I have been dodging friendly fire from friends in the hospitality industry over the piece I wrote titled, “If you’re black, stand back: Discrimination and hospitality.”
One friend, a restaurant manager, insists on blaming the system producing discriminatory people rather than individual discriminators.
The hospitality industry does not exist in a vacuum, he said.
Discrimination happened when people were treated differently, in this case in a way that favoured others. This meant that discrimination was purely lack of respect.
Since colonialism, he said, discrimination against black people by black people became an ingrained thing, happening not just in the hospitality industry, but perpetuated in many fields.
Ethnic and racial stereotypes were both a cause and a manifestation of the pervasiveness of discrimination in our culture, he said.
Working for money had upset African communal life, as our great-grandparents had lived it. It had eroded respect for elders.
For instance, it had become acceptable for old people working as waiters to serve young people. The hospitality industry could not be expected to, on its own, be perfect in a discriminatory society.
“It is a systematic not individual problem,” he continued. “We live in a society in which the profit motive precedes moral responsibility. If this conversation begins in the hospitality industry, we need additional networks of support and inspirational role models, he continued.
Has anyone else done it? How can we dismantle this system and inspire, for instance, waiters to embody African values of respect for everyone?
How does the hospitality industry begin a conversation society itself is hesitant to start? “This conversation on discrimination is difficult and cannot happen in our work places just like that,” he said.
I told him discrimination happening regularly, systematically and cumulatively across all sectors is a fact. In some places, institutional practices exist that encourage ethnicism and racism such as excluding others through language and hiring those who speak and look like us.
Ethnicism and racism are like a river that has charted its own path where there was none, and is now sustained by its own momentum.
This river carries lessons on discrimination learnt from childhood from, for example, places lived in and visited, policies and practices that shape our daily lives. This then allows ethnicist and racist things seem and sound okay.
This is so pervasive that those who utter hate speech against others do so because they believe it is acceptable to their “own.” Challenging deep societal habits makes the conversation on discrimination difficult.
Societal change will require an analysis of policies and laws, particularly those created in the colonial era, scrutinising what we teach and how all this feeds into institutional practices and beliefs.
The hospitality industry management must begin discussions from an objective knowledge base grounded in facts rather than opinions and misconceptions. Talking meaningfully can help find a framework, language and tools to end discrimination.
Remind your staff regularly that discrimination is illegal and take action against perpetrators, both individual and systemic, I said.
My friend could find change agents among his staff to develop the skills, language and a set of clear examples to counter discrimination.
This would also include dealing with the structural aspects of discriminatory practices. Progress will require changes in policies, practices and belief systems for a long period of time.
This will in turn move his staff from blame or acceptance of the discrimination to support for improvement of the value system. Individuals are the system. Dismantling the system producing discriminators will require dealing with individual discriminators.
While we may not build respect and anti-discriminatory practice overnight, the hospitality industry can lead the way because it must.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]