Racial issues: getting comfortable being uncomfortable

If you’re a person of color and you haven’t read “So You Want to Talk about Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, I highly suggest you do.

If you’re not a person of color and you haven’t read “So You Want to Talk about Race” by Ijeoma Oluo, I highly suggest you do.

Many of us at work have read it and we discuss it in a book club. It has inspired me to action, including being comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations about race in and out of work. It has also inspired me to share some of the indignities, microaggressions, and other racist actions I have experienced.

When I was 25, I was a mechanical engineer on a secret government project for a major defense contractor. We have many frequent meetings with our government customer. One day I was speaking with a junior government project manager who graduated college the same year I had. He asked where I went to college.

“MIT,” I responded.

He looked at me with a scrunched brow. “Mississippi…” he trailed off, guessing.

“Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

“Oh, that MIT.”

I wasn’t aware there was more than one.

Given this person’s role and alma mater (which I won’t reveal to keep the customer’s identity secret), I’m sure he was familiar with MIT. If I were white, there wouldn’t have been any question if I meant, say, the Montana Institute of Technology. White men have a presumption of merit based simply upon their identity which people of color don’t benefit from.

This guy wasn’t a bad guy; in fact, I liked him as a person. He wasn’t racist, although his response was. It wasn’t his fault; it was simply the result of him being indoctrinated into institutionalized systemic racism as a result of our society, media, and constant reinforcement. I wonder if that moment had any lasting impression upon him, but it has stayed with me almost a quarter century later.

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