The NBC and MSNBC after-party following the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in April. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
Media critic

MSNBC correspondent Mariana Atencio was excited to be attending the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner as part of the NBC team. Until, that is, she received a call from one of the network’s female managers as she was preparing for a flight. According to Atencio, here’s what happened next:

“Mariana, I just wanted to make sure you’re prepared for such a prestigious gathering,” the person said. “What are you going to wear?” It was a weird phone call — with an even weirder request. “Why do you ask?” I replied. “Please don’t look too Latina.” At first I thought I didn’t hear correctly. “I beg your pardon?” I asked. “When you pick your outfit, I mean. Don’t look too Latina.”

That exchange comes from Atencio’s recently released memoir, titled, “Perfectly You: Embracing the Power of Being Real.” It tracks her upbringing in Venezuela, her immigration to the United States and her media career, which includes stops at Univision and Fusion. The book’s tone tends toward a coachy uplifting. “Bringing our real selves to the table is far more powerful than cultivating mere beauty or meeting a checklist of expectations,” she writes. "And it can bring freedom to others in ways more powerful than we might realize.”

Chapter 3 of “Perfectly You” bears the title of her disturbing pre-gala phone call: “Please Don’t Look Too Latina.” Atencio had great plans for her outfit: a "small tribute to my heritage. I had an idea — what if I wore something yellow, blue, and red, the flag colors of so many South American nations? I chose a Sofia Vergara–style mermaid gown with yellowish undertones, big royal blue earrings, and a red clutch. ¡Perfecto!”

The manager quoted in Atencio’s book had another vision. “Why don’t you go to Saks Fifth Avenue and have someone help you out?” the manager suggested. "Have them pick out something demure. Not too colorful or tight. Think Ivanka Trump, okay? Let me know if you run into any trouble. Bye.”

“My self-esteem. My identity. Even my community had taken a beating in my mind,” writes Atencio, who called her stylist at Saks, and later added, “I wore the Ivanka-type gown that had been suggested. Even though I smiled for the cameras, I was miserable,” writes Atencio.

Though the manager ruined Atencio’s party, the correspondent didn’t “personally confront” her. “But the next time something about my appearance came up, I was prepared to defend myself. It happened about four months later at the office, when this person raised an objection about my red lipstick,” writes Atencio, who asked the person to shut up about stuff that doesn’t impact the product. “It never happened again.”

The story is something of a stunner, considering that MSNBC positions itself as an advocate for wokeness and diversity in these times of official racism. So the Erik Wemple Blog asked the network: Has it identified this manager? Is the individual still with the network? How and when did it learn of this situation?

An MSNBC spokesperson issued the following statement: “That’s obviously a highly inappropriate and unacceptable comment. More than a year and a half later, when it was first brought to a manager’s attention, immediate action was taken. Since this is an HR matter and there are privacy concerns, we won’t go into greater detail.” (Cable-news networks commonly review books by their journalists prior to publication. According to an MSNBC source, Atencio’s work was no exception.)

The network, to its credit, doesn’t appear to have attempted to suppress the anecdote, considering that Atencio discussed it in an NBCNews.com video: “I wanted to tell the anecdote, not to harp on the negative, but to remind readers that these things still happen and that we have to call them out, and have conversations as adults about how we can get past them,” said Atencio during the interview.

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