To the exception of historical figures such as George Washington (the first U.S. President) and Neil Armstrong (first man to step foot on the moon) and a many others, today’s “firsts” are predominantly women or minorities. I do not need to look hard to name a few of them: a few weeks ago, Danica Patrick made NASCAR history becoming the first female driver to win the pole at NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series; Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were respectively the first female, first black man and first black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. Antonia Coello Novello was the first Hispanic woman ever to hold the position of U.S. Surgeon General. The list goes on.
Closer to home, history will always remember that Mayor Karen Messerli was the first female mayor of Lee’s Summit, that U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver was the first black mayor of Kansas City and that Mayor Carson Ross is the first black mayor of Blue Springs. Of course, not a day passes that we are not reminded that President Obama is the first black U.S. President.
The under representation of minorities and women in an organization (the one Asian woman, the only black, the one Arab or Hispanic, the only gay or lesbian…) creates an over-visibility that the majority groups does not experience. Everything that he or she does is noted. Their mistakes are quickly associated to their uniqueness.
Whereas the mistakes of someone who is adequately represented feels usual, a mistake made by an individual from an underrepresented group feels more memorable and important because that mistake becomes a data point which identifies the whole group. This creates a double burden on women and minorities to prove themselves at the workplace. While it is wrong for some to take every criticism addressed against President Obama’s policy as racist, it is also wrong to attach his unaccepted policy to his race.
Some 20 years ago, we bought our first house in the Waldo area in Kansas City, which was at the time a predominantly a white neighborhood. About two years later when we invited our neighbors for a BBQ in our back yard, one of the neighbors, Jacquie, shared with us that our family was “accepted in the neighborhood because we were not African-Americans.” Her assessment of us included things like,”your yard is clean,” “You play with you children,” “You take good care of our children…”
To us, all Jacquie was naming was normal to our family and nothing exceptional. But to Jacquie, we were exceptional because we were exceeding her normal expectations (of a black family). She certainly could not imagine that her comments were insulting.
So, if underrepresented groups are hyper-visible, doesn’t that work for them if they excel? It does to certain extent, especially if the expectations are set low for them, or when lack of cultural sensitivity dominates the view of the majority.
Examples of this cultural insensitivity would exceed the space of one column. A few years ago when my child was the only black student on the stage during the National Honor Society Induction at Lee’s Summit North High School, numerous parents approached my wife and I to congratulate us during the reception that followed. “Congratulations, you must be proud of your child,” they said one after the other. We did not know any of them. I wonder how they figured out which of the about 200 NHS kids was ours? How many other parents did they congratulate that night, who they did not know?
It is observed that negative behaviors from the underrepresented groups are attributed to natural characteristics of people of that group, while their positive behaviors are often viewed as luck or as exception to the rule.
In any case, the status of “first” will not hurt our increasingly diverse society. We look forward to first woman/minority/gay/etc. judge, CEO, superintendent, governor, and why not Pope?
Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D. is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He consults and coaches on cultures, cultural diversity and languages. He can be reached at info@universalhighways. com.