Crosstalk overheard during virtual Montgomery Co. Council meeting leads to discussion of racism, ‘microaggressions’

Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro, the first Latina immigrant to serve on the council and a native Spanish speaker, was speaking Tuesday about the county’s diversity during a virtual council meeting on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

That’s when some crosstalk was picked up on the county’s Zoom meeting: A council staffer and an IT contractor on an open microphone apparently commenting on and laughing about Navarro’s accent.

In a letter to her colleagues and the CEO of Montgomery County Media after the incident, which was captured in a livestream of the meeting, Navarro stated, “This sort of commentary is completely inappropriate and uncalled for. It is a loud commentary on the toxicity and culture of disrespect directed at leaders and community members of color.”

A rough transcript provided by the council member’s office reads:

Voice #1: “I love how her accent comes out … giggles … and pronounces words that she thinks they’re pronounced … laughter … like, she says ‘represents’ and ‘hologram’ …
Voice #2: “I heard hologram … laughter …, and that was kinda interesting … laughter …”
Voice #1 again: “ … laughter … so cute”

In an interview with WTOP, Navarro explained that the incident isn’t about her, but is representative of the “microaggressions” that foreign-born residents like her go through every day.

“Our own county council has a lot of staff that is either foreign-born or first generation,” she said.

Navarro pointed out that according to the latest data U.S. census data available, 33% of the county’s residents are foreign-born.

Navarro said she recalls learning English when she first came to the U.S. from Venezuela, and said Tuesday’s incident sparked a conversation with a staff member — whose first language is not English — who told Navarro comments like the ones overheard during the Zoom meeting were the reason the staffer avoided public speaking.

The council member said she was “startled” by the commentary and said it makes her realize “that there’s a lot of work that we all have to do.”

WTOP contacted Montgomery Community Media and received a copy of a letter of apology from the nonprofit’s CEO to council member Navarro.

“First, please allow me to express on behalf of Montgomery Community Media how deeply sorry we are about this unfortunate incident,” the letter says. “The behavior of the male MCM trainee involved is completely unacceptable and not reflective of our culture. We are appropriately disgusted and disappointed.”

Montgomery Community Media said appropriate actions “have been and will be taken.”

Navarro said it’s now a personnel matter.

“Most importantly, what I have requested of our staff director is that there needs to be a mechanism for the staff of color, for immigrant staff, etc. to have an opportunity to discuss these issues and to feel supported,” she said.

Navarro said while such incidents are often described as microaggressions, a term she used in her letter to her colleagues, they are no small matter. She said there’s a lot of literature on how comments and slights that people are subject to have a cumulative effect “and how it affects people’s mental health, how it affects your physical health.”

Navarro said while discussions will be important, there’s “no simple fix,” but she added things like hiring staff that reflects the community are important steps in the right direction.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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