The irony of it all is that the laughter came during a discussion about racial inequities.
Nancy Navarro, a member of the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, was speaking during a virtual meeting on Tuesday about how the county’s coronavirus vaccine rollout had failed people of color and the burden she felt as a Latina in local leadership.
In the background, there was the faint sound of chatter and laughter from two people who seemingly didn’t realize they weren’t on mute.
“I love how her accent comes out … and pronounces words that she thinks that they’re pronounced,” said a woman, commenting on how Navarro had pronounced the words “represent” and “hologram.”
A man responded with a chuckle, “I heard ‘hologram,’ and I was like, ‘That’s kinda interesting.'”
“So cute,” the woman replied, with another laugh.
After the meeting, Navarro’s staff told her about what had happened. She took a few moments to process it all. Then, she felt exhausted and angry.
“This sort of commentary is completely inappropriate and uncalled for,” Navarro wrote in a memo to her council colleagues following the incident. “It is a loud commentary on the toxicity and culture of disrespect directed at leaders and community members of color.”
Employers of individuals condemned their behavior
The woman speaking was an employee of the Montgomery County Council, according to council spokesperson Sonya Healy. The man was a trainee with Montgomery Community Media, an organization that contracts with the council to help run its virtual meetings.
Neither was identified by officials.
Healy said the matter had been turned over to the county’s human resources office for investigation.
The council said in a statement that it would “recommit ourselves to educating our workforce and fostering a culture that is absolutely respectful, free of bigotry and reflective of Montgomery County’s values.”
“The Montgomery County Council stands in solidarity with Councilmember Nancy Navarro after a troubling and unacceptable incident occurred during Tuesday’s televised Council session, in which concerning background audio was heard on the broadcast,” the statement reads. “The entire Council is committed to racial equity and safe workplaces. Furthermore, our community expects that our Council and its employees and contractors are held to the highest standard.”
Montgomery Community Media also condemned the comments, calling the exchange a form of microaggression.
“The behavior of the male MCM trainee involved is completely unacceptable and not reflective of our culture,” the organization said in a statement. “We are appropriately disgusted and disappointed.”
Montgomery County is the most populous county in Maryland, home to more than 1 million people. About 40% of residents speak a language other than English at home, and more than 30% — including Navarro — were born outside the US, according to Census data.
Navarro is a Venezuelan immigrant
Navarro was born in Venezuela and came to the United States when she was 10. Though her family eventually moved back, Navarro returned to the US for college at 17. She and her husband moved to Montgomery County in the early ’90s, and they’ve lived there ever since.
After serving a number of years on the county’s board of education, Navarro was elected to county council in 2009 as its first Latina member. She was reelected in 2010 and 2014, and has prioritized causes of racial equity and social justice during her time on the council.
For Navarro, the context in which the comments about her accent were made was jarring.
“The juxtaposition of the fact that, here we were, going through a very important moment, discussing something so critical for this county,” she told CNN. “… It was just very interesting how this was superimposed in that particular moment.”
What happened during this week’s meeting made her all the more concerned about how local government was serving its nonwhite constituents.
“If this is how they’re talking about this elected official, then what does that mean in terms of how this impacts government service delivery to a community like this one?” she added.
Navarro hopes that this incident will drive people to consider the impact of their words and actions. And, ultimately, she hopes the council will strengthen its efforts to hire a staff that reflects the diversity in its community.