When faced with racial tensions at a new high school, Madhukar Rao relied not on physical strength but his inquisitive mind to defuse the situation. Now working as an engineer, Mr. Rao still finds that asking simple questions can yield surprising results.
I believe in the power of simple questions.
Back in 1974, when I was sixteen, my family moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey when my father changed jobs. It was a difficult transition for me: I was a junior in high school and had to leave the friends and community I’d known well to get used to new surroundings and attend a school where I was a stranger.
I remember how lonely I felt that first day of school. I was among the first students in the cafeteria at lunchtime, and I sat at a table in one corner of the large room. As more people filtered in, I noticed that all of the students sitting near me were black, and all of the white students were sitting on the other side of the room. I found this very strange—as if an invisible dividing line stretched across the cafeteria. This voluntary segregation was new to me, but I stayed where I was.
Some of the black students gave me odd looks as I sat alone, quietly eating my lunch. Partway through the lunch period, a tall, muscular, black student, whom I’ll call Jake, walked over and stood across from me. He put his hands on the table and leaned forward. With his face close to mine, he firmly said, “Aren’t you sitting with the wrong kind of people?”
Immediately, my fight-or-flight response kicked into high gear. What should I do? Should I defend myself? Should I let him intimidate me and undermine my self-respect? The other students suddenly became quiet, waiting for my response.
Jake had laid down the gauntlet, but I decided not to take the bait. I looked at him and innocently asked, “What do you mean, the wrong kind of people?”
He was dumbfounded. He stared at me for a few seconds, shook his head, and then walked away. My simple question had disarmed him. I had neither compromised my beliefs nor validated his racism. I slowly calmed down and ate the rest of my lunch without incident.
This experience taught me that simple questions like “What do you mean?” hold tremendous power. They signal a desire to understand and a willingness to listen. My simple question met intolerance with tolerance. I could have argued my right to remain where I sat or told Jake to leave me alone. But becoming defensive probably would have led to a lot of shouting—and I would have been lucky if it had ended there. Instead, I had invited him into a dialogue.
I like to think my question challenged Jake to confront his racism, but I’ll never know for sure. I do know that when I saw him in the cafeteria the rest of that year, he looked at me and nodded as he passed. Although he never smiled at me, I took his acknowledgments as a sign that we had made a small connection.
I believe in the power of simple questions. Simple questions signal humility and an openness to listen nonjudgmentally. They also serve as powerful weapons against intolerance.
A native of India, Madhukar Rao came to the United States with his parents at the age of three. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a PhD in materials science from Pennsylvania State University. He currently serves as chairman of the board of the Volunteers of America of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit social service organization. In his spare time, Mr. Rao enjoys reading, traveling, and practicing yoga.
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