diversity training

Sergey Nivens

A Modern-Day Book Burning: Why Is Diversity Training So Controversial?

It’s an understatement to say the past several months have been a troubling time for those of us committed to racial equity and broader diversity, inclusion, and belonging. And now, with attempts to stifle delivery of diversity training designed to counter racially-motivated injustices, the atmosphere has the feel of a modern-day book burning.

The Black Lives Matter movement that began after the acquittal in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin seven years ago reignited as people took to the streets in extraordinary numbers to demand justice. The horror of George Floyd’s murder, so closely following the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbury, occurred as the COVID-19 crisis hit communities of color hardest. An explosion of activism, alongside calls for police reform, followed. Protestors shined a light on the systemic racism that continues to repress people of color in our country. Companies and organizations around the world offered statements of commitment and support for the movement.

Equal and Opposite Reaction

However, as Isaac Newton postulated, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Sadly, overt white supremacy (as well as more subtle examples of racial injustice) found a stronger foothold. Rather than addressing racially motivated police brutality, too many leaders politicized the social movement, attempting to frame it as a Republican-versus-Democrat, us-versus-them issue. In particular, one leader seemed more interested in discrediting the isolated incidents of violence during the protests than taking up issues of systemic racism cared about by the mostly peaceful protestors.

Nonetheless, undeterred people across the country, representing a diverse array of backgrounds and ethnicities, have come together in solidarity. They vow to make a difference in their communities, workplaces, and individual lives. Simultaneously, numerous books on racial inequities have emerged on bestseller lists. The result? Many Americans, many for the first time, are coming to understand the impact structural racism has on society.

Corporate America Steps Up

Companies have begun or have reinvigorated conversations about biases in hiring practices, micro-inequities and micro-advantages, and racial disparities for under-represented groups. Even in our economically challenging times, new efforts to educate people in organizations of every kind have emerged. But, not everyone is on board with the discussions. Detractors question the message and the time and monetary investment. Many see the ideas inherent in diversity training conversations as an affront to their personal values and a threat to a system that serves them well.

These attacks, based almost entirely on misrepresentations of intention and methodology of our work — and even out and out lies — put many in the crosshairs. The never-ending attacks also led to the drafting of an executive order to attempt a modern-day book burning. Specifically, the order banned several kinds of diversity education within the government and subsequently from government contractors. Fortunately, the results of the election mean that this action will likely be short-lived. Still, even as 1,500-plus CEOs sign the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity and Inclusion, resistance to the work remains significant.

Systemic Bias Remains

And yet, systemic patterns of bias remain in existence — perhaps because they benefit somebody. People whose group dominance gives them advantages based on the current system are not anxious to relinquish those advantages. And because those advantages have been around before any of us were born, people with privilege may not even see them as advantages. That is an inherent quality of privilege — to not have to acknowledge that it exists, even to oneself! These patterns of dominance and privilege occur as “the way the world works.” In either case, educational efforts, like diversity training, affirmative action, or any other attempts to deconstruct white, male, heterosexual, or other forms of hegemony, can be perceived as a direct threat to people who benefit from the existing system.

The reasons for this are varied – and worth examining. Some have these underpinnings:

Stereotyping Based on Race

Incidents of unfair treatment based on race abound. From the episode of a Starbucks employee calling the police on two Black men harmlessly sitting at a table to two Middle Eastern passengers kicked off a Chicago flight for speaking Arabic. These aren’t so much a series of individual instances as much as they are an endemic pattern. Yet people tend to think we’re immune to biases and stereotyping – and they consequently have a greater likelihood of unconsciously denigrating people in nondominant groups.

Constructions of the Unconscious Mind

Our perceptions and our social judgments are all constructed by our unconscious mind. They form from the limited information that we interpret through the expectations we have, the context in which we see a situation, and what we hope to get out of a problem. This means that, when we observe a person or situation, our unconscious memory guides our reaction. It operates quickly and instinctively, driven by visceral, emotional responses. In turn, these judgments lead us to see people within the context we’ve developed about “those kinds” of people. Toward people who we’ve been conditioned to feel are like us, we’re more positively disposed. As makes sense, we’re more negatively disposed to those we feel are not.

Selective Attention

It’s not uncommon for people to direct their attention to particular groups and behaviors while at the same time remaining completely blind to others. Members of the dominant group – which in the U.S. generally means white, male, Christian, and heterosexual – are often unaware, for example, that people are more likely to talk over women in business meetings and to give their full attention to the men. Many behaviors taking place around us daily often go unnoticed. We see what we look for, and we look for what we know.

Who, for example, do we see doing something wrong? And who do we neglect to notice exhibiting the same behavior?

Groupthink

So many of our personal biases are not personal at all. They’re deeply influenced by the cultures and groups with whom we associate. This becomes obvious when we look at the hundreds of historical examples where ordinary people got caught up in a sort of collective societal madness and turned on their fellow citizens. Our group associations and beliefs deeply influence us. Life is more comfortable when we fit in with the group around us. Yet, at some point, we stop thinking because the group thinks for us.

Consider thought patterns that go unchallenged. For example, the prevailing thought that those people who go to certain schools are better people. Or that people in a certain socio-economic group are “our kind of people.”

Diversity Training = Acceptance of Responsibility

When people hear about concepts of white power, white privilege, and white supremacy in diversity training, they often don’t feel it describes them. They see themselves as good, well-intentioned people. No, these concepts don’t necessarily mean that every white person has more access, money, or even safety than every person of color. They do, though, mean the system makes it easier, safer, and more accessible as a whole to be white. Privilege also allows us not to pay attention or be unaware of what others have to deal with.

Disparities continue in virtually every area of our lives. Based on societal suspicions and fears, people of color constantly walk a tight rope. A tight rope that has them teetering on the brink of disaster. It’s past time for us to take responsibility. Diversity education is a first step in acknowledging the past injustices. And understanding how the past has given us patterns of being in a society that is advantageous to the dominant group. It helps us recognize patterns that have impacted us personally. It allows us to change behaviors enough to end the pattern.

There Will Always Be Resistance

Systems do not want to change. They are, after all, perfectly designed to produce exactly the result that they are producing. However, my personal 35-year experience in the field has taught me that we just have to keep moving forward. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, one of the founders of General Systems Theory, called it equifinality: many roads to the same place. If education is delayed, focus on systems and structures, leadership development, or coaching. Or perhaps turn your attention to developing employee resources groups or putting in better measurement systems. There are dozens of other ways to address the challenge. Whatever it takes, keep moving forward.

As practitioners, we must keep an eye on what moves the system, as opposed to only paying attention to what drives us. As the old saying goes:

“When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes to eat, not what you like to eat.”

Essentially, the ultimate purpose of diversity training is to fulfill the American Dream: That all people are created equal, and all have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As for the detractors? Don’t let fools get you down.

Remember, as Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”