Every company, every school, every nonprofit is scrambling to hire a “Director of Diversity” or relying on their current one to navigate them safely through this crisis. Nearly every organization has felt the need to respond in some way. White-run organizations– including police departments all over the country– are promising further “diversity training” for their staffs. The problem is: Diversity training doesn’t work.
Why it doesn’t work is not the fault of the DEI professionals working in the field. Quite the opposite. The problem is how we– especially white people in positions of power–approach the issue of racism. We think of it as “a problem” that can be “solved.”
White supremacy is not a workplace issue that a diversity specialist can “solve” for you. It’s a systemic cultural issue that manifests in the workplace in the same way it manifests everywhere else.
Upper-level management is almost entirely white across the US, and white people don’t think of ourselves as “racist”– we think racism always lies somewhere else, with someone else. We think of it as a relatively simple issue– we’re “not racist,” so Jerry in Legal can just stop being racist by following a few simple guidelines and the problem will be “solved.”
We think this issue is about how individual white people treat individual people of color, and while that is absolutely one aspect of this, it’s not everything. You can fire a racist cop or a racist politician or a racist investment manager, but the replacement is just as likely to be racist– intentionally or unintentionally– if you don’t address the underlying issue of systemic white supremacy, and you can’t do that if white people aren’t willing to do the hard work involved.
Diversity training is an invitation to begin that work, not a “solution” to racism in the workplace or otherwise.
White people– especially white liberals who consider themselves “woke”– imagine diversity training will be our moment to stand up and denounce the racism of those bad people somewhere else while our Black colleagues clap. The moment we realize that this work demands examining our own complicity and the ways in which white supremacy has shaped us as white people, we react defensively, even angrily.Let me tell you two brief stories about diversity training.
I once worked in an extremely liberal workplace in an extremely liberal area. The org, despite its progressive identity and location, had never done any DEI work in its history, and there were some resultant problems. Three women of color & I co-founded its first DEI committee. I believed most of these progressive white people would embrace the journey ahead and we would Get Things Done. I was spectacularly wrong.
Most white staff were defensive; several were openly hostile. Many were offended at the very idea they might need diversity training. One of the worst offenders flat-out refused to attend; in staff meetings, others crowed about their hostility to the trainers (“I really got her!”) or pointedly stated that the “ideal community” was “homogeneous.” White leadership protected and defended the bad behavior. Eventually, the hostile work environment forced us all four of us out.
What a child I was. This was before Robin DiAngelo’s book came out, and I was still under the naive impression that progressive white people would “be better.”
Those employees (with one exception) sat through those diversity trainings. They sat through every single one. And it did almost nothing. The average retention there of Black staff is two years.
You may have already heard my second story:
A few days ago at a protest, police in San Jose, CA shot their own diversity trainer at point-blank range with rubber bullets for daring to try to stop them from continuing to fire on peaceful protesters. They illegally aimed for his groin and ruptured his testicle. Witnesses captured the moment on camera, confirming that the trainer was standing, hands up, in broad daylight, speaking calmly. And they shot him.
I don’t doubt that this man, Derrick Sanderlin, is an excellent diversity trainer. What I doubt is that the cops who shot him had any interest in taking that work seriously. Yet the SJPD, just like the org in the first story, just like almost every company and organization in the nation, have “diversity” listed as part of their mission.
“Diversity” isn’t the same as “equity.” A “diverse” culture can still be a white supremacist culture. Whatever you think the presence of Black people will do for your org, it’s not going to happen if they know you’re hostile to their truth.
A universal truth of teaching is that you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. Diversity training is useless if white people are not willing to accept that we’ve been just as impacted by white supremacy as people of color. We have to be willing to accept that our culture relentlessly produces and promotes racist ideas, and we have to be willing to fully accept that people of color are far more adept at identifying and defining them. And while this post is about racism, please remember that the same can be said for women and sexism, trans people and transphobia, people with disabilities and ableism, and so on for all marginalized groups.
White people must listen and believe when people of color identify for us the impact white supremacy has had on them. After that, cleaning up our mess is our responsibility. People of color, diversity trainers, and anyone else can suggest solutions all day long but it’s our individual responsibility as people– not just as working professionals– to act on those solutions.
Overthrowing systemic white supremacy is a revolution that starts in your own heart and mind. It’s a lifelong process of anti-racist work. Each new day will bring a new realization of a racist concept you have been taught that you need to confront, examine, and work against. That feeling of defensiveness is your clue that you’ve hit paydirt. Whenever there’s a discussion of race or racism, and you feel defensive, you’ve found an area that needs work. It’s your job to stop yourself from reacting defensively and do the anti-racist work required.
There’s no Certificate of Completion. That Certificate of Completion you got for doing your workplace diversity training is nothing but an invitation to reconstruct your own humanity, and that work will never be done.
The work is all there is. It’s one foot in front of the other, and you will fail. We will fail. But we must keep trying. To pretentiously quote Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
The stakes could not be higher. Lives are counting on us to do this work, and those lives matter.