April 20, 2021

With deep sadness, we note the recent death of Ernie Hadley. Ernie was a founder and the first President of FELTG, and was a beloved instructor. He served the Federal employment law community for more than 30 years as a strong advocate for employee rights, and authored more than a dozen foundational legal texts in the field. Those of us fortunate to know him appreciated his quick wit, broad intellect, and compassionate heart. Ernie will be greatly missed.

Below, we share an article Ernie originally wrote and published in this newsletter in 2013. As you’ll see, with microaggressions now a major training point in the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) arena, Ernie was years ahead of the curve.

Originally published in 2013 by the Federal Employment Law Training Group. Written by Ernie Hadley.

Several years ago, we took a family trip to Costa Rica. It was a great trip. We hiked, saw some extraordinary birds, walked on suspension bridges through the canopy of the cloud forest, visited a coffee plantation and, with my son Luke and daughter Mairead, I went zip-lining. (Not entirely sure I could be talked into the latter again.)

Part of the success of the trip was, no doubt, Costa Rica itself, but some was probably due to the fact that we knew with my daughter Jasmine leaving for college in the fall, this was likely to be last the vacation for the whole family in quite a while.

We reentered the U.S., in Miami as I recall, and approached the Customs and Border Protection checkpoint, passports in hand.  The officer, a young man probably in his early 30s, dutifully looked at each of our passports and, in turn, each of us. He asked each of the kids a few questions: What’s your birthday? What’s your home address? He stamped the passports and handed them back to me.

He then told the rest of the family that they could go but asked me to stay behind a few minutes. My wife asked if she could stay, as well, and with his assent, we sent the kids off to find our luggage.

“I didn’t want to embarrass your son in front of everybody,” he said, “but I can’t help but notice that he looks different from the rest of you.”  Well, you don’t really need to have the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out. Luke stretches out to all of 5’2” and I doubt he’d eclipsed 5’ at that point. He has brown skin, very dark brown eyes and black hair.

You’ve probably guessed from the photo that sometimes accompanies these articles, that he doesn’t look like me at all — so much the better for him — or like my wife or his two sisters.  There was never any great debate over telling Luke he was adopted.

At the time, I wasn’t sure how to react. Part of me was relieved that he didn’t ask in front of Luke and his sisters. Part of me was offended because I believed the only reason for asking the question was the color of Luke’s skin.

To be honest, I don’t think our daughters, both of whom are biological, look particularly alike. Jasmine has brown hair and her mother’s height, which is to say not much, and my features. Mairead has blonde hair, my height and her mother’s features.  Obviously, the answer to the question had no bearing on our reentry into the country as our passports had already been stamped and returned to us.

The reason I write about this is that I recently learned there’s now a term for events like this — they’re called “microaggressions.”  As with all things these days, there’s even a website.   Microaggressions are the subtle and often subconscious ways that we use stereotypes.

Now, I don’t think that the agent who asked the question had any bad motive; certainly, not one that he conveyed. But it goes to the heart of a notion that we’ve tried very hard to convey to our kids. “Family isn’t about how you got here. The mere fact that you’re here makes you part of the family.”

Fast forward to just a few months ago. Luke was in Ireland studying at the Burren College of Art and I went to visit him. We were, as of course one must do in Ireland, sitting in a pub, sipping on a Guinness and listening to music. An older man, aptly named Declan and about three sheets to the wind, asked if he could sit at our table. No problem. After looking at Luke for a while, he asked “What’s a young guy like you doing with an old guy like him?”

“He’s my dad,” Luke said.

“Then your mom must be the one who’s Hispanic.”

“No,” Luke said.  “She’s not.”

“Oh, then he’s not your real dad.”

Luke then explained to Declan that, yes, he knew there were two people out there that’s he’s biologically related to but I was his dad and there was no real issue about it, just his dad plain and simple. Declan eventually wandered off into the night, no doubt confused by Luke’s insistence that he did not have a “real” set of parents and, presumably, a “fake” set but just a mom and dad like many other folks.

The Microaggressions blog gives several other examples:

H&R Block employee when my best friend (who’s black) and I went to get our taxes done together: “Employed?”

Me: “Yes.”

H&R: “Any children?”

Me: “No.”

H&R, turns to my friend: “Okay, and you. Employed?”

Him: “Yes.”

H&R: “Any children?”

Him: “No.”

H&R: “Are you sure?”

Him: “Um…”

H&R: “Just checking.”

Him: “Yes, I’m sure.”

I was at the bar with several new coworkers when I was approached by a white guy who told me I was beautiful and asked what my nationality was. I told him I was African-American and he asked, “But what are you mixed with? Who is white? Your mom or your dad?”  This made me feel angry and sad. It’s a shame that some people think black people must be mixed or biracial to be attractive.

Me: Hey, should I go to a steakhouse or to a sushi place for dinner with my family?

Friend: I think you should go to the steakhouse because you guys know how to make sushi, right?

Often when I have dinner at people’s houses, they ask me if I would prefer chopsticks, regardless of the meal!

I’m fine with gay people as long as they aren’t gay around me.

The gay couple who moved in next door are not as comically flamboyant as the gay people on TV. It’s like they’re not even trying.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other examples, just as I’m sure that I’ve engaged in some microaggressions of my own.

Some of you may recall that I wrote recently about an EEOC African American Workgroup Report that concluded, among other things, that “[u]nconscious biases and perceptions about African Americans still play a significant role in employment decisions in the federal sector.” And, of course, that doesn’t apply to just African Americans. That just happened to be the focus of the workgroup.

It is the cutting edge of our field. Blatant discrimination still exists but, more often, it is being replaced by far more subtle forms of discrimination; forms that are harder to identify and, as a result, harder to correct.

So, let’s leave you with something a little more upbeat. For Luke’s sixth birthday, we had all the boys in his class over for a party.  Most of you can probably imagine what a herd of six-year-old boys can do to a house in a very short period of time, but that’s neither here nor there. They were all sitting around the table eating cake and Luke made mention of something we call Adoption Day.  It’s the day Luke’s adoption was finalized here in the United States and we celebrate it as a family holiday. It’s a low-key kind of celebration, usually marked by going out to dinner. Anyway, one of Luke’s friends looked at him wide-eyed and said, “Luke. You never told me you were adopted.”

These behaviors don’t come to us naturally.  We learn them.  And that gives me hope. [email protected]

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