This is my college graduation picture from 1988. I received a bachelor of arts degree from an Ivy League University and a short while later was traveling to New York to join a management training program at a prestigious Wall Street Bank. There were 34 of us in that class and we would be together for 18 months. On the first day of work I received an invitation to a reception with executives. How exciting!
But, I quickly became aware that many others had not received the same invitation. A few of my colleagues were invited, but I did not immediately put together that they were minorities. As the day wore on, that became the common attribute of those invited (about 5 of us). I was really uncomfortable about being classified as a minority, so I called HR to inquire about the real reason I was invited. Why? As my photograph illustrates, I am white and of a predominantly Irish heritage with an Italian grandfather. While at some point in American history my ethnic background could have been considered a minority, this was decidedly not the case in 1988.
The woman from HR that I telephoned was very nice. She quickly informed me that new minority employees can have problems adjusting to the predominantly white male environment of the bank. Therefore, they wanted to assign each of us a mentor to help us adjust and settle in. Also, if we were to have any problems, there would be someone looking after us. I guess they assumed my white colleagues could handle things themselves, so no mentors for them. I mentioned to the woman from HR that I thought this might seem like a good idea, but I did not understand why I was invited.
There was silence for an uncomfortable 5 seconds. “Well, what do you mean?” she asked.
“Because I am white and I don’t understand why the company thinks I am a minority”, I said.
“But your name is Hispanic… we just assumed.” she said
“No, my name is Italian”, is all I could say.
I told her I would not attend the reception. I went on to successfully finish the program and enjoy a successful career in finance. So have many of my colleagues. A few were terminated during the program for inability to grasp the work, some were lazy and were let go, and, one was fired for cheating. It is a shame that those qualities don’t show up in your name or in your skin color.
It did not dawn on me until much later in life how difficult it must be for people of race or color. When people see me in person, they judge me on the content of my character and my achievements, the way things ought to be. It may be good or bad, but I am in control. I am who I am. In this instance during my past, I was judged based on assumptions and misplaced stereotypes. I was sized up before I arrived and thought of as “less” even though I had a degree from one of the best universities in the world and was hired to work at one of the most prestigious banks in the world. I still struggle to imagine what it would be like to deal with that type of judgment from people everyday.
It was a lesson. I always try to remember it when I meet new people. I hope platforms like these open up the conversation and the world continues on a path to becoming a better place.
PS: I still get some Spanish language mail, its tough to get off those lists.