When PC is BS: Author Breaks Down Cultural Boundaries and Starts Conversations
By Patrick Driscoll
“What is an average night in a black household like?”
Many public speakers live in fear of accidentally disturbing the sensibilities of their audience, but Philip Milano, an acclaimed author and columnist for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, chooses a different tactic.
“I wanna start off tonight by trying to offend as many of you as possible,” began Milano, addressing a group of students on Tuesday night in Worcester State’s Blue Lounge. Milano, author of the 2004 book “I Can’t Believe You Asked That!” and moderator of yforum.com, began the Y Forum project with the simple goal of starting a dialogue between different races, cultures, sexualities, and age groups—a way for people with a sincere curiosity to ask questions that might be deemed indelicate or dangerous in other contexts.
Far from being a lecture “where you’re told all the answers”, the meeting was informal, funny and disarmingly honest —a safe setting in which discussions of differences often lead to unexpected familiarity.
“This project isn’t necessarily about the big hot-button questions of the moment, but rather, about the questions that come afterwards,” he said. “These smaller questions of behavior and custom are important too, and go a long way towards making people relate to each other,” says Milano.
Milano’s goal with the project is to cut through a veil of sensitivity that he feels separates various American communities and subcultures from one another. One of the first questions he received on his site, asking about the typical dinner routine of an African-American family, is symbolic of the disconnect he’s talking about—the level of cultural dissonance that turns the mundane into the alien.
Milano’s site receives thousands of questions and has had over 10 million page views since its inception, and he responds to the questions (which range from the somewhat goofy, like “Do women fart?” to more serious fare like “Why are only black people allowed to use the N-Word?”) with nuance, humor, and a surprising amount of research.
Milano reroutes the questions to Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper columnists and authors, to gastrointestinal researchers, sociologists, and comedians. The answers ranged from funny, to poignant, to fascinating.
One of the people he’s gone to for answers has been comedian Carlos Mencia, who responded to a question about Chicano culture (“Why do Hispanic people turn their cars into low-riders?”) with a surprising amount of depth. Mencia explains that Low-Rider culture was a way for the children of immigrants to assert their identity, differentiating themselves from the culture of their parents: “It’s really something to be admired. That’s a sign of money, discipline, artistic vision… it’s an accomplishment, really.”
By making these humanizing connections, Milano’s project has gone on to become a sort of networking site for different American subcultures. As the Y Forum’s success has shown, oftentimes smalltalk is as revealing—or more so—than “big talk.”
Maria D’Angelo, a sophomore at Worcester State and president of the Student Events Committee, sought out Milano because of what she perceived to be a genuine need for dialogue.
“I originally organized it because people really do wonder about these questions,” she said. “I really enjoyed the event.”
Phillip Milano writes the column “Dare To Ask” for the Florida Union-Times in Jacksonville, where he fields uncomfortable questions on a weekly basis. His website is yforum.com, and he accepts questions, no matter how uncomfortable, at email@example.com.