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Pointed out I was the only person of color at work, was told ‘Yes, but you pass’

(EDITORIAL) Inclusion of minority groups means changing language to broader and more friendly terms. Here are things to not say and how to accomplish real inclusion.

wtf inclusion fail

While working at what I thought was a progressive organization, I had a colleague who was nice, diplomatic, and prided herself on her deep understanding of diversity and inclusion.

She’d had the trainings and been involved in leadership organizations geared toward inclusion. She was super knowledgeable.

Then, one day during a conversation with her about diversity and inclusion, I pointed out I was the only person of color in our department.

Her response to me: “Yes, but you pass.”

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I was at a loss for words and didn’t know how – in the moment – to respond or confront her.

She, a white woman, who regularly said she understood her “white privilege,” was telling me that I passed.

Whether or not “I pass,” was not the issue. What was at issue – it wasn’t her place to pass that kind of judgment.

“You don’t know me Karen!”

She hadn’t lived my life and didn’t know what situations I’d encountered over the years.

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At that moment, I realized I was dealing with a person who had the attitude of “but you don’t look like, act like, talk like.”

Da F*ck?

What did she mean? I pass?

How should I look? Act? Talk?

Do I need to act differently so others feel comfortable and can put me in a box?

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At that moment, I should’ve suggested she take off her “backpack” and start to review its contents, because her privilege, judgment, and biases were showing. As was her insensitivity.

What we have here is a perfect example of someone who has the opportunity to take the classes, be in a leadership position and attend training, yet has no experience dealing with the thing she claims to understand – and often insinuated she knew better than me, a person who has actually lived the experience.

“But, I have black friends.”

Yeah, good for you Karen.

Over the years, I’ve heard:

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  • “You don’t act like a Mexican.”
  • “Why does a Mexican girl have a southern girl’s name.”
  • “But, you’re not really Mexican.”
  • “You never talk about your culture or the food.”
  • “You probably got into college because you are a minority.”

Let’s be honest, people like to put things in specific boxes. Our mind wants to make sense of what it observes. Our backgrounds do affect those judgments, biases and labels.

While working as a teacher, I had another experience with a superior, who was surprised to learn I had a master’s degree and had been published – a lot.

Why? Well, possibly because my vernacular is slightly different than hers. I come from a working-class background and was the first to attend college. I wasn’t exposed to people who spoke and acted in a more erudite way – the way, it’s generally expected you speak and act in a corporate environment (btw – mostly dictated by the white experience).

I know some people will say, “Well, I’ve had people assume x,y,z about me and I’m white.”

I don’t doubt it. But, on the whole, a white person is a lot less likely than a person of color to hear things like: “You don’t look like a doctor, lawyer, Latin(x), dentist, PhD.” Or, “Is that your hair?” “Can I touch your hair?”

What it comes down to is this: having empathy and thinking before speaking.

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I’ve said and done a lot of dumb things in my life. We all do. Nobody is perfect. While it’s important to consider what you say and how you act with anyone, it’s crucial with a person of color who you don’t know well. The fact that you may work with them doesn’t mean you know them.

Of course, there are some people who are just too self-centered to care about anyone else’s feelings. But, most of us aren’t total jackasses. We do care. We just don’t always think. I’m as guilty of blurting out dumbass stuff as the next person.

Understanding others comes from a real interest in learning where the person is coming from. And, just because you have a black friend or eat Mexican food, doesn’t mean you understand a colleague’s personal experience or culture.

Educating yourself about diversity and inclusion is commendable. Just remember – unless you are an actual member of a minority group, you can never be more knowledgeable than the person living the experience. It just is not possible.

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Mary Ann Lopez earned her MA in print journalism from the University of Colorado and has worked in print and digital media. After taking a break to give back as a Teach for America corps member and teaching science for a few years, she is back with her first love: writing. When she's not writing stories, reading five books at once, or watching The Great British Bakeoff, she is walking her dog Sadie and hanging with her cats, Bella, Bubba, and Kiki. She is one cat short of full cat lady status and plans to keep it that way.

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