I’m grateful to have a career that allows me to experience new people and new places. At times, I have the privilege of representing my organization at various international events. I’ll never forget the very first international event I attended. I had been told the event was formal and to anticipate joyful festivities that would last until late hours of the night. I wasn’t sure how the night would roll out, but I showed up anyhow, sporting a dark grey pin-striped three-piece suit with a purple collared shirt and a matching tie. I quickly set up my informational booth, as I usually do, with flyers, pens, lanyards, sign-up sheets, and other swag. I made a quick run to the restroom, took a look in the mirror, straightened my tie, made sure my hard-part was on point, and returned to my table with a smile, ready to greet people.
I stood by my table ready to represent my organization as I had been trained to do. However, much to my surprise, as the attendees entered the building, several of them walked up to me and handed me their coats, asking me if I could hold on to them while they attended the event. I struggled hard to keep a straight face. I had dressed my best in an attempt to give a professional representation of my company. Somehow, the attendees were assuming I was the help. I held in my laughter, the best I could while explaining to them that I was there to provide information about my company. Each of them stepped back, embarrassed they had assumed that I was a butler-of-sorts.
I took a moment and tried to figure out what was making people assume I was an employee of the venue. I took a quick glance around and got smacked upside the head with a dose of reality. The only other Latinos in the venue were either working in the kitchen or part of the waitstaff. The attendees of the event were oblivious of my name, title, education, and other pedigrees. All they saw was my skin color and, they assumed I was part of the waitstaff. Here is what I learned from this experience.
1. Most people start to form an opinion about you before you even say a word.
I’ve come a long way from my days on the farm. I’ve spent countless hours investing in personal development. However, when people see my smile they don’t see a man who has earned an MBA and is working on a second graduate degree. They don’t see the time that I’ve invested working with minority groups to help individuals and communities experience success. What most people see is the color of my skin and they automatically associate it with all the stereotypes associated with the Latin community. However, before you get tempted to check-out of this conversation, let me share what else I learned…..
2. I have the privilege of teaching others that not all stereotypes are true.
I have decided to represent the Chicano community well, wherever I go. The people that mistook me for “the help,” that night, were genuinely as embarrassed as I was. However, it opened the door for us to dialogue. I treated the experience as an uncomfortable icebreaker. Once they realized who I was, and what I represented, we both had a good laugh. I was able to talk to them about the services that I offer and share parts of my life story with them. They quickly treated me like an old friend and invited me to eat with them and dance the night away.
3. I don’t want to stereotype others.
That night I had an awkward experience. However, there are people who experience things like this on a daily basis. I have Black friends who are dismissed as being “too thug”, Latin friends who are dismissed as being “uneducated”, and White friends who are upright and just, but yet are labeled as being racist, simply because of the color of their skin. I want to take part in putting an end to this nonsense.
Thankfully, I don’t have anything scheduled that requires me to put on my suit for a while. However, next time I wear it, I’m not just going to assume that people are going to know who I am and what I’m all about. Estoy listo para representar a la comunidad latina con respeto y orgullo!
Hasta la Proxima! Bendiciones!!!
Featured Image By Valentin B Kremer
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on john-eli.com.