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Owning Our Ignorance Can Be Therapeutic

Years ago I had the opportunity to engage synagogue Temple Beth Israel in a diversity enlightenment session, which is a conversation about diversity and social justice. I expected it to be quite a challenge in terms of the intellectual exchange because the person who invited me was Dean of Library and Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh, Cerise Oberman, one of my mentors whose style and professional grace is only surpassed by her intellect. I also knew other supportive colleagues would be in the mix, like historian Doug Skopp and sociologist Lynn Schlesinger, both members of SUNY Plattsburgh’s Center for Diversity’s Task Force, and fellow philosophy professor Henry Goldenberg. It was a really pleasant moment for me because often I walk into educational conversations with groups where I don’t know a soul, who have members who are either adverse to the underlying message of the workshop/session or think it is a waste of time because they already know everything about diversity (which is a joke in itself since I haven’t figured it all out myself and I get paid to know and teach it). Suffice it to say, the members of Temple Beth Israel were extremely receptive to the conversation I attempted to create and thoroughly engaged in the dialogue.


However, there was a moment in the conversation that I will never forget. I had never addressed a synagogue, and hadn’t really thought about the fact that a certain moment would arrive in the conversation, or I would have prepared for it. Well, the moment came when I went to refer to the group in its entirety by their cultural-religious-political reality, and became overwhelmed with anxiety that I was about to refer to them incorrectly, or more so, insultingly. You see, I wasn’t sure if I should call a Jewish group “Jews.” I think I had heard anti-Semitic remarks that were framed with the term Jew as I was growing up that somehow convinced me that the term Jew may have been a disparaging or offensive term. I know, I know, it is somewhat hard to believe that I actually had this concern, but how many of you know for sure whether to address me as African American, Black (or simply a very handsome, witty, caramel colored man, which is actually my preference).

Of course, as a presenter, you don’t want to offend your audience, and I don’t think I had ever referred to a Jew as a Jew before. Think about it, when I am talking to a group of lesbians I don’t necessarily have to refer to them as lesbians during that exchange. When I look back on it, perhaps I should be ashamed of that moment, especially since I am a director of a university’s diversity center and am supposed to be adept at language and at least somewhat sophisticated about varying cultures. Well, at the moment when I was at the epitome of my anxiety, the moment when I was poised to say it, or not say it, I took a deep breath and asked, “Is it appropriate for me to refer to you as Jews?” This classy group of people patiently smiled supportively and allowed me to grow right in front of their eyes. It just goes to show that no matter how sophisticated we are, a moment of discomfort is only one sentence away!

Have you ever had a moment of anxiety in not knowing how to address someone different from you? What did you do in that moment? Do you feel you handled it well, or would you like to have that moment back? Should we be ashamed of not knowing, or should we own the fact that we don’t know? What advice do you have for others who will inevitably experience a moment like that themselves?

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I'll never forget a moment I shared with my first wife, who is half African American and Half German and the biological mother of my daughter Darby:

We drove up a stretch of road in Junction City, KS on our way to her parents' house. I don't recall the conversation's specifics, but I vividly recall the moment I refered to African Americans as colored. It wasn't malicious. It stemmed from ignorance to the fact the term I used was insulting. I can't recall where I heard "colored." I was enrolled at Kansas State University and recall a professor who referred to African Americans as colored, though I also grew up in rural America, in Vermont's Northeast kingdom, and before spending time in the Army was influenced by my conditioning in an extremely rural area largely inhabited by white Christian conservatives with little multi-cultural exposure beyond race jokes.
Anyway, my wife became fiercely angry and called me on my insult. I apologized refusely, and remember the guilt, anger at myself and sickness in my stomach that I had uttered something offensive to my wife and might be construed as racist.

So yeah, to this day I remember that moment, though I don't know whether I regret it as I'm thankful for my desire since then to expand my knowledge base in terms of other cultures, races, religions, etc...

My buddy and I, while in training in the Army, called ourselves the high-fiving white guys, acting uncoordinated, goofy and nerdy and basically picking on our own race and the way it is sometimes stereotypically perceived as lacking rhythm and flavor, being uptight, power hungry and ignorant to the differences around us. We used to get a good chuckle from all our friends in the Army, though I guess on that day with my wife I was truly being a "High-Fiving White guy."

*** Steve, that is a great story and I appreciate you sharing it. I have experienced the "colored" moment myself. I had just moved to Plattsburgh and a very nice woman who was discussing the possibilities of renting a place to me culminated our conversation with a compliment about me. She told me I was "a very nice colored man." Unlike your ex-wife's reaction, I completely took it as a compliment, even though in my mind's eye colored people died in the 60s, around the same time as Negroes, and Afro-Americans. But everyone's level of sophistication isn't the same and at all times I think we need to try to consider the context. If more people did that, we would have less problems. Though I am surprised that you and your ex-wife didn't have that moment long before saying "I do!" That was probably an occurrence attributed to your youth. When we are young we often don't engage the topics we should with the depth that allows us to truly connect with one another. Then we start to really experience life, careers, age itself, or children forcing many of us to intimately examine the gradations of our experiences, and unfortunately we often realize that many of the people who have propogated our lives we don't even know. Some of these people are our spouses, or said differently, we may be some of these people ourselves to our spouses. *** -- J.W.

Hey JW
Wow does this one strike a cord!
I remember in college participating in a discussion in English Class. I think I was a Junior by now, so, it wasn't in a huge lecture hall - maybe 25 or 30 students. We were discussing a book my Toni Morrison...and I used the word "Negros" to talk about African Americans. It was one of those moments when you actually see the words coming out of your mouth and you can visually yourself trying to pull them back in, but, to no avail. Several students in the class jumped down my throat pretty hard that day. Interestingly though, there was some disagreement over whether "Blacks" or "African-Americans" was the more appropriate term. I think we may have settled on "Blacks" because not all people who's skin pigment is very dark AND live in the US are either African or American. And maybe this says the most of all - there wasn't a person of color in the class - not one.

More recently, I had a very similar moment to yours with Andrew Pulrang, the Executive Director of the North Country Center for Indepepdence. Some fellow citizens and I were trying to get the Town of Plattsburgh to stripe a handicapped-parking space in a park near where we lived. I had other business to do with Mr. Pulrang, so, I took the opportunity of the meeting to enlist his help. But I found my own vocabulary inadaquate to describe his constituencey...disabled? challenged? handicapped? differently-abled? I had heard all of those terms used and really didn't like any of them - so like you - I stopped and asked Mr. Pulrang just how I should refer to the parking space. Like you, I received grace and patience in return for my well-meaning ignorance.

More generally, I think it's interesting that even within groups there are disagreements about just how that particular group should be referred to. We may all agree that "Negro" is at least out-dated and at worst, a polite "N-word" but, there are honest disagreements among people of color about the terms "Blacks" or "African-Americans" and if either one or both is appropriate. In your case, was "Jews" or "Isrealis" more appropriate? I would think "Jewish People" would probably be the most polite and most accurate. Certainly, not all Isrealis are Jewish and visa-versa.

More generally still, why do we have this urge to be able to catagorize a certain group of people who may exhibit some outwardly similar trait? The english language is built on busines-style efficiency with a sort of merchantile quality to it. Efficiency and speed of communication trump subtle gradations in context and connotation. Spanish, for example, has different words for "love" that one might use dependent upon love being expressed for an object, a person, or to obtain something one does not have. English has very few words relative to many other languages. Might it be this lack of expressiveness in our language that simply leaves us ill-equipped to thougtfully deal with the subtle but important differences (diversity) found among large groups of otherwise homogeneous - looking people? Maybe most of us just don't want to work hard enough to find the words within our own language to best describe others.

*** CB, my brother, some times you bring it with extraordinary volume. Look at you reading Toni Morrison at a young age. Perhaps that give some inroads into your "flava!"

My colleagues within the Temple Beth Israel group that night expressed to me that Jews was an appropriate term, and I was comfortable calling them what they preferred. I would be curious now that you put that on the table to know how Jews would distinguish themselves from Israelis, if at all. I know that I distinguish in some very unique ways the differences between African American and Black (which I won't go into at this point), and would feel quite stupid referring to myself as Afro-American, so it wouldn't surprise me to discover that all Jews might not see the distinctions the same (or might not necessarily like being called a Jew, now that I think about it).

Andrew Pulrang in my eyes is what Snoop Dogg would call "the shiznit!" Now I know Andrew and have talked with him on multiple occassions and can imagine the calm grace he bestowed on a man seeking answers. But, as is my way, I like to introduce people to people and people to different ways of seeing and experiencing. I would bet the farm that no one has ever called cool, calm, collected Andrew Pulrang what in street terms is one of the highest compliments you can receive, "the Shiznit." Andrew, if you are out there, I just gave you massive love. If you want the translation on the term, give me a ring at CDPI!

CB, sometimes people say things that need to be repeated, or that we wish we had said. You did that when you said

"Might it be this lack of expressiveness in our language that simply leaves us ill-equipped to thougtfully deal with the subtle but important differences (diversity) found among large groups of otherwise homogeneous - looking people? Maybe most of us just don't want to work hard enough to find the words within our own language to best describe others."

If I leave my job anytime soon, and you keep dropping it like that, you should at least apply! Believe me, I couldn't have made that point any more eloquently! *** -- J.W.

This post brings to mind one specific recurring awkwardness in my life. Right now I am dating a deaf man, and I am always having issues of how to introduce him. When I say "this is my boyfriend, Billy, and he is deaf", I feel extremely uncomfortable. Yet if I don't state that he is deaf, people are confused as to why he is so quiet, or think he has a mental illness because of the way he talks.
Because I have been given the opportunity to spend so much time with him, his deafness has become somewhat disassociated with his uniqueness. When I look at him now, I don't 'see deaf.' But because deafness is such a dominate trait, I know that when I introduce him as deaf it becomes the main way people remember him. I suppose by 'concealing his deafness', I am attempting to force people to see his vicarious and infectious personality the way that I do.
Overall, I do not like labeling people at all. Deaf, Jewish, Black, White...all come with different character traits associated with that label. When confronted with these (usually unflattering) categorizations, it does bring a level of discomfort. I'm not sure how to break these negative associations with the categories, but perhaps CB is right- if we just take the extra effort to sift through the English language, we may be able to find better words to better describe others.

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