Was that racist? Dealing with racial and bias communication

“I could never wear a print that bold.” “My, that’s such an unusual hairstyle.” “Hey, can you tell me if that’s a boy or a girl? I don’t want to offend them by misgendering them.” Statements like these can cause a variety of feelings, ranging from hurt and disappointment to anger and disgust, leading to a misunderstanding between speaker and receiver, especially when the speaker does not understand the history, connotation, or context they provide to the person on the receiving end. Language is an integral part of everyday life; it is time to recognize and deal with the biases exhibited within it.

Language is an integral part of everyday life; it is time to recognize and deal with the biases exhibited within it.

Definitions matter

Communication is a significant part of our work at Community Solutions. We cannot be effective researchers, policy wonks, or advocates if we do not prioritize effective communication. Providing definitions in a way that is easy to understand and share matters, and as communicators, it’s important to explain it as clearly as possible. Not recognizing the difference between certain ideas or words—like race versus ethnicity—can lead to misunderstanding, it can lead to disengagement with our work, and discontent within our organization.

Over the past few years, race and ethnicity have been elevated and amplified across many platforms, and organizations like Community Solutions have committed to better understanding racial equity within our organization, the communities we serve, and the policies that we advocate for, to local communities. Milwaukee County, WI and Cuyahoga County, OH both declared racism as a public health crisis in 2020. But what do we mean when we say race, ethnicity, equity, or equality? Let’s break it down.

Race – is how we divide or group humans based on physical traits. When looking at some of our data, such as the Status of Women fact sheets, you’ll notice that we use Black (African American) and white, matching the racial categories set by the U.S. Census Bureau

Ethnicity – refers to the affiliation of a group, like Hispanic or Latino

Equity – when we use it around race, gender and addressing bias, refers to justice according to natural law or right

Equality—refers to things being equal or the same playing field

Gender (sex)—refers to the cultural identification of physical traits of a person

Gender identity—refers to how a person sees (identify) themselves

                        Source: Status of Women 2023 fact sheets race versus ethnicity delineation.


The elephant in the room, race, and gender identity

When it comes to race, I identify as Black, not African American. Why? Truthfully, it was a learning process over the years, one sparked by a conversation with someone who was from an African country who expressed their confusion with why Black Americans used African Americans when they were born in America and their parents are American. When I was younger, I was taught to use African American, not Black. It was on school forms, SAT scantrons,  even the FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It was not until that conversation, and my personal exploration to answer the why, that I concluded that using African American—when I have never set foot on the continent of Africa—wasn’t for me.

But that is something that you wouldn’t know upon first meeting me. Seeing me with my locs and brown skin, you may automatically categorize me as Black or African American, based on your knowledge and experience. And you’re not alone. Many of us tend to categorize people based on our personal knowledge and understanding of the world—the more diverse your community, the more racial buckets you might use. For example, I know that not every person with my complexion is Black. They might be mixed, Hispanic, or Caribbean. Being mindful of this reduces miscommunication and shows respect for them.

Ignoring someone’s race identification could communicate to the recipient that you do not care about them or their experiences, and you would rather not engage with them in the future. As our world continues to become more diverse, and many businesses become more global, holding on to the olden days will do more harm than good.

This can also be said about those who refuse to use a person’s pronouns. Last year, Community Solutions staff engaged in a conversation, led by AIDS Funding Collaborative’s Director Julie Patterson and Senior Visiting Fellow and former Executive Director John Corlett, around pronouns, using the graphic novel, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, as a guide. The discussion, which introduced us to unfamiliar terms—like Zir, a pronoun for those who are nonbinary or choose not to specify a gender—required us to take inventory of how we address people, personally and professionally. Like many organizations, the evolution in pronoun identification is a cue for us to update our communication style guides. We can’t provide credible data if we’re not using the correct language.

We can’t provide credible data if we’re not using the correct language.

It’s written all over your face

Communication isn’t just verbal and written, there is also a physical component one should pay attention to. Like the 1990 song by the Rude Boys, featuring Ohio’s on Gerald Levert, a person’s facial expression can cause a sense of comfortless, leading to miscommunication for many. I am 100 percent guilty of this. My very expressive face has caused some miscommunication with others, prompting me to put a disclaimer on my expressions, from, “give me a minute, I’m connecting the dots in my head,” to, “so sorry, that look was geared towards the text I just received.” For me, those disclaimers are how I diffuse a situation that could lead to misunderstandings and discomfort.

Facial expressions aren’t the only non-verbal communications we encounter. Ever walked into a meeting and the person you’re meeting had their arms crossed? Did it make you hesitate, as if you were bothering them? You’re not the only one who has experienced that. Crossing your arms can signal to others that you aren’t interested in what is being said and can be taken as disrespectful. Or crossing your arms might be how you cope with nervousness or to warm yourself up in a chilly room.

And what about speaking with your hands? In observing some of my colleagues in action when they conduct focus groups, their audience, at times, is more engaged when they use their hands to emphasize a particular thought or point, especially when used strategically—as a nonverbal prompt inviting feedback.

Learning from our mistakes

“To err is human, to forgive divine,” said Alexander Pope. Whether you get tongue-tied when talking to a room full of people or hit send before completing your thought, it’s normal to make a mistake when communicating with others. Learning from those mistakes is key to growing and improving communication skills that will address and reduce biases.

Is it racist or is it rude?

For some, statements like, “I could never wear a print that bold,” or “My, that’s such an unusual hairstyle,” or “Hey, can you tell me if that’s a boy or a girl? I don’t want to offend them by misgendering them,” could be considered rude, depending on the context it was delivered. For others, they are examples of racism and microaggressions. Why? It’s what others have used to degrade them or emphasize the importance of conformity to a certain standard, many times a specific, euro-centric aesthetic. Asking yourself if that question would be offensive to you or should it be asked at all considering the setting and relationship can stop potential communication pitfalls. While words don’t leave physical scars, they do leave mental and emotional ones.

Curiosity killed the cat and can hurt your company

When my daughter was younger, I would put her hair in afro puffs. They were beautiful, soft, and fluffy, and many times people thought it was okay to touch her hair without her, or my, consent. Being curious is natural, and, for many, invited because they want to share their culture and uniqueness, but that curiosity should not extend past the boundary set before you. In other words, do not touch people’s hair, clothes, or body without explicit consent, and respect them when they say no the first time. When a company allows a culture of disregarding boundaries, many times they end up losing amazing employees that would help elevate the work, maximize profits, and provide positive branding opportunities for said company. Companies that create and support clear policies regarding respecting a person’s boundaries are ones that thrive.

Companies that create and support clear policies regarding respecting a person’s boundaries are ones that thrive.

Don’t leave them hanging

Say someone makes a communication mistake that reveals a bias, but then shows a willingness to repair and grow? Step in and help them understand where they went wrong and how to do better. Don’t rely on the person who was offended to always educate others, especially if you know and can also teach them to do, and be, better. Advocating for training and education regarding cultural and gender competencies is another way to help those willing to learn how to navigate this ever changing world.

You can’t save everyone

It would be great if everyone were willing to identify and address their biases so that our world can progress in a positive and cohesive manner, but that’s not going to happen. It’s okay to recognize that some people are unable to move forward in addressing and dismantling their biases, It’s okay for you to reduce your interaction with them to protect yourself and peace of mind.

Learning never ceases.

Keep learning

Learning never ceases—one of the great things about Community Solutions. We crave and thrive in learning new things that can help improve Ohio, including how we share that knowledge with you. As the world of communication continues to grow and expand, we too must grow and expand, and share with you, our stakeholders, colleagues, and friends.