This reporter was told to not “look too Latina” at a White House dinner, whatever that means

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Christobel Hastings
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MSNBC reporter Mariana Atencio was subjected to racist stereotyping when she was invited to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Now, she’s speaking out about her experiences in a bid to change the status quo.

It seems as though barely a week passes without President Donald Trump becoming embroiled in another racism row. From comparing Mexican immigrants to criminals and rapists, to suggesting that four US congresswomen of colour, otherwise known as The Squad, should “go back” to the countries they came from, Trump’s presidency has been marked by a drip-feed of racism, intolerance and bigotry.

Now, a disheartening instance of racism linked to the US administration has emerged, after an MSNBC correspondent claims she was discouraged from looking “too Latina” at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

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In her new book Perfectly You: Embracing the Power of Being Real, Venezuelan-born journalist and reporter Mariana Atencio recalled the adversities she has faced from her own organisation in her “journey to discover why celebrating what makes us different becomes the most valuable lesson anyone can learn and share.”

One of those unpleasant incidents occurred when one of the female managers at NBC, Atencio’s network, called her ahead of the upcoming White House Correspondents’ Dinner to ask her if she was “prepared for the prestigious gathering”, and enquiring about her outfit choice for the event.

“It was a weird phone call – with an even weirder request,” Atencio writes. “‘Why do you ask?’ I replied. ‘Please don’t look too Latina.’ At first I thought I didn’t hear correctly. ‘I beg your pardon?’ I asked. ‘When you pick your outfit, I mean. Don’t look too Latina.’”

You might well be bristling at the insidious undertones of such a statement, but the unnamed manager wasn’t done bestowing her outrageous advice.

“‘Why don’t you go to Saks Fifth Avenue and have someone help you out,’” Antencio recalls. “‘Have them pick out something demure. Not too colourful or tight. Think Ivanka Trump, OK?’”

Understandably, Atencio was sickened by the exchange, writing that the interaction made her “feel smaller and smaller with each word.”

“Can you imagine someone in your field asking you to please not look so African American? Or Asian? Or white? Don’t look so Muslim or Christian?” she wrote. “How do you change who you are?”

There are many appalling levels to this incident, of course. So let’s start from the top.

Firstly, there’s the complete infantilisation of an adult woman. Why on earth would Atencio need fashion pointers?

Then, there’s the darker insinuation that a professional news anchor, with countless TV appearances under belt belt, should need advice on how to look work-appropriate. Seriously, this isn’t a first-time job interview.

Thirdly, there’s the altogether more serious inference that a woman with Latina heritage should need assistance on how to conduct themselves in a “prestigious” environment. Because obviously people of Latin American origin people don’t work in respected industries. 

Last but not least, there’s the brazen racist stereotype that Latina women wear “colourful” and “tight” clothing. We’ll never know precisely what what going through the manager’s mind when she instructed Atencio to not “look too Latina”, but the implication is that millions of people from Latin America all dress identically, devoid of any individual specificity. 

As if the request that Atencio erase her identity for the sake of looking professional wasn’t offensive enough, suggesting that a woman of Latina heritage emulate a white woman, Ivanka Trump, is unquestionably racist. 

In an interview with NBC News, Atencio said that she “wanted to tell the anecdote not to harp on the negative, but to remind readers that these things still happen, and we have to call them out and have conversations as adults about how we can get past them.” So this is yet another reminder to stay vigilant against bigotry, share our experiences, as Atencio has bravely done, and hold those in positions of power accountable. 

Image: Getty