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Time To Call Out The Microaggressions That Are Holding Us Back

Time To Call Out The Microaggressions That Are Holding Us Back

Recently, I spoke on a panel for Hispanic Heritage Month about the issues Hispanic and Latinx professionals face in business. I’ve been extremely lucky — my work at Ellevate, by definition, defies the challenges most people face when it comes to business culture. Regardless, I still have faced microaggressions or just plain old bias in the past.

I’ve been told to straighten my hair, or pull it back into a bun because it would look“more professional.” I’ve had clients ask if I had gotten“an expensive hair cut, finally.” My name is routinely misspelled, and I was even skipped during a panel introduction because the moderator was sure they wouldn’t be able to pronounce it(hint: Mah-ree-seh-lah). Someone once told me that, of course I was emotional, because I’m a Latina, so my(very valid) challenge to their point of view was just a product of my culture.

These, and many other instances, have certainly caused me to not just be uncomfortable, but also to question my validity. And that’s not fair or right; I’ve worked hard to be where I am.

Sadly, even after sharing those stories, I still didn’t have a good answer when someone asked,“So, when you’re told to straighten your hair before an interview, what do you do?”   My response was,“Well, you kinda just have to take it. And once you have your foot in the door, it’s your responsibility to create change from within.”   I’ve been kicking myself since that day. My response was not fair — not to the person who asked, to the work I do, and it certainly wasn’t fair to everyone else who has to face these challenges. I’ve thought long and hard about how I should have answered. Here are the things I wish I had said:

  1. Call them out — respectfully, politely, and in an objective manner. To the woman who used my heritage as an excuse to dismiss my“emotional” opinion, I wish I had said,“I believe you aren’t trying to be dismissive, but please know that‘s what’s coming across.” If you’re alone with that person, do it then and there. If you find yourself in a room with many others and think taking that stance in public is risky, ask that person to talk one-on-one afterwards.
  2. Have an ally. Make sure that at least one other person on your team or in your company has your back. Having an ally can make a huge difference — especially if it’s someone who can use their privilege in your defense, and can stand up for you when you can’t do it yourself. In that same vein, always be an ally to others. I recognize that there’s such a thing as light-skin privilege, and that it’s something I benefit from. As an ally, I use that privilege when I can.
  3. Don’t get angry. It’s hard, and many times you’ll feel that anger build up. When faced with a microaggression, I remind myself that most people don’t mean to be condescending or disrespectful; usually they just don’t know any better. That’s why it’s called unconscious bias. I remind myself that humans aren’t inherently bad — it’s easier for me to call someone out because I’m not coming from a place of anger. I’m genuinely trying to shed some light on the issue.
  4. Remind yourself that you deserve to be where you are, and you deserve respect. No. Matter. What. Although I wish I could say this won’t happen again, or that if you challenge someone you won’t ever face backlash, I’m not naive enough to think that’s the case. You very likely will. But don’t ever let your confidence be affected by someone’s ignorance. Move on.
  5. And yes, sometimes you just have to take it. Because you might find yourself in a situation in which you need the job, the client, the money to pay your bills or feed your family. But ask yourself: in the long run, is this something you want to live with? Save up the money, build your f-you fund, and get the hell out of there as soon as you can.

Research shows that 76% Latinx professionals don’t feel like they can be themselves at work. That’s not just sad; it also decreases the proven impact of a diverse workforce. Part of why we don’t feel like we can be ourselves is due to instances of microaggression, or what I like to call“death by a thousand mispronunciations of my name.”

When we walk into a room, that room usually doesn’t look like us, and the model of a leader doesn’t resemble what we see when we look in the mirror. The idea of executive presence reflects the leaders we’ve had until now: mainly, middle-aged white men. It’s time that we all recognize the part we play in maintaining this status quo.

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