Friday, June 11

Considering Intentions: You Can't See Into Another Person's Heart

"Is it because I'm black?"

"Pardon me?"

"You're looking at me funny. Is it because I'm black?"

That was part of an exchange I had at a retail outlet the other day. It really took me by surprise. It's been some time since someone accused me of being racist, given that some of my best friends are black and how I long I'd been an NAACP member.

So, I had to tell the clerk the truth. I was looking at him funny because his breath stunk so bad it burned my eyes. He was pretty embarrassed. I told him to never mind being embarrassed, while wondering why his coworkers were waiting for some random customer to help the guy out.

It's one of the lessons I include in my classes to underscore how it's better to be up front with coworkers. But there is another lesson I wish more people would learn too. How we process information often has much more to do about our own insecurities (if we have them) then anything someone doesn't mean to communicate.

Communication isn't always about you.

It was one of the first lessons I learned about public speaking. While all speakers love the idea of students and audience members leaning forward and hanging on our every word, it's mostly a fantasy. And it has nothing to do with the speaker.

You can't guess intentions. At a conference, some attendees are going to stay out too late the night before. Some might have personal or work-related issues distracting them. Some might be covering your talk on Twitter. And maybe a couple of folks really will be bored.

Who knows? It doesn't matter. Unless, of course, the entire class checks out. It won't be narcissism in that case.

A caution about over-sensitizing issues.

I recall reading a news story a few years ago where the reporter was offended because his coworker invited him over for a barbecue and enthusiastically mentioned there would be fried chicken. The reporter was offended, asking the coworker what made him think he liked fried chicken. The remainder of the story was about subconscious racism.

I couldn't find the article, but I did find an interesting forum discussion about something similar. The discussion may have followed the KFC advertisement that was banned. Some Australians were confused by the banning of the commercial. They were unfamiliar with the stereotype.

The communication challenge that I find interesting, assuming the reporter's coworker had no ill intent, is that the coworker might have enthusiastically mentioned fried chicken to white colleagues too. Suppose he did. Still racist? Or, what if he mentioned it to everyone except the black reporter for fear of offending him. Still racist?

It gets very convoluted. So much so that it seems to me that over-sensitizing issues may inadvertently reinforce them.

It seems to be turning out that way in Arizona. Even officers who would never employ racial profiling have reported that Hispanics have changed their behavior. They say many Hispanics are more elusive around officers because they (the officers) are predisposed to racial profiling. And yet, one has to wonder. Isn't assuming a black or caucasian officer will employ racial profiling racist as well? Given racism stems from fear, maybe so.

One thing is certain. Even if I don't think most of America is racist, it certainly is obsessed by racism. The media knows all too well. Racism headlines attract eyeballs. It's sad, especially for CNN.

The "anger" thing has nothing to do with being black. In 2006, Ken Mehlman, then Republican National Committee chair, said that "I don't think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates." He was referring to Hillary Clinton. Remember Howard Dean? Joe Wilson?? Hmmm ... there may be some truth to that.

To date, I've only found one easy self-test to tell if you're prone toward discrimination. If someone close to you (son, daughter, brother, sister) started dating someone with a different racial origin or religious background, would it bother you? If the answer is yes, you have some work to do.

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