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Oct 17

Its Time To Fix Diversity Training, Part 1 – Forbes

Let's reset diversity training.

At this point, its clear that traditional diversity training programs are a source of controversy. This is probably both a cause and an effect of the September 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping. The order states that, training that promotes race or sex stereotyping or scapegoatingpromote[s] divisiveness in the workplace and distract[s] from the pursuit of excellence and collaborative achievements in public administration.

The executive order raises real questions. Is diversity training divisive, as charged? If so, is the executive order the right way to solve the problem? And more fundamentally: Do diversity training programs as they are currently designed work? If not, why not? In a two-part post, well take a deep dive into diversity training and think through these challenges.

Is diversity training divisive?

If the only goal of diversity training programs were to get people to stop using racial epithets and slurs, no one would object. After all, nearly everyone recognizes that an environment where people run roughshod over the feelings and sensitivities of their colleagues isnt good for anyone.

The parts of traditional diversity training that some people find objectionable stem from critical race theory. Critical race theory, a term that used to be only encountered on college campuses, has broken through to the mainstream and is now being invoked by the White House. But, what does it mean? As it happens, a few years ago, I asked a colleague who teaches critical race theory to explain it in laypersons terms. He generously complied and wrote the following in an email:

It is a theoretical perspective which sees race and racism to be always tied together. That is, the construction of race is very much tied to racism and racist structures. Race, per Critical Race Theory is always about inequality and domination. As a theory it also argues that race cannot be simply understood as a "variable" or in colorblind perspectives, rather it is a construction meant to preserve white dominance over people of color (institutional racism, lack of access to resources, micro aggressions, etc..) while making it seem like life is about meritocracy.

So, if I had to sum it up, I would say that critical race theory argues that the construction of the concept of race must be always understood as a tool of domination, as opposed to reflecting "diversity" of people. So it really distinguishes between ethnicity and race and advances a social justice perspective.

Objections to this theoretical perspective usually come in two forms. The first is an objection to the implication that social problems like disadvantage and access to opportunity should be understood primarily or exclusively through the lens of race, as opposed to through factors such as socioeconomic status, which is sometimes, but not always, correlated with race. The second objection is more subtle. In order to see racism as ever-present in the way the theory posits, the presence of racism has to be decoupled from racist intent. Taking this position means arguing that intent is irrelevant and only outcomes matter. Both of these assertions are taken as given in many traditional diversity programs.

So, is the programming divisive? The answer is: It can be. Consider the following example:

A friend was recently describing a diversity training he attended at his former job. He said the facilitator handed out a sheet of paper. On the paper were statements similar to those in Peggy McIntoshs piece White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. These included assertions like, I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time, I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me, and Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. Participants in the training were asked to rate how much they felt the statement applied to them, where 1 was the least and 4 was the greatest. They were then told to add up their points.

Once they had done so, participants were instructed to line up in ascending order of point totals. Each participants point value corresponded to their level of privilege more points meant more privilege. After lining people up based on their points, the facilitator then told people to return to their seats. He instructed all the white participants to pull out their paper again and change any score where theyd put less than a 4, to a 4, explaining that anyone who had initially provided a number lower than 4 wasnt recognizing their privilege. And the facilitator instructed all non-white participants to change any answer where theyd put higher than a 1 to a 1 on the grounds that a score higher than one meant that they were denying their oppression. He again asked people to separate themselves into groups based on their points. Now, of course, there were only two groups in the room: those with privilege and those without, divided based on race.

Many people find this type of exercise distasteful, and for good reason. In addition to the objections listed above, the first part of the exercise made assumptions about which types of adversity matter (in this exercise, race did and other forms did not), and reduced it to a point system. The second part of the exercise took whatever variation in point totals existed and flattened it into a binary, race-based set of haves and have-nots.

Its difficult to argue that such an exercise is not divisive when there are literally two groups standing on opposite sides of the room. Of course, this doesnt mean that all diversity training sessions are this divisive, either literally or figuratively. And while this particular exercise certainly isnt included in all trainings, many trainings do involve exercises based on assumptions about identity, adversity, opportunity, and power that not everyone agrees with.

Is the executive order the right way to solve the problem?

No, its not. Mandated solutions arent the answer. They have the predictable and understandable consequences of resentment and backlash. In a recent book with UCLA professor John Villasenor, we made a similar argument against mandating viewpoint diversity on campuses. We wrote:

attempting to mandate viewpoint diversity treats the symptom and not the problemAdministrative mandates in relation to viewpoint diversity likely have the unintended consequence of increasing faculty skepticism on this issue, and would therefore be counterproductive. [emphasis added]

The same logic applies here. In the case of the executive order, the attempt to control diversity training falls into the same trap of treating the symptom and not the problem. The skepticism (and resentment) will come in this case from the people who feel the order isnt warranted and its effect will be similarly unproductive. The way forward is to shift the framework in how we think about diversity training, from one that has fallen victim to the assumptions outlined earlier to one that explicitly recognizes the range of perspectives people bring to sensitive and controversial issues.

See more here:
Its Time To Fix Diversity Training, Part 1 - Forbes

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