Danny Rodriguez sat 20 stories up a glass and concrete office tower in a corner conference room—surrounded almost exclusively by 10 non-Hispanic White colleagues—shocked, stupefied, flabbergasted even.
He had just made what he considered an astute recommendation during an all-staff brainstorming session. The first time he spoke, everyone ignored him. The conversation trundled on without even acknowledging he had opened his mouth.
When he repeated his remark in a louder voice, the discussion screeched to a halt. Everyone turned to him, many with annoyed expressions. After a few seconds of supremely uncomfortable silence, the managing director helpfully suggested that, “Our clients are sophisticated operators, not South Beach drug dealers. Got that?”
Everyone but Vanessa, the only Black person in the room, laughed at Danny’s expense. That’s when the realization hit him.
Is this… racism?
Self-doubt steamrolled into his thoughts.
Was he being dramatic? Was his idea just really stupid? Was it because he was younger than most others in the room? No one threatened to lynch him or called him a spic, so why did he feel like he just had the wind knocked out of him?
The 25-year-old marketing associate recently moved from Miami, his hometown and only place he’d ever lived, to Boston Massachusetts, where he joined a boutique advertising agency. Of mixed Argentine and Puerto Rican descent, Danny attended Gulliver Prep and then FIU. He had spent his life up to that point surrounded by other Latinos, mostly from the upper-middle class.
Danny had learned about the Civil Rights and associated Chicano movements in school but never really connected with them on an emotional level. Everywhere he looked, his peers, mentors, elected officials, and local business leaders all looked and spoke like him. Racism was something that happened in the 60s and backwater hovels in Appalachia. He certainly wasn’t being threatened by hooded night riders. As a result, he didn’t understand why Black and Brown people wouldn’t shut up about implicit bias, microaggressions, and all manner of other terminology he couldn’t quite define. After all, his parents had (supposedly) gotten to this country with nothing. If they could make it, surely everyone else could. Those who didn’t were just making excuses.
All that accumulated self-assurance had been washed away by a single comment made by a balding man in khaki slacks. Danny was deflated. He kept his eyes down and mouth shut for the rest of the meeting. As things wrapped and everyone stood from their chairs, Vanessa asked him to stay behind. She waited until the last person left the room and closed the door before speaking.
“Well, that sucked,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Just another Monday meeting!” ventured Danny with a weak smile.
“Sure,” she replied. “But what really sucked was the comment Ted made about drug dealers.”
“Oh… no…,” stammered Danny. “He’s just busting my balls and it wasn’t really a good suggestion…”
“It was a good suggestion,” she shot back. “And the comment was racist.”
A wave of relief washed over Danny. Maybe he hadn’t made it up. Maybe he did have a reason to feel like trash. However, that release quickly morphed into anger that Vanessa hadn’t spoken up in his defense.
“Why didn’t you say something!” he demanded. “Why did you just sit there while everyone joined in…”
Vanessa stopped Danny’s self-pity cold.
“Allyship is a two-way street, buddy,” she retorted. “You never stood up to the jerks who bombard me with their racist bullshit on a daily basis. I don’t owe you anything. Also, I’m just as junior as you, and Black women get much less leeway to stand up for themselves, much less for others.”
Danny’s blood drained from his face. The realization that Vanessa regularly underwent the same emotional gut punch he had just experienced, and that he had done nothing to help her, dropped a sense of guilt into his psyche that sank to the very core of who he thought he was.
“You experience this…” he began.
“Daily,” she finished his sentence. “And if it’s not in the office, it’s at the grocery store, or gym, or sidewalk. We live in a White world, something you just apparently woke up to after a quarter century on the planet.”
Danny looked at his shoes, unsure of what to say.
“Welp, good morning sunshine!” exclaimed Vanessa. She gave him a pat on the shoulder and walked out of the room.
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