. He came up with the idea to give people a safe environment in which to "have these conversations and ask these impolitic, embarrassing or even taboo questions." He likens the Web site and the column -- where readers and experts answer the questions -- to going to see an insult comic. "When you know that you're going to be assaulted, you prepare yourself psychologically," says Mr. Milano, author of the book "I Can't Believe You Asked That!" "It's context. If you saw that stuff and hadn't prepared yourself for it, you'd be unbelievably offended."

Which may explain why people repeatedly on the receiving end of such questions become irritated at times. "At some point, we need to figure out how to desensitize ourselves," Mr. Milano says. "We should be able to accept when someone says something out of genuine curiosity -- even if it wasn't said in the most gracious way. If they're asking, they want to learn."