I was on my way to work when the “you need gas” symbol started to flash on my dashboard. I was pretty close to work, so I stopped by to get gas from the gas station where I have been buying gas for over 10 years. Once I got done filling my tank, I went inside to pay. I approached the cashier. He was a young man, in his very early 20’s. He could have been as young as 18 or 19 for all I know. I said “$44.07, pump #4”.
He looked at me and with a sly smile, he repeated what I said, imitating – while also exaggerating- my accent.
I was taken back. I had never experienced this before. I could feel the blood starting the boil inside my veins and the heat starting to rise from my stomach and travel up. I knew, without out a shadow of a doubt, this was not a moment to pretend this was not happening. But I also knew this was not a moment of being defensive or getting angry, either! He had just taken my power away. I had every intention of taking it back and fast.
Although I was not feeling smiley inside, I smiled anyway and said “that was a pretty good imitation of my accent” while hoping my voice wasn’t betraying me. Then I asked him, if he knew why had I an accent. He just shrugged his shoulders, looked at me with a rather arrogant smile on his face and said “I donno… maybe because you are an immigrant?” As he said this, he was looking me in the eyes as if to tell me “I dare you to start a fight with me!”
I took it all in and kept smiling. There was a bitter taste in my mouth. This was a moment of opportunity where I could present a different point of view and I was determined not to blow it by showing the anger I felt inside.
I told him that I was a naturalized US citizen and have been one since 1993, but, I said that is not the reason I have an accent. I have an accent because I can speak two languages — English and Turkish.
Then, I looked at him in the eyes, still smiling while hoping the smile looked like a real smile; I asked him if he could speak another language! He looked down and said no. At this point, he was getting pretty uncomfortable. I could see it.
I told him that if and when he decides to learn another language such as French, German or Italian, he will have an accent and it will be obvious to the native speaker of that language. I said “I really hope that you give learning another language a try because it is fun to be bi-lingual.”
He went silent and turned beet red. I finished my transaction and left.
As I walked out the door, I started to shake deep inside. It felt like my knees were buckling under me! I was beyond angry. I felt drained. My chest felt heavy as if an elephant just sat on it. I knew in my heart that this young man’s behavior was the sign of times we were living in.
As I drove away, I wondered what would his manager do if he had witness the situation. I so wanted to know if he had an immigrant co-worker who worked in the store with him. I wondered how would he treat his co-worker who might have an accent!
Then, I thought about leadership and leading in times of uncertainty like the times we are living in … when immigrants are under such scrutiny and women leaders are faced with countless challenges! How do we lead as a woman? As a multicultural woman at that!
I knew I had to reach out to you and ask you the question I had on my mind! So, here it is … How are you doing with all this? Are you a multicultural leader with an accent? Or do you have a multicultural staff member on your team?
If you are a multi-cultural leader who is experiencing similar problem, I hope you don’t pretend nothing is happening if you are under “silent” harassment that comes under the disguise of a joke, or an imitation of your accent, or your request being ignored as a leader.
Please don’t sweep it under the carpet. Notice it! Acknowledge it! And please do whatever you can do! But please do something. Silence echoes acceptance and these are not the times to “accept” and “let it go”. As a woman leader, please don’t “normalize it” thinking nothing will change if you speak up! Maybe nothing will change if you speak up or maybe everything will change. If you speak up, you just might have the opportunity to clarify a misconception or educate someone! But, if you don’t speak up, I can guarantee you that nothing will change.
What about if you are a leader who has a multicultural staff member on your team? Are you aware what is going on? I ask you to please stay vigilant. If you see any sign of the “silent” harassment I mentioned above, please don’t normalize it thinking the team members can resolve this among themselves. Set the tone, model the behavior you want to see from your team! Accept nothing less than respect, consideration and acceptance from all your team members for each other.
Remember, we teach others how we want to be treated. Teach them how you want to be treated. Stand up for yourself and speak up for the ones on your team who might be too afraid to speak for themselves.
As women leaders, we won’t create the change we desire by staying “silent” because we are afraid to rock to boat! Don’t let “silence” and “fear” become your normal! Fear limits us as a leader!
Can you tell I am really passionate about this? I refuse to stay silent. I cannot stay silent! If you are being challenged with similar issues at work and want to go deeper, reach out to me! Email me firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s have a conversation.
Here is to you … leading fearlessly with or without an accent!