That was the question he asked, to a man near the front, when the first answer wasn’t good enough.
It was a workshop I attended recently with people I did not know. Some of them had traveled a ways to attend, but so had the presenter. And, when he called on the man, the presented asked what is an entirely reasonable question: “where are you from?” It was relevant to the work at hand, and something entirely acceptable to ask in a group.
“Boston,” the man replied.
With nary a missed beat, the (older, white, male) presenter replied, “no, where are you really from?”
I couldn’t miss the unspoken “…because of course you aren’t one of us.”
The subtext rang too loudly to ignore. And, with that subtext ringing in his ears, the man was invited to peel back his history and reveal… what? His non-membership in the group? The toll of being invited to reveal yourself as an other is that, for the rest of the group, now you are.
I don’t think the (older, white, male) presenter meant to push this man into a different role. I also don’t think he realized he had done it, because he carried on without a pause. I think, perhaps, he even thought he was being inclusive by his presumption that, naturally, the man couldn’t be from here.
But what he did, with that one simple question, was draw a line between his (older, white, male) expectation of the group and, well, the actual group. Because, we were not an older, white, male group. Most of us attending that workshop met no more than one of those criteria. Yet somehow, the presented had assumed that a man who was not older and not white must have come from some other place.
It was aggressive, condescending, othering, prejudicial, and probably racist.
It was also totally invisible to the presenter who said it.
And what should the rest of us do when this happens? Whose role is it to tell the presenter what he just did? When is the right time to tell him? How important is it to maintain the agenda of the group at that moment, and how important is it to silence that subtext ringing very false across the room? How many other people heard that ringing in their ears?
It bothers me that I don’t have absolute answers to any of those questions. It bothers me that, because I didn’t know either of the people involved well enough to know what they would say, I also said nothing. It bothers me that the presenter may have said things like this before, and never noticed, and that maybe no one who did notice said so.
I have never been the man near the front whose first answer wasn’t good enough. If I were, I don’t know what I would prefer—whether I would rather move on, or call out.
I have once, that I know of, and under different circumstances, been the one asking a question, and presuming an answer that wasn’t good enough. And someone did tell me, but not until four years later. I hope if it comes up again, they won’t wait so long.
And I think next time, I won’t.
Image Credit: WildInWoods