A Lesson in Communication

Growing up in Cedar Rapids, my exposure to real ethnic diversity was limited. Our neighborhood and the students at my schools were predominately white. I celebrated my Irish heritage by attending the St. Patrick’s Day parade with my dad—long before the holiday rivaled Thanksgiving in popularity. And although we aren’t Czechoslovakian, I played the accordion and enjoyed many polkas and kolaches in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village.

In 1999, I started working at John Deere as a college intern. As a multi-national company conducting business all over the world, Deere emphasizes the benefits that different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives can bring to an organization.

As I thought about this topic one day, I realized I was uncertain as to whether I should say “black” or “African American.” I would not want to be misinterpreted or considered offensive and there are certainly some myths that exist about these words.

Instead of continuing to wonder and worry, I talked to a couple of my black colleagues who said they believe the terms are equally acceptable and interchangeable in most circumstances. The lesson for me, however, was bigger than the distinction between the two words. I discovered the value of open communication in addressing sensitive topics.

When I heard that this same question of “black” or “African American” was recently discussed at an Inclusive Dubuque meeting, it prompted me to share my story in the hopes it might help others be more confident in their personal communication. After all, when we communicate openly and honestly, we are likely see each other more in terms of our similarities than our differences.

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