Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Responding to Cultural Insensitivity

While I could certainly write on the need for underrepresented peoples to respond to culturally-insensitive comments or actions, this guide is actually for those who have privilege and who say that inevitable faux-pas.

We all have the potential of abusing our cultural power, of course, so I hope that everybody can find these short tips useful. As an educated, physically "non-handicapped" male, I recognize that I have privilege in certain situations. As a queer person of color from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background, I am vulnerable in other situations. The list could go on. However, my disadvantage never makes the oppression of other people acceptable. Privilege is privilege.

With this in mind, please accept these tips with the spirit in which they are given. I hope they can be of use in the future.

1. Cultural confrontation requires courage for the recipient of the comment

Recognize that people do not always respond to an insensitive comment or action when it offends them. Many people will not say anything and simply accept that the environment is unfriendly or just leave after the slight. By approaching you with, the "offended person" is extending a hope that the conflict can be resolved, which requires a sense of trust. The alternative is that the situation has gone on too long and that the other person is completely fed-up with it. Also, by approaching you on the comment, the person if implying that you are part of a similar community in which this person has investment (otherwise, the person would most likely just leave since confrontation is really awkward and makes many people feel guilty).

I have been truly affected by comments three times in my life. Each time, the response is very visceral. It's like walking down a dark alley and suddenly feeling like you're in physical danger. While rationally I have realized that I would probably not get attacked, the feeling is still the same. Consequently, I have been stunned during the event and didn't collect my thoughts enough to respond right away. It takes an amount of empowerment and courage to approach someone after feeling this way.

2. The recipient of the comment is usually responding to more than this one instance

As a continuation of my first point, many individuals will not respond until things start to make them feel very uncomfortable. Your one (and potentially multiple) comment is probably part of a larger history of events that can be frustrating and disempowering. Of course, this doesn't excuse the insensitive comment. However, recognize that the other individuals are responding to something larger that you are a part of, even if unwittingly.

3. Responding to the encounter takes courage on the part of the "offender"

Many people will have the initial reaction of feeling accused by having a comment pointed out. Overcoming this initial feeling is one of the most difficult, but most important, parts of growing your cultural sensitivity. Recognize that what you said affected someone else in a negative way and accept that the event occurred. It is only by admitting this that you can truly change the situation and make it less likely that it will happen in the future... and it's crucial to the process of mending the situation.

4. Approach the situation with genuine curiosity; don't ameliorate impact with intent

THE MOST COMMON RESPONSE that an affected person will receive after someone points out an insensitive comment is a rationalization. The email invariably sounds like the following: "I'm sorry that I offended you, but when I made the comment I was actually talking about BLAH BLAH BLAH." When people get this response, we recognize it as a clever way to take the blame off the "offender" and place it on the "offended." This reply is a natural defense mechanism, but it unwittingly places the blame on the affected person by having it be their fault for misinterpreting your "true" intent.

Instead, apologize and save the defense for later. If you have an honest curiosity to improve, ask the other person to help you understand the impact that your comment had. Often times, you'll learn something very helpful and interesting! However, this process is also very exposing to the affected person. It's not their job to explain or fix this situation, but many people will be willing to help. After you have understood the affect your comment had, you can use the conversation to explain the original intent, but make sure not to invalidate what you were just told. Affirm the feelings that the other person has or had.

The term for the incorrect response is often called "Intent before Impact." Trying to rationalize a response right away simply belittles the impact of the event, which can sometimes be quite large without your knowledge.

5. Whatever you do, don't do nothing

Inaction is the worst response to this situation. If needed, get an experienced and trusted mediator. However, not acting to remedy the situation only reaffirms that exclusion is acceptable. Later on, someone else will see the same behavior or the community will gain a reputation for being a hostile environment.

Underrepresented people share and compare stories! Personally, I am invested in making sure other people don't have the same bad experiences that I have had. Think about a bad experience that you have had at a place of business or a community of your own. You talk with your friends and if they have had similar experiences, you start warning your friends. After a while, inaction can build resentment. If you have no or few underrepresented people, chances are that multiple people have found the environment hostile at one point or another.


As someone trained in leadership and organizational development, I recognize that "diversity as inclusion" is an essential part of a healthy and innovative group. By keeping your organization open and utilizing/appreciating what diversity you have, it becomes easier to grow more diversity into your group instead of "tokenizing" individuals.

Good luck. It's worth it.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,