04/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

White-Collar Blues: A Continuing Lack of Diversity

For years, the diversity at my job consisted of an Asian woman and me in a sea of 40 white people. At one point in my tenure, everyone got excited because it seemed that we had hired our first gay employee. But as it turned out, he was merely effeminate (but straight) and not so exotic after all.

So we were all disappointed.

Still, we recently added a woman who is half-Mexican, so the Hispanic population has doubled. Or to look at it another way, because we are both half-Hispanic, between us we add one Latino to the staff. This is progress.

The lack of Hispanic representation in the so-called respectable professions (often defined as those that pay a decent wage to stare at a computer screen in a cubicle) is stunning. Aside from the time I spent toiling in fast food as a teenager, I've usually been the only Hispanic at a given job. I'm used to it, and it's never been an issue, at least not in the sense of overt hostility. Confusion, however, is much more common.

On occasion, I've worked with people for years who are surprised to find out that I'm a Latino. Perhaps we're making small talk and I'll mention that my grandmother speaks only Spanish or that my last name has its roots in El Salvador or that I know what "puta" means (hey, it comes up). Then I'll get this strange look as if I've been hiding a secret life or pulling an especially egregious fast one on them.

"Are you Hispanic?" they'll ask in perplexity. And when I confirm it, they'll frown or shrug or cluck their tongues with the peevishness of the mildly deceived. They appear to want to follow up with "And when were you going to tell me this?"

It's not that they're closet racists. It's that their worldview has been altered abruptly. What have they believed to that point? I can't say for sure, but the thinking seems to be, "He's sort of white, but not really. He's clearly not black. If he's not one of those, but still does white-collar work, he must be Asian. Probably Japanese."

I had one co-worker who wanted to know if I had any female relatives I could fix him up with because, as he stated, "I'm into Asian girls." He was heartbroken to find out I could not help with his cause, so I refrained from pointing out how painfully common his fetish is among white men.

In a previous post, I commented on people's frequent insistence that I'm really Asian (it's ranged from comical to combative). But for now, let me return to my original point, which is that very few Latinos read Dilbert. That number is likely to go down even further in today's economic maelstrom.

In fact, the only other Hispanics I usually see in an office building are the guys mopping the floor, and they often give me quick, embarrassed smiles as if to say, "Sorry I don't make you prouder" or "Aren't you afraid they'll catch you impersonating a white guy?" Otherwise, we avoid eye-contact, because the Latino janitor is probably thinking that I look down upon him, while I'm super-conscious of the fact that I don't want to appear like I'm looking down upon him.

Perhaps I should engage in a moment of solidarity with him, or I can emphasize the importance of education so his children can go farther than he has, or we can snicker and say, "How about those Anglos, huh?" But we do none of this, because the class difference between us is vaster than the racial similarities that bond us. I feel that I should say something to the guy, but no words of wisdom, in either English or Spanish, arrive. So I keep walking, and I hit my cube, and he keeps scrubbing, and I'm sure that no one thinks for a moment that he is Asian.