By Lofton Wheeles
For the Opelika Observer
Opelika Ward 2 City Council Representative Erica Norris hosted a virtual discussion on diversity and inclusion this past Saturday.
The discussion was led by Dr. Auturo Menefee, the director of leadership development for the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development.
“He has more than 15 years of professional and academic experience in leadership, community, workforce and economic development,” Norris said during the discussion.
Menefee discussed bias and its impact to give the audience a better understanding of the reason biases exists.
“Our brain wants to make things simple for us,” Menefee said. “In doing so, it feels that it can categorize things because these things will make things easier for us in our eyes.”
Menefee discussed fear and gave an example of a time he had to face his fear of flying when he flew from Georgia to South Africa.
“All the talk and everything that I heard about flying was … my bias based off of my situation and the things that were around me that were somehow impacting my decision making,” Menefee said. “[It was] based off of what I heard from them, based off of their experiences, but not based of my experiences.”
Menefee took questions from the audience and asked what they thought when they heard phrases such as “public housing” and “corporate America.”
He also asked the audience what came to mind when they heard phrases like “crack addict” and “opioid addict,” which then prompted the thoughts of racial stereotypes between black and white in the discussion, respectively.
Menefee also talked about the dangerous impact stereotypes can have.
“Once we develop theories about how things operate, that framework is hard to dislodge and it is hard to change,” Menefee said.
While discussing the danger of stereotypes, he cited a University of Washington study involving preschoolers who watched two videos: one of someone treating another person kindly and one of someone treating another person poorly. The study showed that the children preferred the person being treated kindly.
“This says to us … kids understand that when someone is being treated poorly, that person must have done something wrong to be treated that way,” Menefee said when discussing the results of the study.
Menefee went on to state that stereotypes are a factor that cause racism and also went on to say that stereotypes can lead to systemic racism.
“Discrimination occurs in criminal justice,” Menefee said while discussing the impact of systemic racism. “Don’t take my word for it, [but] just look at the numbers [because] I can assure you there will be a disparity there. Employment. There are some disparities there. Housing. Yep, disparities. Healthcare. Education. Shall I go on?”
Menefee shared a story of a child who grew up with little exposure to those of different races and cultures other than portrayals in the media. This child grew up to be an H.R. manager whose views subliminally influence hiring processes, he said. The same thing tends to happen in different fields, not just the corporate world, Menefee said.
Something can be done to fight against discrimination, however. He gave the audience an acronym: R.E.A.C.H.
The acronym stands for “Realize who you are,” “Experience other cultures and ask questions,” “Accept responsibility for yourself,” “Check yourself and be willing to change” and “Honor all people.”
Honoring all people is the most important part of the acronym, Menefee said.
“If you honor each and every person as you were wanting them to honor you, I think that’s a great starting point,” he said.
To watch the recording of the entire discussion, head over to Opelika Ward 2 Community’s Facebook Page.