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What to Say to Biracial/Multiethnic Coworkers

Keywords: biracial, multiracial, multiethnic, diversity, DiversityInc, peer relationships, workplace, work force, diverse, what to say 

Along with the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, who is half-Black and half-white, comes the question of the year: “What are you?” It seems mixed-race or multiethnic people are being asked this question now more than ever before.

What are you? What is your nationality? Where are you from? No, where are you really from? Which side do you feel more? These are all questions that can be perceived as offensive because they make assumptions rather than demonstrate authentic, intellectual curiosity.

Curiosity is not wrong in and of itself. Often, it’s the delivery and not the question that is the problem. Here are ways to properly inquire about a person’s racial or ethnic heritage that are less likely to offend.

1. Learn the lingo.

“Some folks use the words ‘multiracial,’ ‘multiethnic,’ ‘mixed race’ and ‘biracial’ interchangeably, but it’s important to know what folks prefer,” says Farzana Nayani, vice president, Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC).

Nayani, who is also an education consultant and cross-cultural researcher, adds that people should not shy away from having conversations in the workplace about heritage. Such conversations can build friendships and networks.

Nayani says, “If you have a person of one race but two ethnicities, it would be more appropriate to say they are multiethnic. And if that person identifies as multiracial, that’s their choice. So learn the lingo but also have the conversation about what’s preferred.”

2. “What is your heritage?”

“As an Afro-Latina, I get questions a lot,” says Miriam Muley, founder and CEO of 85% Niche. “They do not understand that one can be 100 percent Black and 100 percent Latina. It does not compute for them, so they continue to press trying to fit you into a box.”

Being fit into a box is a pet peeve of people who are biracial or multiethnic. Following Census 2000, there is still debate about what box to check off for census, corporate and other demographers. In 2000, nearly 7 million biracial/multiracial people checked off two or more boxes to reflect their mixed heritage.

The key to properly asking someone about their heritage is making sure the question is open-ended and does not try to define them before they answer.

“Asking ‘What is your heritage?’ leads the discussion down an intellectual path rather than a degrading path,” says Sara Buchanan, director of sales, southeast region, at DiversityInc.

Buchanan is half-Black and half-white. Her mother, who is white, can trace her lineage back to the Mayflower. Her father’s family was brought to the United States in the slave trade. Her father’s family can also trace their lineage to American Indians.

“Having family that literally came across on the Mayflower as indentured servants, and then having people on my dad’s side who were brought over here, and then also having Indian blood makes for an interesting mix,” says Buchanan. “Really, I am an American.”

3. “Do you identify with one culture more than the other?”

Instead of asking, “What are you mostly?”–which can be construed as a confrontational question that tries to pigeonhole a person–ask an open-ended question, such as the one above.

Buchanan faced a tricky situation while attending a networking mixer thrown by a DiversityInc Top 50 company. She was talking to the company’s CEO and it was apparent that he was trying to place her heritage.

“He was at a loss for words. I knew what he wanted to ask me, but he didn’t know how to ask,” says Buchanan. She says she prefers a straightforward question that does not assume she’s chosen one side over the other.

“The best way to do it is to just ask. Don’t beat around the bush about it,” says Buchanan. “I actually helped [the CEO] and said, ‘You want to know my heritage?’ He said yes. And in my case, I identify with both and not one more than the other. If someone is interested, then ask, but ask in a way that allows that person to share their heritage. Don’t ask from an assumptive point of view.”

4. Keep communication clear by reflecting back what’s been said to you.

Muley is concerned about how biracial and/or multiethnic workers are asked about their personal experiences. She suggests that people who have asked for further demographic information rephrase what they’ve been told to indicate that they’ve heard and understand the explanation.

“Rephrase their comments to ensure that you understand their point and to let them know that you are really listening,” says Muley. “You can also advance the conversation by asking questions such as ‘How did you feel about that experience?’ or ‘What suggestions do you have for people of non-mixed backgrounds in this area?’ The key is to ask for their guidance and acknowledge their expertise in this area.”

5. Know that biracial and multiethnic people are diverse.

One of Nayani’s colleagues was conducting corporate training and expected to walk into a room of Asian executives. When she arrived, she thought she had walked into the wrong room because the people did not “look” Asian.

“The people in the room were a multiethnic group of Asians who identified as Asian,” says Nayani. “Be aware that people can identify with [an ethnicity] that they don’t look like.”

Such a situation can become a problem in the workplace if a person is using stereotypes to describe people, says Nayani: “People who are multiethnic can look like different races or ethnic groups. You could be speaking about another group in generalities and they could be in the room.”

Muley says the key to asking non-confrontational questions is attitude. “You can sense genuine interest and nonjudgmental behavior and you can sense when people are trying to put you into one of the many ‘boxes’ in their head,” says Muley.

1 Comment

  • “Nayani says, ‘If you have a person of one race but two ethnicities, it would be more appropriate to say they are multiethnic. And if that person identifies as multiracial, that’s their choice. So learn the lingo but also have the conversation about what’s preferred.'”

    Wait, a person of one race and two ethnicities can identify as multiracial?

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