Three discharged employees at a California distribution facility are suing Target Corp., alleging that they were let go after complaining to the human resources department about a memo that made disparaging comments about Hispanics.
The three also said managers discriminated against them for their age and ethnicity, and had used racial slurs. But it’s the memo, which Target says was not written nor sanctioned by the corporation, that has drawn the most notice. No wonder.
It included these tips about Hispanic employees:
“a. Food: not everyone eats tacos and burritos;
b. Music: not everyone dances to salsa;
c. Dress: not everyone wears a sombrero;
d. Mexicans (lower education level, some may be undocumented);
e. Cubans (Political refugees, legal status, higher education level); and
f. They may say ‘OK, OK’ and pretend to understand, when they do not, just to save face.”
The intriguing list bothers me less than the fact that it seems to have spurred more online outrage than the alleged discrimination. On its face, yes, this document comes off poorly. But what might be even worse is that it could actually have been an honest attempt to create a less stereotype-driven work environment.
To those up in arms about the food reference, I have to ask: Is there a single Hispanic person in this country who would disagree with item “a”? (Full disclosure: I do not eat burritos.)
Why this bit caused such a stir on social media networks, even though it’s true, I’ll never know. But I dare anyone to state the phrase in the opposite -- “All Hispanics eat tacos and burritos” -- without causing a widespread uproar.
Item “b” is interesting because the memo seems to be a little skewed toward describing the predominant Mexican culture found in California, so the authors trip over themselves a little by even mentioning “salsa.” (Did they confuse it with the spicy, tomato-based sauce?)
Salsa, the musical style, is most prominently associated with Puerto Rican and Cuban communities in New York City during the 1970s and ‘80s.
It can’t even come close to being the most popular Hispanic style of music or dancing because a culturally cohesive “Hispanic community” doesn’t exist. Hispanics can’t even agree whether to refer to themselves as Hispanics or Latinos, and they sure wouldn’t agree on a favorite anything, much less a dance style associated with specific nationalities.
Item “c” is fun. Ironically, probably the last 10 times I’ve seen an image of someone in a Mariachi-style sombrero, it’s been a drunken non-Hispanic who thought it’d be funny to take a picture of himself -- and it’s almost always a “him” -- wearing one and posting it onto social networks for Cinco de Mayo.
Page 2 of 2 - In Spanish, the word “sombrero” simply means “hat.” Imagine this statement about whites: “Not everyone wears a hat.”
These three items have one thing in common -- someone put them on this list because personal experience proved to them that these facts are not already well-understood by most non-Hispanics.
Items “d” and “e” more accurately touch upon social class, not nationality. The statements themselves are not untrue -- yes, in California you are likely to find that unauthorized immigrants are from Mexico and lack extensive education. And Cubans do tend to enjoy legal status and higher educations.
But these rule-of-thumb descriptions, unlike the first three, offended because they are overbroad. There are plenty of affluent, legal Mexicans working in the U.S. (though probably not in a warehouse) and, surely, too many poorly educated Cubans for the Cubano community’s comfort.
Item “f” fails because it’s actually a statement that can be universally applied to any person of any race or ethnicity who might find themselves in a new environment or being challenged with difficult or unfamiliar material. As such, it inaccurately attributes face-saving to Hispanics instead of to all new employees.
And that’s where it hurts.
This memo represents yet another vivid example of Hispanics being characterized as an inferior group. Academic research, popular polling and surveys have proved the prevalence of such negative attitudes time and again: Hispanics are typically seen by non-Hispanics as poor, non-English-speaking, unauthorized Mexicans.
Target is taking a hit on this memo, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of our dismay. That accurate information about Hispanics is still so desperately needed at work, and in so many other places, should disappoint even more.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.
Washington Post Writers Group