I would love it if whenever people encountered something new, they treated it like driving into a new traffic situation, by slowing down, paying attention, and taking care.
Instead what happens is people ask a lot of questions, without really thinking about it, almost like a toddler, and it gets very uncomfortable very fast.
Additionally I don’t know what the questioner’s going to do with my answers or my unwillingness to answer. No matter what I answer or don’t, once a question is asked, particularly concerning some aspect of me that’s different, the asker may treat me differently. I’m really aware of that and I struggle with how to respond to questions as a result.
Loaded (and Chambered) Questions
Questions can be aggressive and leading, and border on interrogation. Police and lawyers use them to try to drag information out of people they don’t want to share. In the USA people are legally innocent until proven guilty and there are laws to protect people who plead the fifth amendment and refuse to answer a question to protect themselves. However, socially we’re much less accountable and a lot of bad behavior has been socialized into us regarding questions, rumors, gossip, assumptions. Often news media and loudly opinionated people have passed judgment on a person’s innocence or guilt, so much so that regardless of facts and observable reality, innocent people are treated badly.
Judgments don’t have to be stated explicitly to affect how we treat people. I’ve got a whole other blog post in me about that.
People have often asked me questions in order to prove me wrong, or invalidate my reality.
Sometimes people deliberately ask questions to direct attention away from themselves and their behavior and onto the person they’re grilling, and it can be a derailing tactic.
People have often asked me loaded questions, or asked in such a way as to manipulate me into answering in a particular way to avoid being judged and treated as a selfish or ‘bad’ person.
I’ve had people get hostile when they don’t get the answers they want.
I’ve felt people using questions to control the conversation, talk over me, not get a word in edgewise and otherwise dominate verbally.
I’ve had people ask me questions but then disregard my answers, giving the appearance of caring or interest in my consent without actually behaving in caring and consensual ways.
Many times people have asked questions that drew attention to certain things about me that could target me for abuse, discrimination, and violence. Sometimes people even violate things I’ve told to them in strictest confidence in front of other people, all out of supposed ‘concern’ for me.
Most of all, I think in many situations I’ve experienced that people weren’t thinking before asking questions. I think people believe that there is no harm in asking, when in fact there can be a great deal of harm in asking.
Questions can be aggressive, coercive, and can be a form of verbal violence when used in these and many other ways.
It’s not enough to mean well, you have to consider the impact of what you ask, on not only the person you’re asking, but how you view and treat them, as well as the impact on how anyone listening might view and treat them as well.
Not a Museum Exhibit
I want to talk about something that I see a lot when people with more mainstream and dominant identities encounter someone who is different from them—different skin color, hair texture, different culture, visible disability, different clothing, someone who just sticks out and doesn’t appear to conform or be like everyone else around. This is especially a problem in groups where everyone is the same and there’s one token person who is different.
The person with differences can wind up being treated like an educational resource about everything about their difference or some kind of museum exhibit asking really inappropriately personal questions about their body, their sexual organs or sex life, their medical history, their finances, their lifestyle, their relationships, where and how they live, and even going to the extent of touching the person’s hair or clothing
I go into personal space violations in a lot more detail in my blog post about privilege and touching, but in a nutshell, people need to stop touching pregnant women’s bellies, anyone’s hair or clothing, or basically any part of someone else’s body or on their body or something belonging to them without permission, as if other people are objects, just because they’re different or interesting. If you can’t keep your hands to yourself, I personally think you shouldn’t be allowed to have them.
I’m joking. …Kind of.
What’s the Takeaway?
I’m different in a lot of ways, some visible, some not. I’ve never had the experience of kids grabbing my clothing or my body or asking these penetrating questions with such intensity and air of entitlement or condescension.
I understand curiosity as a natural human impulse, but curb it with some awareness, and take time to build trust.
Always remember that I do not speak for everyone in the marginalized groups I belong to, nor do they speak for me. Always remember I’m under no obligation to educate you, and that if I do trust you with information, it’s a privilege and not something to be treated lightly. Always remember the power differential and take time to be aware of it. Be humble with your lack of understanding and be gracious with my boundaries.
Adults, prove to me you’re at least as respectful as a kid.