Don’t make assumptions. Just ask questions.

Stephanie Woodworth,
Piscataway, NJ.

My six words are in reference to how hesitant (in some cases, even terrified) people are to talk to each other when differences are involved. It’s as if even the most well-meaning people become paralyzed at the thought of acknowledging not only our differences, but our collective level of ignorance about one another. And so, in an effort to hold on to the appearance of what we hope will be seen as being open, accepting or even “colorblind” (yuck, my absolute least favorite), we make the bigger mistake of acting from assumptions. It’s as if we think asking someone about their life, their reality, will somehow be perceived as offensive or ignorant. I’ve personally never encountered this. I feel like it is my way of showing respect for experiences that are different than my own by not assuming I understand, but giving others the chance to represent their own experiences. I’ve honestly never had anyone take offense at this approach.
As for me, being the picture of a lily-white Anglo American (everyone assumes Irish, because of the red hair), it never fails to surprise people when they discover that, while I do have some Irish, Scottish and English on my mother’s side (although, not enough to identify which county or clan I hail from), I grew up surrounded by the culture, food and vernacular of my father’s family, who hail from Jamaica. The funny thing is that it is non-Jamaicans who have the hardest time believing that my dad is from Jamaica. Jamaicans I meet are at first surprised, but quickly accept it, since they know how diverse the islands can be (how many times have I looked into disbelieving faces when I mentioned the large Chinese population in Jamaica, who SOUND like Jamaicans). The sad thing is that I have always wanted a culture that I could connect to, and though I have tons to choose from in my background, the one that was so familiar in my childhood no longer feels open to me, now that most of my family is spread out, or gone. My father has always been so gung-ho about being American, that he doesn’t even identify as Jamaican. And it’s not a simple matter of joining a club. My face doesn’t exactly scream, “Jamaican”, in fact, it screams anything but. My white skin, red hair and freckles scream, “privileged Anglo white girl”, and that is partly true. But, how do I celebrate and participate in a culture that I bear no physical resemblance to and no longer have access to?

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