"Please don't look too Latina." That's what a higher-up told MSNBC correspondent Mariana Atencio before she attended the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2017.
"When somebody tells you that, you’re not prepared for it ... You don’t think that’s going to happen in your work environment," Mariana said. "And it was also realizing that this person wasn’t doing it with ill intention."
Mariana is one of my personal heroes. I look up to her for a lot of reasons, not only because we both worked in journalism, but also because I love what she stands for. She’s a big advocate for women of color, immigrants, and diversity and inclusion.
When Mariana came to Seattle this year, we sat down over coffee to discuss her book, "Perfectly You." In the first part of our conversation, we talked about workplace bias and how she handled microaggressions at work.
The following is a transcript of our conversation.
Starla Sampaco: One thing that I found really interesting in your book, Mariana, was when you spoke about getting ready for the White House dinner, and you were told not to look “too Latina.”
Mariana Atencio: It was probably the hardest chapter in the book. It's called “Please don't look too Latina,” which is what a higher-up told me before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It's like the Academy Awards of journalism. And when somebody tells you that, you're not prepared for it. You don't think that's going to happen in your work environment.
And it was also realizing that this person wasn't doing it with ill intention. They actually thought, Oh, we're doing this poor girl a favor because she's never been to an event like this. And I wish I could tell you that I had this witty answer ready to go, but I just was in shock and I yielded. I changed what I was gonna wear. I almost cried my eyes out to my husband.
It took me a year to say, I need to grow from this. This will happen again, and what is the firm but respectful answer that I'm going to have? So they don't see us as, Oh here comes Starla or here comes Mariana again with her problems -- "women of color" problems.
And I prepared for when the moment occurred one more time. I had that answer ready,
and this person understood, and it never happened again. If you asked me now why I included that anecdote in the book, which was pretty painful to do, given that I still work there, I would say that I don't want to shed any negative light on this person. I don't even mention their name, but we need to understand that these are things that still happen at the office, and we need to be ready to respond.
Starla: It's so hard sometimes because if you do speak up, there's a lot of risk. They might see you as someone who's turning in their “diversity card,” which is a phrase I really hate,
but I think it encapsulates the feelings around this type of situation. How did you approach this topic the next time?
Mariana: The next time was a comment over my red lipstick. I said to this person, "If you have nothing to say about my editorial (meaning your knowledge of the issue, your coverage, or the story), I would ask you to please refrain from telling me these comments about my appearance in the future. I said in front of their desk and in front of other employees in respectful way, and this person got it. Like, oh wow. This was a bias that I had
that I hadn’t realized I had. And it never happened again.
Starla: Did they apologize?
Mariana: They didn’t apologize at the time, but when more higher-ups found out about the incident, they said, We're going to take action because we have to.
But it was because I was brave enough to say this happened, and I need to write about it for other young women.
Starla: If you were just starting out in your career and this situation happened to you,
would you have approached it the same way? Because at this point, you're at NBC.
You are already successful. But what if you were just graduating from Columbia University? Was that a risk you would have taken?
Mariana: I don't know that I would've had the maturity to take the risk, but I urge young women to do it because if not, you’re just going to keep putting it off, and it chips away at who you are.
Starla: It does.
Mariana: So call people out. Really, don't think about their comfort. Call people out in a respectful but firm way. If you don't know how to approach them, ask a mentor for help.
Starla: Did you show up the following year in your colorful outfit and big earrings?
Mariana: I was proud to look very Latina the year after.
Watch Part 2 of our interview: When your company's values don't align with yours