I’m at one of USC Annenberg’s renowned networking events when I find I’m breathing a little bit heavier and my heart beating a bit faster.
I haven’t spilled anything on a recruiter or fumbled through my words. It was simply a question lingering in the air– one that I’d heard before, but never in a professional networking setting.
The executive who had been inquiring about my interests suddenly asks me, “What do your parents do?”
An uncomfortably long pause ensues as I run through my internal monologue of how I should respond.
I know I should be honest, but how honest? Should I tell her that my mom’s currently unemployed, after being laid off from her part-time job as a cashier? From that, will this executive understand that even though I know my mom loves me, she has struggled to take care of herself and, by extension, my little brother and me? Will she understand that ever since I was 16, I have earned more money than my mother and I help support the family? Will she understand that I take care of myself and that for a long time, there hasn’t been anyone to take care of me?
Of course not. So after nearly getting knocked off my feet, I smile and say, “My mom was a fashion designer in Puerto Rico, where I grew up. That’s how I came to be so interested in reporting about Hispanic communities and Latino issues.”
At best, it’s an innocent but lazy way of trying to find out who I am as a person.
It’s technically true. My mom was an extremely talented designer, pattern maker and seamstress. Unfortunately, she was too kind and often ended up giving away her wedding gowns and quinceañera dresses when people couldn’t afford to pay her. She never found a way to turn her talent into a career.
But I have to find a way to shift the conversation back to myself. This half-truth doesn’t reveal much about me except that I’m Hispanic, but that is something the executive could tell by looking at the last name on my name tag.
I wonder, what are they really asking me when they ask “What do your parents do?” At best, it’s an innocent but lazy way of trying to find out who I am as a person. If I told people that my parents are doctors or lawyers, would they then assume that I am a person who works hard, who is intelligent? So what’s the opposite of that? Am I the opposite of that?
At worst, it’s a shorthand way of measuring my socioeconomic status. By placing emphasis on that, they are signaling to me that they place value on class and status. When a classmate asks, it’s nerve-racking. When a potential employer asks, it’s devastating.
If she were to ask about my father, would I have to admit that I can’t really tell her what he “does.” That we speak maybe once a year, and it’s always tense? Would I have to tell her that he didn’t raise me, that he was always this mysterious figure in my mind until I was a teenager and I finally got to know him? Would I have to tell her that my father let me down? That when I was 15, and I finally got the chance to get to know him, and for the first time I truly felt like I had a dad, he started drinking and driving, and ended up in prison for multiple DUIs.
Should I tell her that since he’s been released, every time I make the journey out to New York to see him, he’s either drunk or suffering from the effects of alcohol withdrawal, that he yells at me, telling me horrible and hurtful things? Would I have to tell this stranger, whom I want to impress, that my father once abandoned me in the middle of Times Square when I refused to buy him liquor?
By placing emphasis on that, they are signaling to me that they place value on class and status.
Of course, I would love for people to know that I grew up struggling, never sure that I would have a place to live next month, or that there would be food on the table tomorrow. I would love for people to know how that shaped me, how it made me appreciate the little things and look at the world with more empathy. I would love for people to know all that I have overcome, so they will know that I am a strong person who perseveres in the face of constant adversity.
In the places where I grew up, your worth as a person was tied directly to how much money your parents had. I struggled to come to terms with my family’s economic situation, to develop a sense of self-confidence that made me immune to the opinions of strangers. Back then, I told myself that I didn’t care what strangers thought about me or my family, and it became true. But now in college, what people think about me matters. Being liked leads to stronger friendships, a stronger support system, a larger network, and more opportunities.
I understand the urge to ask, as it is a small question that can potentially reveal a lot of information. But it’s lazy, and it makes marginalized groups uncomfortable. If you are someone with the perfect family and a great childhood, who has never felt judged for who their family is, you might think this question is innocent. If you have ever experienced discomfort or felt judged because of your family’s income, their occupations or lack thereof, your parents’ genders and sexual orientation, or your lack of a stable home and parental figures, it’s an unnecessary burden that you’re placing on people you’ve just met, and it’s just not worth it.
It shouldn’t be used as a quick way of getting to know a person. If you want to know who a person is, ask them what they’re studying, what they do for fun, where they see themselves in five years, even what their favorite ice cream flavor is. At its core, it is a deeply personal and loaded question that should be reserved for private conversations with people you trust.