I work at a start-up. In the kitchen there is a flat-screen TV displaying inspirational quotes. Last week it featured a mix of quotes attributed to Henry Ford and Mark Zuckerberg.
Ford: If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.
Zuckerberg: Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.
Zuck, trust me: I’d love to break everything in this place.
Today, the flat-screen TV is different. Instead of inspirational quotes, now it’s a slideshow of my coworkers’ smiling faces, their own words next to them in fifty-point font.
Dávila: I’m proud of my heritage. I mean, who doesn’t love Mexican food?
Torres: Every time I get together with mi familia, I’m reminded of how awesome we all are!
I pour myself a coffee and go downstairs for a smoke.
A few months ago, Human Resources sent me an email: Hey! We invite you to participate in one of our upcoming celebrations. Select from the following to notify us of your interest. Note: Your participation is voluntary!
The list that followed was like my college scholarship application: 1) Asian or Pacific Islander; 2) Black or African American; 3) Hispanic or Latino/a; 4) Native American, Hawaii Native or Alaska Native; 5) Other—Please Explain; 6) Female; 7) LGBTQ+
When I didn’t reply, they sent me another email.
When I still didn’t reply, someone Slacked me asking if I’d received it.
I went back to the email and read it over. It made even less sense than before.
I could say something. But why bother? I knew what they wanted.
I copied a line and pasted it as-is: “participation is voluntary!” That was my response. I didn’t even capitalize the p.
I added a happy face emoji, one the color of my skin, to soften the tone.
The photo editor works at the desk next to mine. I’ve often watched her remove high-res blemishes from patches of skin so zoomed in you can’t even tell it’s a face. On her screen right now is a thousand-pixel expanse of brown.
It occurs to me that in the future, there’ll be an app for that—one that lives in your eye, letting you see people as unblemished, corrected. We could call it Mote. No—Beam. 1Judge not, lest ye be judged. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? —Matthew 7:1,3
Then I think—no. No one wants to see other people as perfect. They just want themselves to be seen as perfect.
The photo editor was the one who had made the slideshow. Overlaid our coworkers’ quotes onto their portraits. Removed any unsightly blotches. Affixed the graphic saying Latino Heritage Month. Oh, wait. That was last year. This year, Latino has an x.
Not long after I sent that email, Human Resources sent me another Slack message:
Hi! Just checking—you’re Latina, right? No obligation to respond, just wanted to be inclusive for the photo shoot!
Who do you complain to when it’s HR you have a problem with?
I didn’t reply.
Kitchen again. The friendly woman from Sales is pouring half-and-half into her cold brew. In front of us, the image on the flat-screen TV is a picture of our coworker Dávila. The real-life Dávila also happens to be in the kitchen, opening her lunch.
The woman from Sales turns to Dávila and says, “How do you pronounce that? Latin-ex? La-teenix?”
Dávila is ripping the paper off a set of chopsticks. She has no idea she is on the screen, or that the saleswoman is speaking to her directly.
The saleswoman lifts an eyebrow as she turns to put the carton of half-and-half back in the fridge.
The photo editor and I are in the kitchen together. It’s awkward because we don’t talk, ever, when we’re seated, but we’re friendly with each other away from the desk. I am turning the coffee maker on. She is standing at the toaster, which puts her in the way of the coffee mugs. I wait. I idly watch the flat-screen.
When she notices me, she moves over. I lean in to reach for a mug. She is still waiting for toast. We are going to be here for a minute, so I make conversation. I say: “The photos look great!”
Her eyes flash for a second. “Thank you,”she says.
She thinks, then continues: “You should do it next time! We take portraits in Bryant Park, and then we go for lunch. It’s really fun!”
I say, “Yeah, I should!”
As I pour my coffee, I wonder what good could possibly come from emblazoning my fucking face all over the office. So people can, what, have that warm “diversity” feeling? What are we even trying to accomplish here?
And what would my quote be? “I only took this software job to get out of poverty. Is that a feel-good story, a Latinx story? Shit, I’m going to need more space for this quote.” Hmm. How about, “Yes, I’m Latina—hell, I’m the only woman-of-color engineer here. I often wonder if you lowered the bar for me. Asking me to do this practically proves it!” Okay, okay. How I really feel: “Hi, I am Latina, now please treat me like it doesn’t matter even though by participating in this I just implied it does.”
None of that would fly; they’re not asking for my personal take. Nor are they asking for something universal. I am not Ford or Zuckerberg; I’m the ethnicity of the month. I am to highlight my difference and make that difference undifferentiated.
When I get back to my desk, I remember I could have asked her about the x. Like, did she think to change it to Latinx, or did HR send her an email? The joke about being behind on the latest trend—Oh, you didn’t get the memo?—maybe it’s not a joke, maybe there really is a memo. Which is a joke, really. I’d ask it like a joke. The subtext would be: These are strange times, we are asked to care what race people are, yet remember it shouldn’t matter! We have to trip over new complexities and play it off like it’s not a complete minefield! Also: Oh yeah, all this is for inclusion, but really it’s more division!
But the joke is only funny if you’re free to laugh at it. Which no one is.
I don’t want to antagonize her, so I say nothing.
Soon after she sits down with her toast, my Slack shows she’s typing a message to me. I glance at her screen out of the corner of my eye. She has written:
I hope I didn’t offend you by what I said. I didn’t mean to imply you’re
It is there for a second before she deletes it. The little icon that shows she is writing goes away.
I think about sending her a message. My own memo. One that stops her from seeing me that way.
It dawns on me that racism works like a shitty app. It is software that installs a mote, a beam in the eye. It runs in the background, and occasionally sends push notifications. No one deletes it, because everyone else is still using it.
A minute later, I sneak another peek. On her screen, I see she is editing the slideshow of quotes. For a brief moment, the words overlap, looking something like this:
everyone is moving forward fast
you are not moving fast enough
unless you are breaking
you are not together