When I was finishing my PhD, I had the opportunity to present a paper at a conference in Washington DC.
Believe it or not, even though I’m from Mexico and in spite of having had a couple of opportunities, I had never actually been to the States. It was a matter of some sort of national pride; you see, I grew up hearing stories about Latinos being discriminated against here, police in the South beating powerless immigrants, and Texan ranchers shooting ‘illegal aliens’ trying to cross the border. To my young, ignorant, biased mind, Americans were just a bunch of obnoxious, self-centered racists.
My animosity towards America was so strong I never once considered doing my PhD here, preferring England instead. But there I was, on a plane to the States feeling “all conflicted”.
The first thing that I noticed at JFK wounded my pride as a Latino: every single person I saw cleaning, sweeping, or wiping windows looked like me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those jobs, but I didn’t see a single Latino in a position of relative power; no pilots, managers, people behind information desks… not a single one.
On the cab ride to the hotel the driver started making small talk.
He asked me where I was coming from, what I did for a living, and if I was visiting someone in New York. So I told him my story: I was just about to finish my PhD at Oxford but I was coming from Tokyo where I was doing an internship, and I was in the States for a job interview in New York and to present a paper at a conference in DC.
‘Very cool!—he said—And where are you from originally? I can’t place your accent.’
When I told him I was from Mexico, he actually slowed down and looked back to stare right at me.
‘No way. You don’t sound like a Mexican at all! And you said you were doing a PhD?
Man, you should be on the news!! Seriously, you could show everybody that Mexicans can make it too!!’
The guy kept going on and on about how extraordinary my story was, how I should be proud, and how Mexico should give me an award or something.
Perhaps I was a bit too sensitive after what I’d seen at the airport, but a lot of things crossed my mind at that point: So this guy is saying Americans need to be told that Mexicans can actually succeed? That we can actually be smart? Is that it? How dare he say something like that?! He thinks my being Mexican is a disadvantage!!
‘A Mexican doing a PhD at Oxford. How about that!’—he concluded.
I could have escalated the situation; called him a racist, told him to pull over, or worse. Or I could have silently reinforced my prejudice against Americans. But instead, noticing his apparently genuine enthusiasm, I gave myself the opportunity to empathize with him, to put my rising anger aside and try to understand where he was coming from.
So I took a deep breath, and in a friendly tone asked him why he thought like that.
After hearing him out I realized he was genuinely surprised. He was honestly really excited to hear my story and thought that more people should know about it. I felt that he was happy for me and even kind of proud.
I got to learn a little bit about his life and his experience with Mexican people so far; it turned out he’d never met a Mexican person with that kind of background before.
And then it clicked.
How was I any different? We both had a very limited, biased understanding of each other’s countries, and had naively generalized it.
Magically all the anger disappeared.
When he was done, I told him that I really believed that my being Mexican had absolutely nothing to do with the whole thing, that I just worked hard and had had a lot of opportunities.
‘It’s not about countries—I told him—If you give them a chance, anyone can make it.’
‘Yeah, I guess you’re right…’—he said thoughtfully, and I could tell the conversation had left an impression on him.
I often reflect on this episode for I learned something very valuable that day: Always give people the benefit of the doubt; if you assume good intentions you might even end up learning a thing or two.
When you’re confronted with a blunt, insensitive, or borderline racist comment, don’t automatically assume the worst. Don’t ignore the issue but instead of escalating the situation, ask questions, empathize; take the incident as a learning opportunity for both parties: you can constructively offer your opinion to help the other person grow AND you can get to know them better and understand a little bit more about a different perspective.
After having sworn I’d never live in the States, I ended up eating my words and moving here. Over the past 8 years I’ve had some uncomfortable moments, but by heeding my own advice, I’ve been able to overcome my prejudices by listening to and learning from a variety of different perspectives with an open mind.
Empathy leads the way to understanding, to finding common ground, and to solving issues effectively. We should be careful not to let our initial reaction impede us from engaging in what could be a constructive dialogue. Race is a complex, nuanced subject; I strongly believe that addressing it from an empathetic, non-confrontational perspective helps us all.