Two experiences in the past few weeks have set me thinking about identity, and how we talk about identity in our politically correct age and diverse community.
Two weekends ago, one of my housemates made Chicken Tikka Masala. When I walked to the kitchen to put away my dishes, I cracked what seemed to me an inoffensive joke.
“Hey, I’m so glad that you made British food.”
Picture at least one completely aghast face at the dinner table. In one fell swoop, I’d managed to alienate a dinner party.
Aghast, I explained that the origins of Chicken Tikka Masala, which, according to the most popular narrative tradition, lie in immigrant restaurants in Northern England and Scotland. I shared that I had recently seen a well-received play in London that further perpetuated the story of Chicken Tikka Masala’s British origins, and that I’d read countless stories over the years about Chicken Tikka Masala’s popularity in the U.K. Indeed, it’s been called the National Dish of the U.K. by more than one British official and newspaper.
While they finally forgave me for my awful, tongue-in-cheek, post-colonial joke, I left the kitchen feeling bewildered. Without trying, I had blundered into a whole series of questions about race, power, and the norms associated with both. I felt tremendously guilty about having implied something I never meant to, and also sad that I hadn’t been given the benefit of the doubt.
A few days ago, while preparing for a group presentation, one member of my team wanted to propose a strategy that targeted particular ethnic communities because these communities tended to have a stronger sense of collective identity. I pushed back, arguing that I didn’t want to focus our presentation on race, and that I was afraid that our teachers and classmates would respond poorly to a policy proposal that made assumptions about race and community. He told me (I’m paraphrasing) that I was being culturally insensitive and had misunderstood him, that I didn’t understand these issues because I’m not from one of these communities.
I have a huge amount of respect for this person, who tends to be thoughtful about questions of identity. I left the room again overwhelmed and bewildered, concerned that I’d said something irredeemably wrong and shattered a working relationship.
While we got through our differences and were able to finish the presentation, I’m still preoccupied by the specters that his accusation raised. Was I being culturally insensitive by not wanting to make his policy recommendation? And what can I do in the future to promote dialogue about questions of diversity, while avoiding offending others unintentionally?
I’ve had several conversations with friends over the last few days and weeks about these situations. Most friends — people of all racial, gender, religious and sexual identities — expressed a concern that at some point they had been unintentionally offensive to someone with a different set of self-identifying traits because of ignorance or thoughtlessness. They said that they rarely knew how to begin to have conversations about identity without sounding condescending, bigoted or hopelessly ignorant. White friends in particular expressed this concern: they didn’t know whether it was appropriate to ask questions about what life is like for others, and if it was intrusive to ask to be taught. Like me, they were terrified that they had said or would say the wrong thing in the future.
Sometimes side-stepping identity issues — as I tried to — is more offensive than having a conversation. Over time, resentment and antagonism builds. We want to live in a community and world that addresses these questions as soon as possible. So what’s the solution to this problem? Talking, and through that, making ourselves open to constructive criticism and to learning about each other and ourselves.
In the future, I’m going to seize moments like these as opportunities to build more transparent relationships and a greater understanding of what it means to come from a different world.
Maybe this, then, is the best way to start a conversation like those I’ll be starting in the future: “I want more than anything to have a better sense of you; I hope in turn you’ll try to know me, and believe me when I say that I never meant to offend.”
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .