COMMENTARY

Is Lee’s Summit a racist community?

February 25, 2014 

A few years ago, I was given the unique honor and opportunity to serve as keynote speaker for the Mayor’s Character Breakfast. I seized the opportunity to mention that, contrary to the negative warnings that I heard about Lee’s Summit prior to moving to this community, my family and I had rather admired the positive and welcoming attitude. It was with ease that I concluded my remarks with the convincing claim that what I had heard was not the correct representative of the local reality.

By the time of my speech, we had not experienced the prejudiced side of Lee’s Summit. The community at large and the school district in particular were not the racist places friends and colleagues portrayed to us when we announced our intention to move here. The fact was that those people had not lived here themselves. They had not experienced for themselves life in the community that they claimed to be the most racist one in the metropolitan area.

In my responsibility as leader of one of this city’s human relations entities, as an involved citizen, and as cultural diversity educator, I am constantly approached with questions and concerns about issues of diversity. Questions for understanding cultural interactions abound. It is easy for me to find answers to these types of questions because, more often than we may think, ignorance leads people to cultural blunders due not to malicious intent but to lack of understanding of their own and others’ cultures.

Others come rather with complaints about what they have experienced, seen or heard. These are often the most difficult to deal with. Most people present their experiences more in an accusatory way than for understanding. With the eyes of a cultural detective, I can easily determine where ignorance played a bigger role than malice. The reverse is also obvious.

When people from different cultural backgrounds interact, there always come moments of misunderstanding when cultural differences get in the way of agreement. When miscommunication or conflict occurs between persons of different races, it is often easier to attribute it to racial prejudices. The history of this nation often adds fuel to the fire.

Hiring a diverse workforce is increasingly becoming the single most visible barometer that allows people even from a distance to determine whether or not a community supports, values, and leverages diversity and inclusion. Statements of an organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is not longer enough unless visible and obvious signs are exteriorized to indicate that what is thought and put in the books internally is shown on the outside by any observer.

Often, there seems to be a chicken and egg dilemma in diversity hiring. Where there is no diversity in an organization’s workforce, on the one hand, its leadership justifies deficiency in minority staff by pointing to the lack of minorities in the pool of candidates. Often, they are right.

On the other hand, and by human nature, because people are attracted to places where they see culturally-like peers, some minority candidates would not apply to places where they do not see people who “look” like them. The situation is aggravated especially if other qualified minority candidates have been overwhelmingly rejected in that same organization.

Part II of this column is based on a real story of the reaction of people in this community when they are informed of a case where a highly qualified minority candidate was not hired regardless of qualifications.

Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D.is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He educates and coaches on issues of cultures and diversity. He can be reached at info@universalhighway s.

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