DARE TO ASK: Let your curiosity do the talking
By PHILLIP J. MILANO
The Florida Times-Union
Remember the kids in school who hurled insults whenever they saw someone they
deemed too fat, too dorky, the wrong skin color, a sissy, the wrong faith, a
The truly deft members of this abuse posse almost never seemed to get caught
in the act, much less in trouble.
Then there was everybody else. The kids who wound up getting smacked on the
head by Mom just for asking an innocent (read: witheringly frank) question about
somebody "different." Of course, that somebody was usually within easy earshot
at the grocery store, but let's not quibble.
Assuming you were part of the latter group, I have a proposal. If you're
still willing to ask those kinds of earnest questions, I'll try to get them
answered for you. With no smack on the head or kick in the pants for your
This column's premise is that people are dying to know more about people of
other races, cultures, religions, sexual orientations, ages, genders and
They've just forgotten it's OK to seek the information.
Somewhere along the way, after all the admonishments from our parents,
teachers, ministers or whomever, we lost a bit of the natural curiosity of our
childhoods. Blissful ignorance and artful separation became worthy substitutes
in a world gone politically, maddeningly, correct.
Several years ago I asked an African-American co-worker why urban talk show
hosts often seemed to sound almost "too black." She laughed and asked if I
thought Jay Leno sounded "too white." I didn't feel embarrassed, but I got her
point. Playing off a hunch that more people would like to have such candid
exchanges, I started Y? The National Forum on People's Differences, a Web site
that lets people ask each other honest questions about their racial and cultural
Ten million visitors later, Y? has taken on its own life. It's been featured
in media worldwide, and I get asked to speak about it to companies and groups I
never thought would be interested. I even coaxed Perigee to publish a book last
September based on Y?, titled I Can't Believe You Asked That!
But now my real dream has come true: to have this conversation appear in my
newspaper, for all to see. I'm not talking about dissecting the big issues of
the day in this column, but the so-called "smaller" topics that often keep us
from getting closer to each other.
Why do we talk the way we do? Eat the way we do? Dress the way we do? Even
smell the way we do? Frankly, if we can't talk about these "superficial" things,
well, how are we going to tackle the bigger issues?
So let's get started. I realize it's not easy opening up like this, so we'll
use your initials or first name if you'd like. Just send in your questions and
replies, and I'll mix them in with postings from across the country and globe.
I'll even get experts to address your queries.
Take a chance: Become part of a provocative, but necessary, undertaking.
Because when we become too safe for our own good, we risk living in an unsafe
Why do black men look good in purple suits, but white men look like dorks?
P. Ryan, Harrow, Canada
Someone will probably try and give some response about coloring of the skin
being complementary or not, so let me try and stop such nonsense before it
starts. Most men look good in suits. It may be that you have had more instance
to notice a black man in a purple suit because some black men wear colored suits
to stand out in a crowd. Being originally from Louisiana, where purple is one of
the official state colors, I've had a chance to see several men of both races in
purple suits. The better-looking the man, the better-looking the suit.
Amanda, 21, black female, Boston
Let's be honest. No one looks good in a purple suit.
Matt, 26, Hispanic male, Houston
I don't think it's nonsense to state that skin coloring plays a role in what
colors look good. A white woman and a black woman are not always able to wear
the same color lipstick and look good in that shade. Therefore, it stands to
reason that skin tone makes a difference. Darker skin can carry a brighter (for
instance, orange) or deeper color (like purple) better without being overwhelmed
by it. Perhaps that's why the colorful Kente cloth patterns were invented by
Cassandra, 36, black female, Chicago
Constance White, style director for eBay.com and former style writer for The
New York Times, says it's not foolish to think a black man might look better in
a purple suit than a white man, for two reasons: color contrast and cultural
"Scientifically, we know that black against white is the most graphic you can
get, so by the same token the same sort of rules apply to, say, a purple against
a brown," said White. "Perhaps to our natural eye it's easier on the eye --
darker skin tones balance out a brighter color."
Perhaps as important, "In our community, it's just a lot more acceptable for
a black man to wear a purple suit -- even if some of us might be rolling our
eyes, it's still not as shocking as if a white man shows up in a purple suit to
a bar mitzvah or church on Sunday or a WASP party."
Tracing that acceptance inevitably leads one on a path back to Africa, where
cultural mores and traditions called for the elite leaders to wear bright
colors, White said. The contrast with European society was like night and day,
with highprofile leaders there wearing conservative, darker colors.
"There is more of a tradition for individual expression in the black
community than in the white community, which comes partly from whites' religious
traditions. In Puritanism and the Church of England, they were very buttoned-up.
Not only was it not polite in society to express yourself, it was downright
ungodly. Whereas in traditional African religions, the opposite is true," White
And, just as clothes make the man, the man makes the clothes.
"A black man sort of has a swagger that goes with a purple suit, whereas
white men don't," White quipped.
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
column comments to phillip. email@example.com. You can also hear his