Faux pas show us we are human. 

I had tea with three others in my Pilates class the other day. I was the Indian American in the group; two were middle-aged black women, and one was an older white woman. Since we were dressed in sweatpants, gauging what we did for work wasn’t easy. Our conversation turned to the pandemic, and one of the black women said she had to take the subway daily during that time. The white lady asked her, “Oh, are you a nurse? “No, I am a physician,” she replied. There was a momentary silence, but we moved on. The white woman complained her son forced her to take Pilates classes by paying for it. Hearing this, the other woman asked, “What about you? Do you work?” She replied that she was an architectural journalist currently working on a book. After these two instances, the group tread carefully when asking what I did.   

We chatted for a while, and I felt smug for not making any stereotypical faux pas. As we were leaving, I wondered aloud if we should clear the table, and I heard a black man’s booming voice say, “I got that.” I smiled and thanked him, but he angrily said, “I wasn’t talking to you; I was talking to my girlfriend.” I looked up to see his girlfriend waiting in line for her drink. Based on his appearance and the timing of his statement, I assumed he worked there. He was gracious in accepting my apology; I wanted to disappear into the face of the earth. If I were a public figure, this faux pas would have kicked up a media storm for my racist behavior. But how do you defend a faux pas except as a faux pas? 

But being at the receiving end of faux pas can hurt your self-esteem. Once, I was the only one in line at a public restroom. A Chinese woman walked in and stood ahead of me. After a few seconds, she gave a visible start, looked at me sheepishly, and took her place behind me. I realized she had mistaken me for the restroom attendant. I swore to dress more sharply from then on. I got an expensive haircut and headed to shop at the Banana Republic. As I was sifting through a stack of sweaters, a woman asked me if I could direct her to the pants section! At least I had moved up from bathroom attendant to a salesperson in a hip store. 

As a minority, it is easy to take these faux pas as racially motivated. But although they spring from our deep-rooted prejudices, faux pas know no race and creed; everyone makes them. My Colombian doorman mistook my white colleague for an illicit repairman because he was dressed in baggy jeans and carried a large backpack. My Mexican friends recently moved, and their white neighbor asked them for their mover’s contact (they were actually their parents and cousins helping them with the move).   

Rather than being divisive, faux pas are proof of our shared human nature and vulnerability. Let a faux pas remain a faux pas, but let the learning be real.       

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