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Be Curious, Not Invasive . . . Asking Questions

Some Questions to Ask Ourselves
& Some Ideas about How to Frame Questions for Others

In our work to support diversity on campus we have found a few key ideas especially helpful. One of them goes something like this: 

So often we respond to people who are different from us and perspectives that we do not share by making judgments about them. Negative judgments can lead us to respond unfairly or unkindly, especially when we do not notice our own reactions before we act. Noticing our impulse to judge and seeking to understand what has triggered this reaction is a crucial first step in being able to make intentional choices about how we respond to others and their ideas or practices.

We believe when people become more aware of their own reactions they can become more intentional about their actions. Perhaps the most useful question we can ask ourselves when someone's difference from us prompts us to want to ask them about who they are or why they act/look/think as they do is What kind of reaction has this difference prompted in me, and why?

A couple of other questions to consider . . .

Would I ask this question of someone who is not in the “minority”?

For example, when we ask someone who is not white, “So, how do your people feel about [issue/topic]?” we reveal the assumption that a member of a racial or ethnic minority can represent an entire population of people who are also members of that minority group. Generally speaking, white people do not get asked to speak for all white people. Similarly, we do not tend to ask men to speak for men, and we rarely expect straight people to explain what heterosexuals, as a group, believe about any given issue. However, women often are asked for the “female perspective,” and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people frequently are expected to speak for all members of their communities.

This differential expectation can lead members of “minority” groups to feel unfairly put on the spot. It can imply that such groups as “Asians” or “atheists” or “people with disabilities” all have the same beliefs and are not individuals with as diverse a range of opinions as majority group members. Many people who are members of “minority” groups are happy to talk about who they are and to share information about that group. But they also sometimes are frustrated by being asked to represent their group or by questions that seem to be based on assumptions of group homogeneity.

When we feel confident that we have considered our motivations and are prepared to ask a question (or many questions) having to do with the way(s) that someone is different from ourselves, it can be helpful to preface our inquiry with statements like:

  • I have noticed that you . . . . I would like to know more about this so that my understanding can be based on knowledge rather than stereotype. Are you comfortable talking with me about your own perspective and/or practices?
  • I know that [X people/group] have been impacted by [the issue or topic] in so many ways that not everyone shares the same perspective, but I am curious about how you understand . . .
  • While I recognize that not everyone who is [X] thinks the same way about [issue/topic], I am wondering about your particular analysis or approach and what you think about its impact in the [X] community.

Note: Various offices on campus can help direct people to resources and information about the histories of particular groups, cultural practices, and other aspects of cultural diversity. Assuming that any individual knows which resources are appropriate for learning more may be too much to expect just because a person is a member of a specific group or shares an aspect of identity with others. Please contact our office if you would like referrals to campus resources or any suggestions of places to begin to learn more about cultural diversity.

Why am I asking this question?

When we feel the urge to ask someone about their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, religion, or any other aspect of individual or cultural identity, we may be motivated to do so for various reasons. If we can notice our own interest in asking before we actually do so, we might then be able to better understand those motivations and make intentional choices about whether or how to seek information from others.

Understanding our interest in asking questions can be especially helpful in the arena of discussing strongly held beliefs with those whose beliefs differ from our own. For example, we may wish to know why someone does not believe that abortion is a sin. Why do we want to know? Because we do not wish to offend or make this person uncomfortable by making assumptions about their beliefs? Because we are trying to figure out whether this other person is a good person or a bad person? Because we are hoping to enlist this person’s help in an initiative related to these issues and we need to know where they stand to determine whether or not they would be interested? And, of course, there may be many other reasons why we would want to know.

Being clear with ourselves about our motivations can help us to frame an inquiry effectively. Some ways to frame such questions that might be helpful are:

  • Would you be willing to talk with me about why or how you have come to your perspective on the issue of….? I have some feelings about this topic and it would be useful  for me to hear from someone whose beliefs are different from my own .I don’t want to challenge your beliefs I just want to hear your perspective.
  • I want to ask you a question,  please understand that my motivation for asking is….. Please let know if I am being insensitive or making any wrong assumptions.
  • I am curious about [X], and I wonder if this is something we can talk about. If you become uncomfortable at any point please let me know and I’ll do the same.

 

Last Updated: 10/22/08