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When Different Groups Converge, the Ignorant and the Curious Can Be Unexpectedly Rude

Times Staff Writer

“Can I touch it?” the stranger asked. “It’s so long, it’s so black, it’s so wavy,” the woman said, reaching for Nusrat Qadir’s hair. Then the stranger asked, “Is it real?”

“No, I’m a blonde in disguise,” replied Qadir, a second-generation American of East Indian descent, before she shook her head and walked away.

For Mary Ferguson, a Dublin native who directs development for the Sierra Club in Los Angeles, the distressing moment occurred when Ed Roybal, the Democratic congressman in her diverse northeast Los Angeles district, asked her to serve on a committee because it needed “Anglo” representation.

“It’s kind of funny I was picked,” Ferguson told the audience at a political dinner for Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Woo. “Because if you think I’m Anglo, I’m not. I’m Irish and I’m Catholic.” And even though she knows the term is meant to apply to all English-speaking Caucasians, “I’m really insulted when I’m mistaken for an Anglo,” she says, noting that she and many others think the English have oppressed the Irish for nearly 900 years.

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Racism, or Just Ignorance

Welcome to a rude new world, where some faux pas are easily categorized as racist. But many other transgressions can be seen as breaches of intercultural etiquette, bred of ignorance or a sincere desire to learn about someone different but expressed in an inappropriate manner or context.

It’s the offhand remark that cuts or injures--the request for a speaker with an “adorable” British accent “to say something in English"; the question to women of Indian descent about the tikka or kumkum, the red beauty mark, often made from a powder and worn on the forehead or scalp, “Does that dot wash off?"; the constant query to every Asian-American, “Are you Japanese, Chinese or what?”

A little common sense would go a long way in preventing needlessly hurt feelings and potentially incendiary social situations, experts say.

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No one, says Elizabeth Post--granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, the late grand dame of etiquette--should think that ignorance is an excuse for bad manners.

“Making personal remarks to anybody, whether of a different background or not, is totally inappropriate. It’s even more inappropriate when you are ignorant about the people you are talking to.”

Yet it happens all the time--in offices, in schools, in the neighborhood park.

KCBS newswoman Tritia Toyota is still incensed over an interview in which a reporter asked for the name of her plastic surgeon.

“What do you mean?” she responded.

“Your eyes are so round,” the reporter said, wrongly insisting Toyota must have had eyelid surgery because the reporter ignorantly believed that all Asian-Americans have narrow eyes.

Pamela James--an African-American woman who braids hair for a living and often wears hers in cornrows, a traditional African style of braiding the hair into neat rows--said she is tired of being asked by whites: “Do you wash your hair?”

“Of course I wash my hair,” James snaps, adding, “I don’t care how exotic a hairdo looks to someone else, you don’t say something that essentially questions their personal hygiene.” The curious and insensitive, she noted, compound the insult by “wanting to touch your hair, too. You just don’t invade anybody’s space like that.”

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When he was a freshman at the University of Nebraska, Art Alexander walked into the financial aid office for information.

“So, you’re here to play football,” the white counselor told Alexander, an African-American.

Alexander said no.

“And then she went down the line: baseball, basketball--you’re a track man, then--until she finally stopped at water polo,” says Alexander, assistant to a city commissioner in Portland, Ore. “I was a premed English major at the time, and it never dawned on her that I was not there as an athlete.”

That was in 1971. But Alexander and other blacks say people still make similar assumptions, being dumbfounded when a black person, for instance, makes an intelligent comment in a professional meeting or in a classroom because they think blacks are present only because of affirmative action programs, not merit.

Or, they think blacks are supposed to be walking encyclopedias of their group’s history and culture.

Some of the questions are from the theater of the absurd.

Says Alexander: “I heard from a black friend of mine about a white colleague who came up to her in the office and in all sincerity wanted to know if Aunt Jemimah was a historical figure?”

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Linda Alipuria, a graduate student in psychology, noted, “A lady with no ax to grind was sitting in the park playing with her daughter.” The woman, who was white, looked at Alipuria, who also is white. Then she looked at Alipuria’s son. “What are you doing with that child?” the woman asked matter-of-factly. “He can’t be your son. He’s of color.”

“He is my child,” Alipuria told her evenly, “and the reason he looks like that is because his father is Indian.”

In California--a place that’s been called “The World State” because virtually every racial and ethnic group on the planet is represented here--racially mixed children, interracial and intercultural couples, and couples of one race who adopt children of another race or ethnicity are relatively common.

In 1980, a quarter of all foreign-born people in the United States lived in California. Europeans made up less than 20% of the state’s foreign-born population in 1980, Asians were 25% and Mexicans 35%, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Nationally, it’s projected that from now until the 21st Century’s “third or fourth decade,” immigration and higher fertility rates among the nonwhite native-born population will lead to a “non-majority population” in the United States, says Cary Davis, vice president of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.

Most of the population growth will be among Latinos, whose numbers between 1980 and 1988 “grew by 34% compared with an average growth of 7% for the rest of the population,” Davis said.

Demographers have put the handwriting on the wall in the workplace, too. From now until the year 2000, the U.S. Labor Department estimates, women, minorities and immigrants will make up 84% of the entrants to the American work force. Already, white men make up less than a majority of American workers.

When racist or culturally insensitive incidents occur in the workplace, the tension they cause can undermine morale and productivity, experts say, making people perceived as “ethnic” feel isolated and as if they are the objects of hostile curiosity.

To defuse conflict in this drastically changed work environment and to exploit benefits of a multicultural work force in a global market demanding knowledge and sensitivity to different cultures, corporations are exploding with seminars on “managing cultural diversity.”

And universities, trying to help students understand a society undergoing profound demographic changes, are responding with “ethnic diversity” courses.

Jacquelyn Mitchell, director of the Afro-American Studies program at UC Davis, is the architect of one of the most popular undergraduate courses at the school: “Survey of Ethnicity in the United States.” When she started the course four years ago, only a few students signed up. This quarter, more than 300 students signed up for the 178 available seats.

One attraction of her class is that it creates an environment where students can ask everything they wanted to know about another culture but were too afraid of being beat up or berated to ask.

Even so, it’s also part of the class “learning experience” to tell someone if a remark is offensive, she says.

“Or, that I’ve encountered this situation of being questioned about who I am, why I look the way I do time after time, and you are being very insensitive by the question you are asking or the assumptions you are making,” says Mitchell. “People are very much unaware of how insensitive they may be to issues that are very important to other people, and they need to be told.”

Her son, for instance, attends UCLA and recently graduated from Davis High School, where he was one of a few black students in a predominantly white school. He was in the chair when his dentist said he had seen his picture in the paper. “You’re one of the better-looking black students in the school,” the dentist said.

“He didn’t just say he was one of the better-looking students at Davis, and he didn’t understand the difference,” Mitchell said. “My son got very angry and came to me to talk about it.”

Though people from the “majority” culture complain that minorities overreact to such incidents, multiply that type of situation several times in a week, dozens of times over a period of months and it gets to be wearying, she says.

When Mitchell called the dentist to explain that his behavior was inappropriate, “the dentist never understood,” she says. He said he was just “trying to pay my son a compliment. But my son felt he was put on the spot. There he was in the dental chair, the man was working on his teeth and waiting for him to say thank you.”

No one group in America has a monopoly on racial insensitivity or cultural ignorance.

Many of the nonwhite students in Mitchell’s class said that until they took her course, they didn’t think white people had any culture.

“White ethnic groups--that’s something I learned about in that class. Boom, it just opened my eyes,” says Qadir, one of Mitchell’s students. “I thought white people were culture-less. It made me more aware of my friends who are proud to be Irish and German and resent just being called white.”

“Yeah,” says Lisa Coleman, a 22-year-old African-American student who took the course, “it’s basically hard to see white people as having different ethnicities. I saw them as just one group together, particularly the blond, blue-eyed ones. I never considered that many of them, like the Irish-Americans, came from oppressed backgrounds.”

The last two days of class, says Francisco Dominguez, a teaching assistant to Mitchell, “some very racist things were said. Two African-American students said they didn’t even think the Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians were human beings” until they learned about their history and culture in class. That “shocked” a lot of people, says Dominguez, “but at least they were honest.”

In a nation where many people still hold dear the notion that their country is a great melting pot, why do Americans respond to others as if they were exotic anthropological specimens?

The short answer: “Ignorance,” Mitchell says. It’s not easy being an American; one has to know a lot to understand the complex elements that make up the nation. And while the popularly held view of the country as a melting pot acknowledges diversity, it does not embrace it.

The melting pot model of assimilation envisions diverse elements blending to create a uniquely American but homogenous society. That theory is “absolutely a myth,” Mitchell says, echoing other social scientists. There has always been ethnic and cultural diversity in the United States, but it has existed under the umbrella of “Anglo-conformity.”

Further, the idea that some people are “ethnics” while others are not is false. Everybody has an ethnic identity--membership in a social group distinguished by race, religion or national origin. But the dominant group in every society--including Anglo-Saxons in America--places itself at the social center and rates and scales other groups in reference to itself.

“You cannot live in this country without some degree of Anglo-conformity,” Mitchell tells students in her course, an ethnically diverse assortment: Chicanos, African-Americans, Caucasians, Filipinos, Japanese, Iranians, Arabs, Central Americans and American Indians, among others.

But her students say they prefer the model of cultural pluralism: “Culture A plus Culture B plus Culture C all equally respected and peacefully coexisting” in the same nation.

That’s as unrealistic as the melting pot, Mitchell says. “We have to look at our country and its structure and values. We are not all equal, and we do not peacefully coexist.”

At the end of class, she said her students decided that in America today “small a plus b plus c equals small b plus Capital A plus small c .”

What does that mean? she asked them. “They told me it means we have got our distinct cultures here but Anglo-conformity is still dominant.”

But, she says, “this is changing more and more as people try to redefine themselves and the importance of their own culture and ethnicity.”

Students who take Mitchell’s course may leave with a greater awareness of other cultures, but that’s not enough.

Some of the most liberal-thinking people, people who claim they love to sample and explore other cultures, are guilty of some of the greatest offenses, the UC Davis professor says.

Dominguez, her 29-year-old teaching assistant and a member of the Toltec tribe, is deeply immersed in his culture. He is profoundly offended by “the white middle class who are into this New Age spiritualism, invading the reservations and taking aspects of our spiritual ways. This is the new fad . . . they want to learn the good things” but not to deal with other aspects of American Indian life: confiscation of Indian lands, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism.

After he has performed in a ceremonial ritual, and was still dressed in “full regalia,” people have come up to him and asked if they can buy his clothes, he says. They don’t understand the “sacredness of the ceremony,” the meaning of the garb. “These are clothes on my body and they are asking me to take it off and sell it.”

Similarly, Mitchell says, many of her Japanese-American students say they resent it when someone of a different culture wears a kimono. Black students resent it when whites--Bo Derek in “10,” for example--wear their hair in traditional African braids. These things are “something special” to these groups.

“It’s bad cultural etiquette to borrow from cultures without realizing what you are borrowing from, what the significance is to them, or if they want you to imitate it at all,” Mitchell says.

Dominguez admits that he’s loathe to share anything about his culture with whites.

“This society is so inherently racist . . . brutally racist to Native Americans.” But if whites or anybody else “just come in a humble way, in a respectful way,” he’d be more open to them. “You can tell when people are sincere and they have a good heart.”

Alexander, the former premed student mistaken for a jock, says he too willingly answers questions, no matter how ridiculous--"like I didn’t know a black man could blush"--if he is properly approached.

People often preface statements with “ ‘I know you’ve probably been asked this 1,000 times, but I’ve wondered about this piece of information and just want to know. . . .’ They realize it’s probably a stupid question, but they don’t know and ask in a way that shows some measure of sensitivity.”

Finally, from the New York City Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture--one of the many “appropriate” sources of information for the culturally curious--the answer is No . Aunt Jemimah was not a historical figure.


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