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Is Cultural Incompetence Putting up Walls Where You Work?

Aug 17, 2007
On Cultural Incompetence, Dr. Amaal V.E. Tokars states: "When you look around your place of employment, would you be surprised to see a wide variety of nationalities represented? Many would not. Today, most companies try to preserve some degree of cultural competence, accepting and understanding the value of cultural diversity in the work environment. Employers boasting policies of "equal opportunity" pervade our society.

However, there is some evidence showing these companies only support cultural diversity to a certain degree --just enough to reduce their being liable for discrimination. Such employers are tolerant to a wide array of cultures and let them co-exist with the cultural majority, but only to the bare minimum. There is a subtle fear underlying this aversion to anything cultural, a fear of offending or being offended, a fear of what is different, a fear of disruption of the norm. So, despite the employees of various cultures being hired into companies claiming "equal opportunity," in general, it seems to be desired that the semblance of mainstream homogeneity is preserved.

Why should we feel afraid of slipping out of the mainstream? Doesn't our melting-pot society require it? There are several factors contributing to this form of cultural oppression in the workplace. The first is personal prejudice -- the type of individual prejudice the cultural "other" experience in their daily lives. Every day people of different cultures and backgrounds are stereotyped for how they look, speak, and dress. The workplace is just one more arena for the culturally different to be categorized. This type of prejudice is common enough, though, to be targeted as a problem in the work environment. Frequent seminars are given to educate on ways to eliminate this type of prejudice.

Let's get to the root of the problem, shall we? There exist certain systemic factors in our society that perpetuate something called structural racism. (Think of 'white privilege' for a moment.) This unintentional form of racism helps inequality seem the norm. Unrecognized, this problem continues on unchecked. Sadly, the discourse on diversity in workplace seminars rarely touches upon this type of prejudice and its connection to individual racism. Who is to blame for this exclusion? Fault could partly be placed on the presenters, who may not be well-versed in this type of prejudice.

It could also be that the culture of the particular workplace does not see this issue as important enough to discuss as a factor contributing to individual prejudice. Whatever the reason, our adult education is lacking for it. If employers want to teach their employees to be critically conscious of the world around them, aspects of cultural competence must be introduced into these seminars. In fact, it must be introduced into the climate of the workplace as a whole that we should value our diversity, not suppress it.

Breaking Down Barriers
How do we begin on the road toward a culturally competent workplace? The steps taken could be small --as simple as inviting employees to bring in dishes that reflect their cultural heritage, encouraging them to describe the cultural significance of the dish. The key is to create space for meaningful discourse, which will in turn create a more culturally open work environment.

1. Let your guard down: We must think of diversity as an asset, not a liability. Being culturally competent means understanding that every employee has an equally precious cultural heritage, and that one or two groups do not guide the reigns of diversity.

2. Take Action: Encourage employees to express themselves in a way that will familiarize others with their unique cultural and spiritual backgrounds. In this way, they will learn the value of different cultures and how they enrich the work environment, and the country as a whole.

3. Know you purpose: In educating for cultural competence, we need to understand its importance as part of continuing our adult education. Remember that we live in a country where diversity is ever present, and we cannot truly understand ourselves as Americans without understanding the value of the country's diverse population. The workplace is a great place to start."
About the Author
Judi Lynn Lake resides in South Carolina, with her husband and 7 year old daughter. She successfully runs her own Advertising/PR Firm. Contact Judi at http://www.judilake.com. To learn more about Dr. Amaal V.E. Tokars' mission at http://www.seducedbyfear.com
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