Our Opinion: Campaign needed of education, inclusion

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Berkshire County has an increasing minority population, but it remains a small percentage of the overall population. That minorities are subjected to rude, if not confrontational, behavior when they visit local business establishments is infuriating for people who want no more than to patronize a local establishment. It must come to an end.

These incidents were the subject of a well-attended forum Thursday hosted by the Berkshire branch of the NAACP's Social Justice Action Committee ("In battling bias in business, 'education is continuous'"). Certainly not every Berkshire business is guilty of such behavior but the anecdotal evidence provided at the forum was striking enough to prompt Laurie Tierney, owner of Hotel on North in Pittsfield, to say, "I apologize on behalf of business owners."

Speakers of color, especially young men, reported being watched carefully by store owners, being unfairly accused of theft, and asked if they can afford the items they are purchasing. Wearing baggy pants can be cause for suspicion. Restaurant patrons reported being ignored or watching as white customers were served before them. NAACP Executive Committee member and former president Will Singleton said Thursday that historically, "Black people have been demonized as people to watch," and it is apparent that this is too often the case here in the Berkshires.

For the retailers who treat potential customers in this fashion, their behavior is fundamentally bad for business. The economy is not booming in Berkshire County and paying customers should not be discouraged from dining or purchasing wares. Beyond that, they are creating an unwelcoming environment that will only hold the county back as it tries to diversity and stop its slow decline in population.

Education is required to change this pattern in Berkshire County. Cindy Shogry-Raimer, vice president and community development director for Greylock Federal Credit Union, said Thursday that the company recently overhauled its hiring and training practices with the goal of making the experience of customers more welcoming. Lia Russell-Self recommended that businesses hold training sessions to enable employees to address biases. Unfortunately, the country as a whole is riddled with cruel stereotypes about people of color and over the past three years those stereotypes have been used to further divide Americans and excuse the kind of cruel behavior outlined by speakers at Thursday's event.

Sharron Frazier-McClain, an African-American woman who is community engagement coordinator for Barrington Stage Co., said Thursday that businesses must be accountable for the behavior of their employees if anything is to change for the better. "If you're not actively including, you're actively 'discluding,'" she declared. Going forward, let's all actively include here in Berkshire County.

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