A close friend was recently fired from her job at a major corporation. Someone working under her had reported her to higher management for racially inappropriate remarks, after my friend casually mentioned that she was a second white person to move into her neighborhood. That last fact is a matter of public record and is available on any web site that publishes Census figures, local demographics and crime statistics. "I was the second white person to move into my neighborhood..." No racial slurs, no derogatory remarks of any kind - yet someone decided to take offense, not even bothering to approach my friend to say, "Hey, I know you probably didn't mean to offend anyone, but what you said made me uncomfortable." Sadly, the corporate world does not abide by the cornerstone principle of our legal system - presumption of innocence. My friend was presumed guilty before she even had a chance to tell her side of the story, was fired and had lost her appeal. Not a single person involved in her termination and appeal process had asked the obvious questions, "Why would a racist move into a largely African-American and Hispanic neighborhood?" or "How can a bigot have so many friends of all these different nationalities, races and sexual orientations?" "Harassment" used to mean "open and unquestionably hostile statements and / or actions toward an individual or a group of a different race, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation". So, when did it turn into making a neutral statement containing information available in a public forum? If I state that my husband and I are the only couple under the age of forty in our neighborhood, could I be fired for age discrimination? If I say I was one of four girls to graduate with my engineering class, could I be accused of gender bias? As women making our way in a - let us face it - still male-dominated corporate world, both my friend and I have been hit upon by male peers and managers. In a particularly memorable incident, I was grabbed by my manager, who got drunk on a plane during a business trip - in front of other teammates and - trust me - without any initiative or enthusiasm on my part to be manhandled in this fashion. The treatment I received while working in the gritty manufacturing environment as a young female engineering intern could fill several therapist's notepads. Being an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, a person of highly mixed heritage, a non-Christian and a non-heterosexual, I am bombarded by what could be interpreted as offensive remarks several times a week - in my workplace, in the media, or just walking down the street. If I ran to complain to management and initiated an investigation every time someone made a joke about female professionals, or started cursing out the immigrants, the Communists, the Russians, the Jews the non-Christians or the non-heterosexuals - why, I would not have time for anything else at all! Yes, being a young female engineer was tough. But I always thought that working in such a traditionally male profession was my choice. When the guys at the factory made fun of my ability to handle a screwdriver, I made it my business to learn how the equipment operated, to climb into a broken machine along with the maintenance crew, to get myself covered in grease, to suit up and go run that stinky and unwieldy kerosene-based equipment cleaner during downtime. Whining and complaining may have gotten me the management's protection, but not the respect of people I had to work with on the floor day in - day out. Yes, being an immigrant and going through a large portion of my naturalization process after September 11, 2001 was not fun. Every bit of privacy was stripped from me to compile an FBI dossier big enough to rival that of the President of the United States. However, at no point did I feel entitled to anything. It was my choice to come to this country, it was my choice to stay and fight to become its citizen. The journey was rough and at times - hopeless and miserable. But I have made it, am proud of it and no one can take that away from me. My parents made an advocate of equal and respectful treatment of all by all out of me by kindergarten age. It was quite simple, really. They explained to me that snubbing someone because they had freckles, or were slower readers, or couldn't pronounce letter "r", was not nice. However, they had also taught me that it was my job to teach other people to treat respectfully the subjects I found important and / or sensitive in nature. Over the years, if a sensitive subject came up, and the person misinterpreting or misrepresenting it seemed approachable, I took upon myself the responsibility to join the conversation and politely explain his or her misconceptions. If the prejudiced individual appeared truly set in his or her ways, I walked away. I may have written an article on the subject later, opting to educate those, who would willingly read my work and potentially have some of their beliefs challenged and changed. A bigot - a true bigot - would not change his or her mind, no matter what I (or anyone else) said. Getting that person fired or sued would only strengthen his or her beliefs that all - insert a group of choice here: Russians, Communists, immigrants, pagans, Jews, etc. - were put on this Earth for the sole purpose of destroying this country. Besides, being fired and blacklisted by a company does not just affect one person - it impacts his or her spouse, children, parents and friends. Why would I want to inflict pain upon all these people I have never even met just because someone they are connected with is prejudiced in some way and speaks without thinking? Do not mistake me - I am no doormat. If someone takes an openly hostile action against me - action being the key word here - I will retaliate by all means available to me. But if someone is simply a close-minded person who is missing the brain-to-mouth filter and shows no intention of changing his / her opinion, reason notwithstanding - I will walk away. Why? Because I do not want to be that person of partially Polish decent, in front of whom people are afraid to tell a Polish joke. ...Because I do not want to be that woman, for whom no man would ever open a door or pay a compliment for fear she would scream "sexual harassment". ...Because I do not want to be that immigrant, with whom no one would have a conversation about immigration issues, because she might mistake it for discrimination. As you make your choices in matters of civil liberties, or corporate policy, or of simply reacting to someone's statement (and make no mistake - your reaction is your choice), think carefully what sort of person you want to be. Will you be someone who can be a part of any conversation, make rational judgments and have the courage to state your disagreements in a reasonable fashion? Or will you be that person, who walks into a room full of other people and hears the conversation instantly die, because the other are afraid of what you might do in response to their statements? The choice is yours.