My July column for The Kitsap Sun. You can also listen to the article below (7 minutes, 58 seconds)
“My middle name is Joseph.”
Well, actually it’s not. My middle name is José; named after my maternal grandfather José Antonio González. Tonito, as he was fondly called by all of his grandchildren in Colombia, lived with us for 10 years, from my ages of two to 12 years old, until he returned to Bogotá, to live the remaining years of his life. He was in his 80s during that time and lived to the ripe age of 96.
When I was asked by my teacher at an early grade school age, to reveal my middle name, I replied correctly that “my middle name is José.” I remember hearing giggling that might have turned into laughter had the teacher not intervened. She thought it was cool; my classmates thought it was something to poke fun at. Now don’t misunderstand; I didn’t feel picked on or bullied. In fact, I might have been inclined to join along with the other guffaws if it was some other poor sap instead of me.
Even though Tonito lived with me for a decade during my formative years, Spanish wasn’t spoken in my house. He didn’t speak English, and at his age wasn’t in a position to learn. He always found ways to communicate well with his charm and personality. Dad didn’t speak Spanish and had no desire to do so. Mom by that time had become the “American wife,” and acquiesced to this by basically becoming the interpreter. In retrospect, this has become one of the very few regrets of my life. And, to be clear, I don’t hold either of my parents culpable; it was just how it was, which is the problem.
To add to the story, I found myself at a young age being embarrassed my Mom’s Spanish accent. Forget the fact that she was completely fluent in two languages; my childhood tension was being considered different than others. I didn’t consider her accent and the amusement at my expense at school to be something I needed to continue. One of those things I could control. So, at the next opportunity to respond to that question I deserted my family heritage for the more American version of the name, Joseph.
Fast forward about 13 years to 1986. Barb and I were months away from being married and she excitedly had a surprise to show me one afternoon. The wedding invitations had arrived. I had earlier conceded all design and verbiage to her and her mother. I was fully prepared to show as much enthusiasm toward these announcements as I deemed appropriate. To my great horror (and anguish), I read my name as the groom -”Daniel Joseph Weedin.”
I’m sure Barb thought my momentary gasp to begin breathing again was one of delight for the product. It wasn’t. I realized suddenly that this was likely irreversible; that my mother would see this; and that all of my family members in Colombia would also receive the invite with the Americanized version of my grandfather’s name, just a few years after his passing. Let me cut to and from the next scene quickly – Barb was mad. Really mad. In fact, 34 years later I dare not bring it up, even with full repentance!
If you’re still reading, you might be wondering what this personal story could possibly mean for you. Thanks for your patience.
At a young age, I had a clear bias. Instead of reveling in my heritage, I ran from it. I made no effort to become fluent in a second language or to maximize the time I had with my grandfather. It was more important to be the same as everyone else, to avoid teasing, and to actually devise a strategy for it. One can say that I was just a kid; that I didn’t know any better. My point exactly.
This bias isn’t intrinsic, it’s observed and learned. In fact, in my case this bias became so rooted that I actually started believing that Joseph was my middle name until I got punched in my soul on that fateful afternoon. I reiterate, this is NOT a condemnation of my parents or my schoolmates. While I’m embarrassed personally for it, I also don’t rebuke myself too much. However, if I allow my observation of these events from about 40 years ago pass by without some reflection and attempt to improve, then I’ve missed an opportunity.
Here’s the moral of my story for all of you: I believe in business, we must strive to be better when making decisions on whom we hire, how we develop people, and how we talk. There’s room for more empathy and understanding in our world, and that includes our small enterprises. Diversity and inclusion mean celebrating differences and offering to ask to learn rather than tell to admonish.
The drama being played out across our country around racial justice and equality shouldn’t be limited to marches and peaceful protests, both of which I’ve attended. The cause for equality and diversity for all must include our businesses and providing equal opportunities to advance our businesses, our people, and our communities.
So how to change?
That first requires a real desire to change. For me, it started with that punch to the soul in 1986. Since then, I’ve celebrated my name, my heritage, and my culture. On the issue we have today, I condemned for decades in silence. I was challenged by my daughter to do more. To that end, I’m creating mentoring programs at no cost for young entrepreneurs of color to help them advance their dreams.
My hope is that you haven’t seen this as a castigation, but rather an invitation to be more aware; to create more opportunity; and to be part of creating a business and world society that seeks to advance the pursuit of equality and happiness for all.
And in case I’m ever asked again…
“My middle name is José.”
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