Between a Rock and a Hard Place

You never forget your first full-time job. For me it was a stint I had as a messenger at Skoglund Studios, a small graphics house in New York City. I was the only one in the place who wasn't of Anglo-Saxon descent. Growing up in New York, that never had been an issue for me, because my entire life had been spent churning in the cauldron poetically known as the Melting Pot. But suddenly it was an issue—my supervisors and co-workers approached me with an air that can best be described as benign curiosity and bemusement.

During my first week, someone casually referred to me as "the Italian Stallion." (Rocky was the big movie that summer.) Mr. Skoglund then piped up, "You're right, he does look like Rocky. So let's call him Rocky." Take a look at my photo at the top of this column—I look nothing like Sylvester Stallone, then or now. But I spent the entire summer being addressed by my co-workers as Rocky.

I was only 16, so at first the concept of a nickname appealed to me. But as the summer wore on, I slowly began to realize that my co-workers were using this name to point out the difference between us. And not just to acknowledge it, but to draw a line as well. None of these people were bigots; there was no sinister plot behind what they did. In fact, it was entirely subconscious. Turning me into a caricature of an urban, Italian-American made it easier for them to deal with the "other" in their midst. But as the summer wore on, it became an increasing burden for me and ultimately it made me very glad when the summer was over and I had to quit the job to go back to school.

That was 29 years ago. The pot melts much better now than it did then—for me, anyway. But in this month's cover story, Senior Editor Sara J. Welch takes a look at diversity in the meetings industry and finds that for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities, there is still a long way to go to get the pot cooking well enough to achieve a true melting.