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How Not to Welcome a Brown Person

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I was at a recent convening of middle-class, well-educated liberals. This being a Washington, D.C., area group, it was predominantly white, with a spattering of African Americans, a couple of Latinos, and one Asian. Me. Now this is a pretty welcoming organization and they do try hard to promote diversity. One woman, however, simply went overboard and ended up alienating the very people she set out to embrace.

During lunch, I found myself the only person of color at a table. The woman, who looked like she's been fighting the system since Woodstock, took a chair close to me. Then, with the smug look of a child who was about to show off what she just perfected, addressed me in Spanish. Flabbergasted, all I could muster was "I'm not Latino, I'm Asian." Without any sign of embarrassment or remorse, she pointed to my name tag. "But your last name is Spanish."

So, let me get this straight. Just because I'm brown, appear Latino to you, and have a Spanish last name, then I must be Hispanic? And English has got to be my second language?

Sensing that I was about to burst into an angry Asian man, I decided to join my African-American friends at another table. They readily empathized and insisted that I finish my meal with them. One white person got enraged on my behalf and said I should I have called the woman out. The other white people at the table had interesting responses. Most changed the topic immediately and talked among themselves. The silver-haired man next to me, decked in head-to-toe Georgetown pastel prep, got paler and stiffer. He excused himself as soon as he could.

Over breakfast the next day, I recounted what happened to actual Latinos. One said, "Yeah, I get that a lot," in fluent English. The other said, "It's just as bad as being asked 'where are you from?'" This led to an attempt at explaining to our white friends why all this bothered us. I'm not sure if any of them really got what we were trying to say. Before long, they were back to their comfortable and polite conversations. The three people of color were left to commiserate among themselves in this very white and very liberal space.

But not to fret, the group is really trying hard to attract more of the minority du jour, Latinos. It's official policy.

Originally posted on Op-e.