Originally created 05/26/98

Few taboos on diversity Web site



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Why do Asians who know English insist on speaking their native tongues when talking to one another?

Why do some gay men feel they have to sound gay?

Why do blacks have larger than average lips?

Questions generally reserved for familiar friends and comfortable surroundings are receiving a public airing -- and spirited debate -- on an Internet Web site that spares no feelings in addressing them.

"Y? The National Forum of People's Differences" was started in March as a way for people from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds to get answers to questions that may be too embarrassing or uncomfortable to pose in person.

"We don't care if you ask out of ignorance or lack of understanding, just as long as you're not asking out of hate -- or feel you already know the answer to your own question," according to a message posted at the site.

Race, gender, age, class, religion, geographic area, sexual orientation and occupation are addressed candidly, honestly, and often eloquently.

Chi Yu, a 26-year-old woman from Indonesia, tackled the question about Asians speaking to each other in their native tongue.

"If I'm speaking to someone with the same native language, why should we speak in English? We'll have to do a `double-thinking' (translate my ideas into English, then translate what my partner said in English), and in the process, it's very possible one of us will misunderstand what the other said," she wrote.

Phillip J. Milano, founder and editor of the site, said that roughly two out of every three questions deal with race and about 75 percent of those are black and white issues. He estimates that about 5 percent of the questions are true hate and another 10 to 15 percent are hostile and venting.

"I post the type of questions that other people get fired for. The site is not for the faint of heart," he said.

He depends on answers from readers who can provide particular insight on an issue -- gays, blacks, Asians, women.

"I have no agenda other than to get people to talk," said Milano, an editor at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

The only taboo topics are hot-button issues of the day: abortion, politics, war, affirmative action, the death penalty. Milano feels those issues are adequately covered in newspapers, radio call-in shows and television. Also banned are outright racist questions and those involving sexual technique.

Milano, creator and director of The National Diversity Newspaper Job Bank, a newspaper recruiting site for minorities and women, decides which questions and which answers are posted on his Web site. Of the 40 to 50 questions and responses he gets each day, he uses about 25 to 30. One day, however, when his site was listed as one of the best of the Internet, he had 27,000 people connecting to it.

The question on gays elicited an eight-sentence response from Dennis P., who identified himself as a homosexual from Tucson, Ariz.

"I think the answer lies in the question, "Why do some straight men feel they have to sound macho?" Sometimes, whether it is a gay or straight man, the reason is simply that he is advertising for a mate (or at least a sexual encounter)," he said.

The site is drawing unsolicited rave reviews from diversity experts and newspaper columnists.

Leonard Pitts, a columnist for The Miami Herald, was an early supporter: "If we come to grips with the ways we differ, we might begin to see the ways we do not," he wrote in March.

Betty DeRamus, in her March column in The Detroit News, said, "I've long felt that people in this country need a forum in which they could pose the questions they dare not raise in public. Many of these questions, even the stupid ones, stem from ignorance and isolation rather than raw racism."

Carmen Vazquez, manager of diversity training and education at the Newspaper Association of America in Vienna, Va., claims she is addicted to Y?

Milano's "Web site is pretty much every day people talking with each other. Every day people either venting their anger or giving their perspective. That's soul food for me," she said.

Cindy Clardy, 47, of Southfield, Mich., is a frequent reader of Y? and has posted replies to some of the questions.

"I try to limit my responses to certain subjects so everyone has an opportunity to have their voices heard. I post more in the sexual orientation section than the other sections, but I read them all," said Ms. Clardy, a self-described lesbian.

Jeffrey A. Starke of Pensacola also reads and writes in the Y? forum and follows issues relating to black men.

"I like the avenue to be able to dispel some of the myths or beliefs that others have about black men," said Starke, who is black.

Some questions generate more answers than others. The one on blacks' lips elicited at least 12 responses during a recent check of the site.

"Average compared to what?" asked Alex, 39, of Lawrenceville, Ga. "It's all a matter of how you define what `average' is -- and in this country `average' means `white.' This means that anything that isn't white is therefore different or non-average. See how strange that is?"

The Web site at a glanceThe Following are samples of questions and answers posted at Web site called "Y? The National Forum of People's Differences":

QUESTION: I would like to know why black people refer to themselves as African-American. I am of Canadian descent but I don't refer to myself as a French-American or Canadian-American. R. Dandeneau, 52, white male, Georgia.

ANSWER: Africans in America have been searching for their own identity since their history has been negated and they realized they were never going home again. We have gone from Negro to black to Afro-American to African -American and back to black. I am offended by being called African -American, particularly when others of non-American descent find no need to attach "American" to their heritage. Myra, African, 42, Milwaukee, Wis.

FURTHER NOTICE: Good point. I've been Negro (on my birth certificate), Colored, black and now African-American. Do you think they put this to a vote? I may wake up tomorrow and be a man of color. Why not a man of kindness. I kind've like the term black. And that's the term I will use. So feel free to call me a black man and I will acknowledge you. Call me African-American and I will probably ignore you. Call me an American and I will be your good friend. Most blacks know very little about the real Africans. I know a few Africans, and many Africans don't even like black Americans. The word "black" does causes a few minor problems to whites not exposed to blacks, but it's not a big problem. When my son was in pre-school, one of the counselors insisted to my son that his skin color was black. He said it was brown. I had explained to her that his race is black, but his skin color was indeed brown. Jeffrey S., 42, black, Pensacola, Fla.

QUESTION: I was in a grocery store and noticed several people in the checkout lanes with thick gold jewelry and expensive Nike apparel. The thing that got me was that they were paying with food stamps. Even their small children were wearing expensive clothes. Why is this? Jessica G., Lake Orion, Mich.

ANSWER: The food stamps could have come at any time. The expensive clothing and jewelry could have been theirs before they had the need for the food stamps. Or, they could have received these things as gifts. They may not have been as expensive as you think. Knock-offs, cheap imitations. If you believed the users of those Government-issued stamps were doing so under false pretenses, you should have reported them to the authorities. But what would you have reported? Remember: There is no way for you to know when, or how, they got their clothing or jewelry. Or under what grounds they were issued the coupons. Apryl P., black, Oak Park, Mich.

FURTHER NOTICE: Using food stamps does not mean you don't work -- most of the time it means you are having hard times and need help. For example, I needed help for a while because my ex-husband does not pay child support, and I saw people looking at me negatively, even after a hard day's work. We seem to judge our fellow Americans so much by what they have. We need to pay attention to what we can do to help more. White female, 39, Jacksonville, Fla.