There’s a funny scene in the Hollywood comedy, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” where FBI agents are interviewing Harold and Kumar’s parents. One of the agents questions Harold’s parents in halting Korean to which the parents reply in perfect English. The agents’ perceptions are so limited by their deeply entrenched belief in the foreignness of the parents (based on appearance) that the agents are unable to hear the plain and simple English the parents are speaking much to the frustration of the Korean-American parents. It is, of course, a comic exaggeration but such incidents occur frequently at a much more subtle level at work and in social interactions.
To be sure, there is immense (both visible and invisible) diversity among the world’s peoples. It’s only natural that we humans categorize this enormous complexity into neat boxes so we can more easily make sense of it. “He looks Hispanic so he probably speaks Spanish,” we might think and, of course, it can be true. But it may not. Here in Japan, I’ve noticed an increase (relative to ten years ago when I last lived here) in biracial people who have parents of different ethnicities. I try to remind myself not to make assumptions about the cultural / linguistic interiors of these people. I love the story of the Japanese NBA basketball player, Rui Hachimura, who was born to a Japanese mother and an African father. I know that if I saw this athlete in any American city, I would think he was a native English speaking African-American. In reality, he’s native in Japanese (with perfect Japanese demeanor and body language to match) and has struggled with English (though he’s apparently learning very quickly in the States). In order to avoid being like the FBI agents in the Harold and Kumar movie, we can keep in mind the following: People like to be seen for who they are on the inside.
If I make a comment such as, “I bet you’re a great football player,” to a man with a large physique, he may take offense at my assumption that he plays football (or he may like it and respond positively). But he may hate it; he may have some sort of disability that makes it difficult to play a contact sport; or, he may simply not be any good at it. In other words, I wouldn’t be really seeing him for the real person inside his body.
This above example is fairly straightforward but cases involving race and ethnicity are trickier. For many decades now, being “culturally sensitive” has been increasingly associated with being a good and respectable person. The stakes are high as people can be quick to accuse anyone of the majority group as being insensitive (or worse, as in racist) and anyone in a minority group as being in denial of one’s heritage or culture (or worse, as in self-hating). In this climate, I’ve tried to implement the principle above by attempting to talk to the insides of people. That is to say, I’ve tried to be aware of my projections based on peoples’ exteriors.
This isn't always easy to do as there's something extremely satisfying about fitting people into nice boxes. It's similar to the satisfaction that toddlers get when they fit that round peg into that round hole. But there are times when the peg isn't quite the right shape or size and it simply won't fit into that round hole, try as we might. In such instances, the toddler has the benefit of receiving tactile feedback but adults at work or in social situations often don't. The simple answer is to ask questions in a neutral and respectful way. The FBI agents could simply have asked questions such as: "What is your primary language? Where is home for you? What's your ethnic identity?" Learning to ask questions in a non-assuming, neutral, and respectful way goes a long way towards making people feel seen and validated.