close and back to page

Latest News

Latest News

What to Say to Biracial/Multiethnic Coworkers

You've read about what not to say to biracial and multiracial people. Now read what you SHOULD say.

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.

The Conversation

Obama Reportedly Surprised by McCain's Eulogy Request

"We shared, for all our differences, a fidelity to something higher — the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed," Obama said of McCain.

Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush will pay tribute to Sen. John McCain during a Saturday funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral.

Read More Show Less

Central American Mother Suing Trump Says ‘I Had Seen Officers Grab Little Children by Their Hair and Throw Them into Cells’

A Guatemalan mother says that she witnessed immigrant child abuse from officers and wants her daughter returned unharmed.

REUTERS

Perla Karlili Alemengor Miranda De Velasquez is an asylum-seeking mother from Guatemala who is suing the Trump administration for the return of her daughter.

Read More Show Less

Coming off the heels of political chaos at the border, Americans are still feeling emotionally affected by Trump's family separation immigration policy.

According to the Washington Post, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant, called the Red Hen, while out to dinner with friends.

"The cheese course was already on the table" when the owner pulled her to the side and asked that she leave because of her political party's policies.

The Post reported that the owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, politely refused to serve Sanders because "Sanders works for and defends an inhumane and unethical administration."

"I'm not a huge fan of confrontation," Wilkinson said. "I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals."

However, the decision to ask Sanders to leave seems to boil down to basic human ethics rather than because of her being simply a conservative.

Just last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen was heckled by a crowd of protesters while eating at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C.

According to CNN, Nielsen was sitting quietly in back of the MXDC Cocina Mexicana restaurant, not too far from the White House, when she began getting booed and sarcastically questioned:

"Aren't you a mother too?"

"How do you sleep at night?"

"Do you hear the babies crying?"

"If the kids don't eat in peace, you don't eat in peace."

Those are many examples of statements that seem to have less to do with being a Republican, and more to do with being undoubtedly immoral.

Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney and political op-ed contributor for CNN, expressed similar observations regarding recent oppositions.

"Let's make it clear, this is not about asking someone to leave or heckling them simply because they are Republicans or conservatives," he wrote.

"That would be wrong. This is about targeting people who are very publicly involved in formulating and defending Trump's immoral policies."

Obeidallah pointed out that people didn't yell, "Get out of here because you're a Republican" but instead made chants that were specific to Trump's family separation immigration policy literally, "speaking truth to power."

Additionally, Trump is just a percentage point away from former President Richard Nixon when it comes to the total of Americans who want him impeached, according to Newsweek.

And though Sanders was offended by Wilkinson requesting that she leave by – ironically – writing, "I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so. Her actions say far more about her than about me," Wilkinson has no regrets.

"I would have done the same thing again," Wilkinson said. "We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one."

Starbucks: Don’t Close the Stores, Close Corporate Headquarters

Starbucks CEO has an epic fail in grappling with his racism problem. He is unprepared, and has no clue about how to be prepared. Don't expect this to end well.

In the aftermath of the racist incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks store, the company is going to close 8,000 Starbucks stores on May 29th for hastily prepared diversity training.

It's a mistake.

Read More Show Less

Leaders of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo have resigned after racially charged photos, including one with a student in blackface, appeared on social media. But the one sporting blackface, identified by The Tribune as Kyler Watkins, may not face disciplinary action from the school, according to Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong.

Read More Show Less

Dope Whisperer Trump's Executive Order on 'Welfare' Is Another Dog-Whistle to Racists

How the master of fantasy facts' latest executive order perpetuates racist (and false) stereotypes about government-assistance recipients.

REUTERS

President Donald Trump quietly signed an executive order on Tuesday designed to make changes to public assistance programs in the United States. Per the president's outline, low-income Americans receiving assistance when it comes to food, housing and medical benefits must enter the workforce or potentially lose their benefits.

Read More Show Less