Face stereotypes or flee?

facing stereotypesI belong to a business club downtown. It’s a great place for meetings, one-on-one discussions and the occasional introspective time (fueled by their extraordinary chocolate chip cookies).

There were two of us in the member’s library that rainy afternoon – a white-haired gentleman and me. The gentleman had been on phone call after phone call, and I was in my “happy place” — a reflective frame of mind where I’m blissfully alone and totally immune to what’s going on around me.

Suddenly I’m aware of a shouting voice…one that’s directed at me.

“Young lady, young lady, I need you over here right now.”

It’s the voice of the white-haired gentleman. He’s vigorously motioning for me to come his way as he continues his phone call.

I quickly cross the room, thinking something is wrong given his urgent tone of voice. As I get closer to him, he pushes a piece of paper and pen across the table to me. I hear him say into the phone, “OK, Frank, go ahead. I found a woman here to be my secretary. What’s the guy’s name and phone number?” Pointing to the paper and nodding at me, he says the name and phone.

Say what?!

A silent war between my Midwest-upbringing-ingrained sense of courtesy and my spirit of gender equality was thundering in my head. Courtesy won. Seething, I wrote down the name and phone number. The white-haired gentleman took the slip of paper, never acknowledging me. I had been dismissed.

Chocolate chip cookies are good for reflection but not so good for soothing raging injustice. How dare he treat me like some 1950’s secretary out of Mad Men? How idiotic was I for complying?

I packed up my PC and headed for home, fuming at both the white-haired gentleman and myself.

The next day a friend shared a story of how a friend of hers had been the victim of a racial slur. I asked her if her friend had engaged the individual in a discussion about how disturbing the comment was. No, came the answer, it was easier to just walk away.

Just walk away…exactly what I had done with the white-haired gentleman.

Out of the blue it hit me:  two lost opportunities for teachable moments.

  • Perhaps that gentleman and the woman were blinded by unconscious bias
  • Perhaps they were unaware they were perpetuating stereotypes
  • Perhaps they are totally aware of their prejudices and don’t care
  • Perhaps the insulted woman and I had climbed the ladder of inference, fueled by our own hot buttons and views of the world and misinterpreted what we thought had happened

In the absence of taking the initiative to have a discussion where clarifying questions could be asked, neither one of us knew for sure what factors were in play.

Guess what I’m doing the next time I see the white-haired gentleman…

Image credit: Born Abroad