Aixa Beauchamp is a Newton philanthropy consultant, cofounder of the Latino Legacy Fund at the Boston Foundation, and a philanthropist. Here, she talks about challenging the racially coded language people use and trying to understand what’s behind it. As told to Katie Johnston.
When I was a recent graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, working for a foundation in New York, I attended a conference in Philadelphia and started talking to a white couple, maybe in their mid-60s, who had a foundation started with family money. They kept asking me questions: Where did you grow up? What did your family do? Was it a different experience to go to Harvard?
At first, I thought maybe they wanted to hire me or collaborate on a project. However, as the questions got more personal, it became apparent to me that, because of the way I looked and because I came from a low-income Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn, they thought I got some sort of diversity scholarship. Perhaps they’d never spoken to an educated young Latina before. Statistics show that most white people don’t have any friends of color.
I felt compelled to answer their questions. I didn’t want to be rude.
The couple wasn’t outright racist. I just kept thinking about the generalizations people make that affirmative action is based on lowering standards. As a 28-year-old, it would have been hard for me to unpack the situation and respond in a way that would really change their thinking. Now, in my 50s, I try to be more upfront with people, but in a kind and calm manner.
Not long after my incident with the couple, I did speak up, but it didn’t go well. I had to make a presentation at a foundation board meeting about a project that was trying to engage young men of color in Brooklyn in workforce training programs. Back then, in the early ’90s, board members were mostly white professionals — lawyers and finance executives. Some board members had made site visits to the community, and one of them referred to the lower-income men of color hanging around the bodegas playing dominoes as a “species.” I felt compelled to challenge that. I stood up and said it would insult the men we are trying to help to be referred to that way.
No one responded to my comment, but after the meeting my boss called me in to talk to the president of the foundation. It floored her that I would address a board member in that manner. She said she understood that the comment was improper, and she was going to address it, but addressing it at a board meeting was inappropriate. I told her we can’t let those comments go undiscussed or we’re just feeding into racism and discrimination. And she blew a gasket. She said, you’re young, you don’t know how to handle these things, and then something like, we’re going to be watching you for the next three months. I felt like I was on some sort of “warning.”
I was upset and unsure how to handle the situation, so I called up a Latino community leader who had become a mentor of sorts. I’m assuming he must have said something to my boss, because I was on a panel about economic and racial inequities six months later, and talked about my work in the community and shared my story. Word got back to the head of the foundation that I did an outstanding job, so she called me back into the office, saying what a good job I did.
Here I was being praised for the same thing I was in jeopardy of losing my job over six months ago.
Sometimes you really have to couch what you’re trying to say. My husband and I joined a chichi country club about 10 years ago — at the time we were the only Latino couple who were members — and we were having dinner with a few other couples, and it turned out one woman owned property in Puerto Rico. She said, “The only thing I don’t like about Puerto Rico is that people don’t speak English.” I said to myself, I can be a hard-ass about this and ram her, or being a good Kennedy School grad, I can educate. So I went to the facts. I told her that the official language in Puerto Rico is Spanish, and English is considered a second language. Most people under 40 spoke both languages, and it’s enriching.
I asked why she felt this way, and she shared that as a preschool teacher she had experiences with kids in bilingual programs not learning English well. After I got to know her better in a golf group, I learned that she also volunteered as an English-as-a-second-language teacher and wanted to help people learn English so they could get better jobs, become citizens, and help their kids with school. I also learned she and her family spent part of their vacation in Puerto Rico helping preschool kids learn English.
So what did I learn? Sometimes people don’t share their full stories, and this creates difficulties in communication and understanding. Having these conversations, although hard, opens us up to our own biases. For me, it’s assuming that affluent white people’s remarks come from a place of racism, when it’s actually more a lack of cultural awareness.
Sometimes, as a person of color, I feel like it’s my responsibility to educate others. My children, who are young adults, don’t feel this burden. Plenty of times they have said, “If whites want to know more about race, they can Google it. It’s not my responsibility.”
I think the coded stuff is always much harder to decipher. Earlier this summer, a partner at a hedge fund where a Latino colleague works said the firm needed to get serious about hiring people of color and should reexamine its affirmative action policies. My friend understood that language to mean “We’re going to have to dumb down the kind of people we hire because now we’re expected to hire more people of color.” So, he said, “I’m willing to put my GMAT scores on the table alongside everyone else’s because we do not have to lower our standards.”
He’s much younger. He didn’t feel a need to unpack it and just called it out. Good for him. He was bold, but he is also a man. Even when we discuss issues of race, gender plays a part. I wonder, if he were Latina, would the firm have been as receptive to him calling it out?
This moment has also given us Latinos a chance to address prejudice and racism toward Blacks and Afro Latinos. Even within the Latino community, normal family interactions can sometimes veer to anti-Blackness. People my parents’ age still say “Marry a girl with good hair.” That’s code for “Don’t marry Black.” We don’t recognize the language we’re using can be equally racist as what white folks say.
Identity is a complicated thing, and our differences make conversations about race challenging. We have an opportunity in this moment to make some systemic changes. Let’s not blow it.
Part of an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area. To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at email@example.com.