Bias, Equality, and the Dumb Stuff We Say

“Hey, Kara, can I talk to you a minute?”

My youngest son examines mannequins at the mall.

My youngest meets mannequins at the mall. We learn our biases early. Some are subtle; others not so much.

I swung 180 degrees from facing the computer to the window in my office. It was still morning. I spun 90 more degrees to look across my desk. Manny sat down opposite me. He looked upset. I guessed I had time.

“Yeah. What’s up?”
“It’s just,” he paused. “Geez. Ya ever get so frustrated with other people?”
I laughed. “All the time.”
“I mean, why do they have to keep bustin’ on me for bein’ Mexican?”
“Oh, man, that sucks. I’m so sorry. That should not happen.”

I felt immediately concerned. I wasn’t a manager or anything, but I certainly had a voice in the organization and I wasn’t going to stand by and let someone be treated unfairly. He had my attention.

“Yeah, it’s okay. I just wish I could get past this,” he said.
“The stereotype?”
“Yeah. I don’t think they know what they’re doin’. They don’t get what it’s like.”
“They think they’re funny?”
He smiled wryly. “They think so.”
“I get it,” I looked him in the eye. “I’m pretty sure I know how you feel.”
“You do? You’re white!”
“True. But I’m also female. Don’t shake your head. I get it. I mean, when’s the last time someone told you you were no good at a sport just because of what you are–not who you are?”
He scoffed. “Never. I was always good at sports.”
I nodded. “Okay. When was the last time someone said, ‘You can’t come with us. No Mexicans allowed.'”
“I’d kick their ass if someone said that to me.”
“Right. As you should–well, not literally.” I smiled again. He didn’t. I wasn’t connecting. I needed a better example.

“Okay, I’m going to tell you something I haven’t told anyone here.” He looked up from his hands to my eyes.
“The first time I hit the glass ceiling, I was only 23,” I explained. “I got told I couldn’t have the next job up; that, in fact, I would never have the next job up because I was a girl. Not a woman, mind you: a ‘girl.’ I was pissed.”
He whistled softly. “No way. Someone said that to you?”
I nodded. “Even worse. The someone who said it to me was my friend. Still is, actually.”
“Why would you still be friends? Why didn’t you bust him on it?”
“It wasn’t like that.”

I paused briefly. I had been like that. What was I trying to say?

“The thing is, I knew my friend, my boss, my mentor, wasn’t trying to be discriminatory. He thought he was just being honest. I worked in comic books at the time. He told me, as a girl, I didn’t know comic books ’cause I hadn’t grown up reading them. As a result, no writer or artist would respect me; so it wouldn’t make sense to make me an editor.”
Manny nodded. “Oh,” he said. “I guess that makes sense then.”

A small volcano started to bubble up in my brain. I breathed in through my nose and exhaled slowly.

“No. It didn’t. It didn’t make sense.”
“But what he said was true. Girls don’t know comic books so no one would respect them if they gave orders about comic books.”
“Manny, that’s like saying Mexicans can’t be managers. Because they’re Mexican. And they didn’t grow up seeing Mexicans in charge, at least not in this country.”
He glared at me. “That’s bullshit! Mexicans can be managers!”
“I KNOW! And girls, women, can learn comic books and become very good at editing them! It’s a dumb-ass stereotype and it sucked. What he should have told me was I lacked experience, which was true, that I should learn more and work up to editor. But he didn’t say that. He said ‘never’ because I was female.”

Manny was still fuming about the ‘Mexicans’-can’t-be-managers’ example, shaking his head from side to side. But, I felt I was getting close, so I pressed on.

“Look, you have a daughter, right?”
“Yeah.”
“How would you feel if someone told her she couldn’t do something just because she’s a Mexican-American–or a girl?”
“That’d piss me off. And I hate the way her teacher talks to my wife. My daughter is frickin’ smart!”
“I know. I’ve met her. I bet your wife feels like I felt when my old boss told me that. Is that how you feel when the guys on the line tell Mexican jokes?”
“Yeah. It’s not okay. I hate that.”

He looked up from his hands, which he had started wringing, absentmindedly. “So, what did you do?”

“I kept talking to him. I didn’t get defensive. I asked if I could gain some more experience, editing some books on my own, just a few. He agreed.”
“And? Did it stop? Did they stop treating you like a girl?”
I rolled my eyes at the irony.

“Well, no, not exactly, but I did kind of get the job, or part of the job. Just not the title or the pay. Any pay.” I laughed. It had been my first “real” job. Like everyone does at the first go-round, I’d worked for peanuts.
“It’s lousy when people are like that.”
“Absolutely, but I did need the experience and it wound up being really good for me. I learned a lot. It’s just, well, the judgement crap sucked and I had to be patient and work with people on it. Still do.”

Manny was bobbing his head up and down. He placed his hands on his knees like he was getting ready to leave. Had I made the connection? Had I related and helped?

“I just wanted you to know that I know how you feel. I get it. As a woman, I get judged on sexism crap all the time.”
He gave me an appraising look. “I didn’t know that stuff still happened for women. I thought it was better.”
“You know, it is in some ways, but that’d be like me saying to you, ‘well, times have changed and people aren’t racist anymore.'”

He scoffed again. I wrapped up. “I just want you to know, you’re not alone and I get it. And I promise I won’t ever do that to you.”
He visibly calmed down as he moved to stand. “Thanks, Kara. And I’m sorry that happened to you, too. I think you’re pretty smart and would make a really good manager.”
“Thanks, Manny!”

At just that moment, a piercing itch at the bottom of my foot radiated up my leg. Immediately, I bent down, slipped off my sandal (it was summer) and scratched ferociously at my heel.

“Whoah!” Manny chuckled uncomfortably. “Don’t go doin’ that! It makes your boobs totally bounce together and is really distracting!” He was standing, looking down at me, kind of laughing.

He winked.

The volcano started boiling again in my brain, an eruption of verbal evisceration about to break the surface.
I sat up.
“Are you for real? GET OUT!” I pointed to the door.
“What?” he shrugged as he left.

I bent back down and kept on scratching.

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