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Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Prejudice Sounds Like

    It's been a while since I've had a chance to post because I've been pretty busy training.  As usual, training classes have offered me plenty of content for blogging.  The most interesting of late has been on the topic of diversity.  Diversity management can be a challenging topic for individuals in the workplace.  I've seen people in my training classes visibly uncomfortable discussing The Big Three--race and culture, sexual orientation, and religious differences.  Maybe because biases expressed in these areas tend to get people in the most trouble.  For those who hate confrontation, they tend to shy away from potentially controversial topics altogether.  The concern I hear expressed most often is that they don't know what to say because they fear they'll offend someone.  It's the whole "walking on egg shells" concern that leads to avoidance of the topic.  At work, when they have to attend training because some discrimination issue has occurred, they show up in my sessions looking defiant, resistant, even indifferent.  Anything but engaged.  Yet, how can you know what might offend if you never discuss it?  Where are the lines?  Initially, the participants are mostly quiet for the first half hour or so. But gradually they start to warm up when they realize it's okay to ask questions, share their viewpoint, even laugh a little at how ridiculous stereotyping and prejudicial language sounds.  Which brings me to my topic...
    Dialogue is essential when it comes to understanding where the lines are.  Since most people aren't clear about where their personal lines are drawn, others tend to bump up against them more often than they care to, and it's confusing.  What may be okay to say in one person's presence may be totally offensive in another's.  When the offended person complains about it--sometimes in an equally offensive way--then the offender often tends to shy away from broaching sensitive subjects again in the future.  Thus, they stay in the dark about what's inappropriate, and usually walk away feeling like some people are too sensitive.  Since I don't know the entire reason why some people feel strongly about certain words, phrases and comments, I seek first to understand.  In a classroom setting, it's easy for me to ask why?  I do so for the benefit of all in the room because not everyone has that type of forum to start a serious discussion on a sensitive topic.  At that point, the ice is broken; not the egg.
     Prejudicial language is any verbiage that discriminates against an individual or group.  For some of you, it may be said without malice or any intent to harm, but it's still negative in its meaning.  Words and phrases like:
  • "He tried to jew me down."
  • "Indian giver"
  • "Dumb blonde"
  • "Boy" (to a black man)
  • "Gal" (to a black woman)
  • "Redneck"
  • "Dumb jock"
  • "Retard"
  • "You people"
     You've heard and maybe even said all of them at some point or another.  These are the tamer ones of course.  So how do you avoid the offense rather than the conversation?  I would simply advise you in this way:  if it's offensive to some, then it's offensive to all.  Don't say it.