Several years ago, the team I was working with went out for drinks after work. I was fairly new to this group and hadn’t met everyone yet, and some members were still arriving after others had already settled in at a table. We were all dressed in business or business causal attire. As I was coming back from the restroom, one of the new arrivals whom I had not met yet turned to me and gave me her drink order. She assumed I was one of the servers. I recall telling her I was not part of the wait staff but actually a member of the team, and I really don’t remember her apologizing much but just redirecting her attention to the correct person to take her order. I was the only Latina in the group which did happen to be predominantly white. The bar was not Latin themed in any way.
I remember feeling really bad. I looked at how I was dressed: I had slacks on and a button down blouse. I wasn’t dressed like the servers. Would she have made the same mistake with anybody who was just coming back from the bathroom rather than seated at the table when she arrived? Did I look like I was about to take her order when she just gave me her order? Did I look too young to work with the team? Did she just see someone approaching and not knowing I was a new member of the team, just assumed anyone approaching must be a server?
Or, did she on some level just assume I was a server and not one of the team members because I was Latina?
I didn’t ask her why she mistook me for a server. I was new and trying to make a good impression, but the incident and others like it made me think about how I was perceived professionally. At one point I had a white, male supervisor who, when speaking to me and my blonde, blue-eyed female colleague simultaneously, would consistently only make eye-contact with her, even when answering a question I had asked! Did he not view me as an equal or did he just find her (or me) attractive?
All too often, such incidents do reflect a sub-conscious bias, but I still try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and explore every other plausible explanation before assuming there was prejudice or stereotyping driving their behavior.
More recently as a Latina with a small child, I would sometimes be mistaken for the nanny when pushing my son in a stroller in my workout clothes or jeans. I didn’t take offense, but on some level it did bother me. I remembered those instances while watching Grand Hotel this past summer – the ABC series featuring a glamorous Latino family as the owners of the last family-owned hotel on Miami Beach. It’s a family business, so the “bosses” are Latin, while the staff (including housekeeping and wait staff) is mixed, including white characters. I loved the show mostly for its Miami setting and Latin flavor, but the more I watched, the more I enjoyed seeing Latinos as the bosses and not the housekeeping or wait staff, regardless of how common or realistic this reversal of roles actually is. We just see too much of the latter in film and television, which simply reinforces stereotypes about Latinos. I wondered how often people might be mistaking me for a nanny or housekeeper rather than a professional with multiple degrees and professions. I don’t focus on what others might be thinking because that’s a dark rabbit hole no matter what the issue, but as Carrie Bradshaw used to say, “I couldn’t help but wonder . . .”
These instances of mistaken identity are subtle, unlike blatant instances where someone is obviously treated, spoken to/of or thought of as less-than because of their belonging to a particular group. The latter are easy to identify and know how to respond to emotionally, albeit difficult to fix. When the mistake is due to a hidden or implicit bias, it can leave us feeling bad but confused and not sure where to direct the bad feelings.
For me, an identity based on my actions and self-perception helps me focus less on blame and more on change.
I identify myself first by the attributes that I am responsible for, and take pride in or accountability for them, accordingly. I expect others to identify me as such too, even if they fail to do so – that’s on them. How I treat others, how I communicate with others, my education and my accomplishments – those are foremost. My culture is part birth-given and part choice. I was born of two Latino parents, but I also chose to make myself fully bilingual, to study Latin American literature and music, and to take up salsa dancing as my “what do you like to do when you are not working?” for over a decade. I take pride in those choices, as they make me who I am.
When my identity and self-perception are based on my choices and accomplishments first, it’s easier to project that image into the world as a formidable challenger to existing negative stereotypes.
How I view myself affects how I perceive I’m being viewed by others which in turn affects how I’m actually viewed by others.
It doesn’t happen overnight, but genuine change can occur both on an individual basis and in regards to implicit biases and stereotypes. We hear and read so much about what we can do to correct our biases against others, or how others can correct their biases against us, but our own self-perceptions and what we believe people assume about us affects what we project and how others see us too.
I am a woman and I am Hispanic and if those are the first things you notice about me when I walk into a room, it’s totally okay. Just don’t stop there.
1. Have you ever been mistaken for something you are not, and if so, was it essentially giving you more credit or less credit?
2. Have you ever mistaken someone else for something they were not?
3. In either case, did you think about hidden biases, bring it to the other’s attention or have it brought to your attention, just in case?
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