(Photo credit: ‘Get Out’ / Universal Pictures)
In one scene of Jordan Peele’s brilliant movie, Get Out, Mr. Tanaka, a Japanese guest at the garden party, asks our hero, Chris: “Is the African-American experience an advantage or disadvantage?” (For an interesting analysis on Mr. Tanaka’s character, see here).
Thousands of books/movies/documentaries have been and can still be written on this question. So, Chris is understandably taken aback – how can he come up with any short, pithy answer for this cocktail crowd? He ultimately deflects this loaded question to Andre. The question never gets answered.
These types of loaded, personal and unanswerable questions are asked all the time in such casual settings. I was at a dinner reception once and seated at my table was a person who I will call “Jen.” Jen is a straight, black woman in her 60s. She knows my wife professionally and I had met her fleetingly once before. As we sat down to eat Jen asked me, “So, how does the Indian community feel about same-sex marriage?”
Marriage equality and its effects on my community are hardly light, cocktail conversation. All eyes travelled to me, waiting for a response. At once feeling on display and struggling to answer, I deflected – a response that I have perfected over the years for intrusive but innocuously asked questions by well-meaning people. To me, this question is personal and prying. But to Jen it was a perfectly reasonable question to ask.
My straight friend of color, who I will call “Jung,” was seated next to me and I asked him later what he thought of her question. Jung said, “What’s the big deal? She was curious.”
A few days later, when I told my best friend, who is a straight white woman and an ally to people of color and the queer community, she responded, “Why would she ask you that? That’s so personal!”
Reconciling all of these views, I came to understand that the perspective on what is reasonable and what is intrusive appears to be a matter of compassion.
We all have been in Jen’s shoes: curious about another’s experience that we have not gone through ourselves. Yet our good intent does not negate our impact on others. It is precisely because Jen sees me as “the other” that her curiosity is piqued. If she identified with me through any of our commonalities (even simply, as a human being as complex as she is) her question could have been further defined by her compassion.
Maybe Jen could have asked herself, “Am I reinforcing otherness?” “Am I putting someone on display for one of their many identities that I find fascinating?”
If the answer is yes, there are other ways to connect without putting someone on the spot. When we find ourselves in Jen’s shoes, wanting to satisfy our curiosity about someone’s personal life experiences, it is worth it to take a second or two to think about the question we want to ask. Are we asking them to be a spokesperson for their community or are we asking about their personal life experience, and if we are, is it even appropriate to ask something so personal?
Or, find a trusted ally. In my opinion, the best and fastest way to grow is to find a friend or other sounding board that you trust and who trusts you to have these conversations in a safe and non-judgmental environment.