Beyond Diversity Small Talk and Non-sequiturs

2016-03-09-1457493483-1851546-RajaniLevisheadshot175x175.jpgRajani Venkatraman Levis, MFT is an immigrant therapist of Color who speaks five languages and artfully navigates the intersections of trauma with race, class, ethnicity and other facets of diversity in her writing, teaching and psychotherapy practice. She is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Certified Trauma Specialist and an EMDRIA Approved Consultant in EMDR.

A lot of people tell me that given our current sociopolitical environment, conversations about diversity feel too fraught to engage in. As an immigrant woman of color, and a therapist as well as a counselor-educator, I can tell you that I engage in, witness and co-create these conversations on an ongoing basis. In fact, I wouldn't have the choice to pass, even if I tried.

Yes, I can talk about institutionalized oppression at length, but for now, I want to engage with you, the individual reader and not just the stereotype of your racial, ethnic, cultural or national identity. Similarly, I speak for myself and not for others like me, although I do hope that this may open up more compassionate conversations about difficult dialogs.

Sometimes, these conversations go spectacularly well and we feel confident in our ability to build a bridge across cultures. While at other times, they're awkward, hurtful, distressing and unmentionably uncomfortable. The culprit, in many of these one-on-one debacles, is the non-sequitur.

Imagine for a moment that you and I were just introduced at a social gathering.

Me: "Hi! I'm Rajani."
You: "Hi! I'm Linda"
Me: "Nice to meet you Linda. Oh! I went over to my neighbor's house the other day, and she was making spaghetti for dinner. I just LOVE pasta. You're so lucky, you get to eat it all the time."

Admit it: That is a totally random thing to say and even an American mealtime staple cannot magically transform this non-sequitur into a lovely two-way conversation.

I, on the other hand, am often at the receiving end of somewhat similarly random statements that I can only ignore at the peril of being considered rude or lacking social graces. It often occurs moments after we have been introduced, when without preamble, the speaker launches into making a link, however tenuous, with my presumed country of origin, even if it has not yet become a part of the conversation. And it can sound something like this:

"There's this man from India who works at my husband's office, and John often tells me that his lunches smell absolutely delicious."

Or...

"I was in a cab driven by a young Indian man recently, and he told me that he was planning to have an arranged marriage."

2016-03-09-1457501119-7634378-woventogether.jpgIn my most compassionate place, I hear these statements as an attempt at connection that is destined to bomb. However, I have clearly not achieved the requisite degree of enlightenment to inhabit my most compassionate place 24X7. So, I am sometimes impacted by the weight of twenty years of repeated conversations with strangers and acquaintances that follow similar patterns. And in the seconds that it takes for the speaker to go from "Hello" to the tenuous Indian link, I feel as if I am watching the gears in their head clicking into place as their machine of socialization begins to churn out the inevitable stereotypes that will no doubt hijack this conversation: Indian accents and Gandhi, arranged marriages & and Slumdog Millionaire, curry and cab drivers, call centers and poverty.

In mere seconds, the speaker's attempts at connecting with me devolve into absurd non-sequiturs such as the name of the call center representative in India who helped troubleshoot a tech issue last week. And my compassion dissipates into the feeling of being objectified or placed in a box defined solely by my country and racial origins. I attempt to disengage as I resist becoming circumscribed by some singular stereotypical identity, a placeholder for what "Indian" means to this person. And the attempt at connection flatlines.

My earliest inquiry into this connection issue centered on the question that irks immigrants and people of color and anyone with a non-standard American accent.

"Where are you from?"

This seemingly simple question has many implications that belie its humble four word status. A simple answer, such as "San Francisco" never seems to meet the questioner's expectation, and its pesky persistent companion is:

"So where are you from, really?"

Most immigrants and many people of color have some variation of this story. A student of mine once said that her family has been in the United States for six generations, but that based on her skin color, she still gets asked this question on a regular basis. Or take my friend Raul whose family has been here in California for generations, while it was the border that actually crossed over them. I suppose you can imagine his ongoing frustration when asked where he comes from, by someone whose sense of belonging is marked by being White, a singularity of identity that is privileged enough to resist questioning.

Most of the time, diversity small talk is predicated on assumptions, or simply put, when you ask a question with an answer in mind. So if you ask me where I'm from because you want to tell me about your experiences of India, or because you want to have your opinions confirmed, we may both be less satisfied with the conversation. A question that creates a learning encounter for both of us, is one we will be mutually enriched by. Whereas, when you circumscribe me by what you think you already know, we may both leave the conversation a little impoverished by the lost opportunity to truly meet in the middle.

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In my most grounded, compassionate moments, when someone asks me where I am from, I am willing to translate that what they mean is "I'm curious about you" or "I'd like to get to know you better." However, when I define myself by my San Francisco home of 20 years, the answer doesn't align with their curiosity. And what began with an intention to increase connection through curiosity, unwittingly turns into an encounter that reinforces my otherness. What it triggers for me is a reminder of the many times I have been told explicitly "Go back to where you belong" or other variations that imply a lack of belonging in the United States. Far worse, it strikes terror about what the growing support for our xenophobic presidential hopeful will mean for immigrants like me. For me, switching out of the political horror story and into compassion requires a movement towards connectedness. Or could it be the other way around, that switching into connectedness requires a movement towards compassion?

As we wrap up this conversation, I offer you Taiye Selasi's fantastic Ted Talk: "Don't ask me where I'm from, ask me where I'm a local." As she so rightly points out, a person cannot come from a nation, which is but a concept, whereas our experiences are where we come from. So if we skip "Where are you from really?" we could explore where I was local, before my experiences became more local to San Francisco. And when we're connected enough to swim past the diversity small talk of non-sequiturs, we could engage with the deeper, more meaningful questions that connect my identities, questions that elicit my unexpressed longing and ignite my sense of belonging, questions that hone in on my sense of being valued for being bicultural in the United States or multi-local, as Selasi might say; questions such as:

  1. What is the best thing about being from India?
  2. Would you introduce me to a sound that you were familiar with in your home country that doesn't exist in this soundscape?
  3. If there was one thing from your heritage culture you could instill to make this country a better place, what might it be?
  4. What is one of your earliest memories of what you consider a classic American moment?
  5. What do you love about being a local in two very different parts of the world?

As Rumi said: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there." It seems like there is hope for us to be both lost and found in these conversations. I'll meet you there!