Being unfiltered can be funny, especially if you are a kid. Back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, a man named Art Linkletter became a household name in part because of lighthearted interview segments with children on his daytime House Party program entitled “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” If you are having a difficult day, spending a few minutes on YouTube watching some of these hysterical segments should bring a smile to your face.
At the same time, the advent of social media provides us with less flattering examples of adults sharing what’s on their minds across a range of sensitive topics like immigration. Do you remember the viral video of New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg berating a manager at a deli in midtown Manhattan because the staff was speaking Spanish to customers “when they should be speaking English?” He also threatened to call immigration enforcement authorities on the employees, alleging, with no evidence beyond the language they were speaking, that they were not legal residents.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case. Recently, a Caucasian man was captured on video verbally attacking a woman for wearing a Puerto Rico flag shirt while a police officer stood by and did nothing. When you combine this with shifts in our public policy which include building a border wall along with new travel restrictions for those living in certain countries, the United States seems to be sending the world a message: America is the standard that others must aspire to, which means speaking English, embracing our norms, and living by our rules. If you fail to comply, you are not welcome in our communities and even worse, not worthy of becoming a citizen.
This is what I refer to as being intentionally exclusive. However, what many people do not realize is how they interact with others on an everyday basis can have the same negative impact. A seemingly innocuous statement or action, whether intentional or unintentional, can be interpreted by those in marginalized groups as a slight, snub, or insult. One thing is clear: despite the heightened focus on making people from all backgrounds feel welcome in our society, we still have a long way to go before everyone is treated the same regardless of where they were born, how they dress, or what language they speak.
Before you get depressed, this story does have a silver lining. Taking corrective action is easier than you think as long as you remember the following adage: Never assume, it makes an ASS out of yoU and ME. This in also known as being multiculturally competent—having the ability to adapt and function effectively in a culturally diverse setting.
Let’s take a closer look at what this really means: having the intrinsic interest to acquire different cultural knowledge; possessing knowledge about other cultures; being aware of one’s own cultural values and beliefs, and their potential assumptions and biases; and being able to respond in a culturally appropriate manner.
In short, multicultural competency encompasses motivation, knowledge, awareness, and skills.
Still not convinced? Here are a few scenarios where some people might feel like an outsider:
• Providing catered meals at work: The individual placing the order eats meat and does not offer a vegetarian option. Not only are those with dietary restrictions offered fewer choices, they also likely feel their needs are less important than the rest of the group.
• Selecting a location when socializing after work: Events hosted in bars increase the likelihood of lower participation for those in recovery as well as those who do not consume alcohol because of their religious affiliation.
• Checking into a hotel: Front desk staff that offer same-sex couples a room with two beds even though they reserved a room with a king-sized bed leaves the guests wondering why.
If it makes you feel better, I too am a work in progress. I recently returned from a vacation in Italy and all too often I found myself beginning conversations with the following question when speaking to taxi drivers, restaurant servers and retail staff: “Do you speak English?” My intent was to minimize possible confusion that would likely occur because I did not speak Italian. My attempt to find common ground may have actually done the exact opposite.
What I failed to take into account was today’s polarizing debate about immigration along with the negative images of Americans being broadcast around the world. How was it possible I failed to consider this seemingly helpful gesture would instead be received very differently by each of these native speakers? At the end of the day, they probably saw me as just another arrogant American.
Next time, I hope I will do better. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert, and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.