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The Face of America - By Sheila Johnson

By Sheila C. Johnson

Paul Simon once wrote “The words of the prophet are written on the subway walls.”  Well, along those lines, I would contend that the face of America is written in the hallways of the hospitality industry. 

Our remarkable, constantly renewing and evolving industry is, arguably, as diverse as any in this country.  And because we offer the U.S. job market so many positions that require skills that transcend language and culture, we represent a virtual cross section of the immigrant experience in America.  Many members of those storied huddled masses who’ve come to our shores to seek new lives themselves and better lives for their children often earn their very first paycheck as members of the lodging industry.

My intent here is not to extol the virtues of diversity.  If, by now, you do not understand how critical diversity is to the health and well-being of any community in any field, then there is little I can say to change your mind. 

Instead, let me offer you this thought: because the hospitality industry already employs such a diverse cross section of people – people of all different colors, cultures, languages, backgrounds, and religions – we have a gigantic head start in learning how to fix this country’s single most burning social issue today; namely, race or racism in America. 

An unfortunate number of people in this country – black and white – are far from coming to grips with institutional racism, the kind of racism that is also baked into the very fabric of so many American institutions.  For this reason, many people still cannot even talk about racism, much less actually do something about it. 

But we can.  Our industry is a living laboratory of cultures.  Every day we make it possible for team members from multiple backgrounds, creeds and colors to work side-by-side and learn from one another, becoming wiser, more compassionate, and more understanding human beings as they do. 

What’s more, as an industry built on attention-to-detail, and one that prides itself upon delivering memorable guest experiences, our management teams are slowly becoming populated by people of color, immigrants and self-taught self-starters who have risen up through the ranks.  Many, including the president of my company, learned how to run a successful operation because they walked in the shoes of – and learned from – those who came before them.

But there’s also the rub.  Because even though we see more people of color in our management positions, we’re still not doing all we can.  I recognize we can still and should do more.  Because if the hospitality industry as a whole is strengthened by its diversity, doesn’t it stand to reason that our leaders would also benefit by the same broadening of racial experiences, sensibilities, and backgrounds?

I urge all of you – especially in these divided times in which we find ourselves – to dare yourself to confront the issue of race as you have never done before. Consider our nation’s history, consider our collective treatment of Native Americans, consider the vast hopelessness that continues to grip our poorest black communities, and consider that race and racism is, indeed, a problem that is not going to go away until we – you and I – fix it.

But we’re not going to fix it by demanding more of our president, demanding more of our congressmen, or even demanding more of our neighbor.  We’re going to fix it by demanding more of ourselves.  We do it by providing promotions and professional opportunities to people who don't fit traditional stereotypes. I’ve said this for many years, but change starts at the top. And, at Salamander, it starts with me.

Look at the faces of those already in our industry.  Listen to those faces talk. And read their name tags. Those are the faces, sounds, and names of America.  And when you do that, my fellow hospitality professionals, you will realize we have something no one else has in the ongoing quest to, once and for all, stamp out racism and ignorance in this country. 

We’ve got a head start.

This column also appeared on TravelPulse