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The diversity industry.

In a scene from the comic strip, The Boondocks, a white suburban teacher is panic-stricken to discover that his new student is a "ghetto youth." Luckily, the principal announces he has already procured money for "sensitivity training." He promptly hands the teacher a stack of rental videos including Menace II Society and Booty Call.

While Aaron McGruder's comic strip takes a humorous stab at sensitivity training, it also suggests that undoing racism requires much more than getting a young black boy from the hood accepted to a white suburban school. There was, mad still is, the challenge of changing people's behaviour group interactions, and institutional policies. Since the 1980s, workshops dealing with race have multiplied, and none more so than the ubiquitous diversity training. Nowadays just about everyone from police officer to student, corporate executive to peace activist goes through some type of workshop, class, or retreat on the subject. Bur there is no monopoly on diversity training. And while a few major players tend to dominate the market, there is little agreement among the trainers or participants as to what they're up to.

Whether the diversity industry exploits racial problems without advancing substantive change is a still relevant question, especially as the industry's influence spreads.

Growth Spurt

Back in the early '80s, a black accountant named Melvin T. Williams decided that he had to do something about changing how his white co-workers treated people of color. The consultancy that he started, Delphi Consulting Group Inc. in White Plains, New York, was one of the first diversity training businesses.

Then in 1987, the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor to study workplace demographic shifts, published Workforce 2000. It predicted that by 2000, only about 15 percent of those entering the workforce would be white native-born males. That report set diversity training, especially the mainstream and corporate varieties, in motion. The demographic shift would change not just the workforce, but also the makeup of consumers, of people who use housing and healthcare systems, and those entering the country's school systems. Companies and organizations would also be increasingly motivated by related increases in discrimination lawsuits and problems of staff recruitment and retention.

In the last 10 years alone, diversity training has spawned a multimillion-dollar industry with its own consultants, books, magazines, certificate programs, and even an online university. Trainers, for their part, are paid anywhere from a nominal fee by community-based organizations to $5,000 a day by corporations. Over time, a diversity of models has emerged within this industry.

Within the corporate sector, diversity is often talked about as a resource and source of profit, if managed right. Diversity training is seen as a means to a stronger team, organization, and product. Billy Vaughn, a white former psychology professor and founder of Diversity Training University International, an online school for trainers, espouses a model often seen in the corporate world where companies are assessed for diverse policies, such as whether they offer healthcare for the partners of gay employees, which can help mitigate against complaints, and participants are taught to focus on solving hypothetical business problems. Here, trainers teach people to focus on the bottom line and work with differences to get the job done.

"I've had people say to me, 'It's nice and refreshing to get someone who's helping you get a solution rather than get along," says Vaughn. "Because if we can work together, we'll get along.'"

In both corporate and non-corporate settings, diversity trainings are primarily focused on personal experiences of racism and how individuals can bridge cultural and racial misunderstanding. What could be called the "one person at a time" approach is employed by the National Coalition Building Institute, a nonprofit leadership training organization that trains teams in about 140 organizations, government agencies, and colleges. The organization, widely known for its Prejudice Reduction Workshop, encourages personal storytelling in the form of "speak outs" as part of its diversity trainings.

This method was used at George Mason University after Sept. 11, says Dennis Webster, director of the school's Multicultural Research and Resource Center and the college's NCBI chapter. Situated 15 miles from the Pentagon, the school was at the center of some contentious debates about Islam, Israel, and terrorism. The college's NCBI chapter already had diversity trainings incorporated into "University 100," a class all freshmen are required to take. After Sept. 11, Webster helped organize open forums for students to talk about their personal experiences with everything from being raised in an Islamic country to having served in the American military. He believes that such storytelling helped people to listen, change their perceptions and their actions. Rose Pascarell, associate dean of the college's University Life, thinks it helped keep the number of hate crimes down at the college.

Another approach, used by the National Conference for Community and Justice, is designed to reshape individuals' ideas of how differences manifest into social consequences. In "the privilege walk," participants line up and take steps forward or back by answering questions. Having gone to college, for example, might be two steps forward. Having ancestors who were forced to come to this country could mean three steps back.

"It gives people a visual picture of how differences play out in society," Williams says.

Yet she acknowledges that training alone is not enough. An organization's leaders have to be held accountable and invest time and money in more than a one-shot training.

"Diversity training does not do it all," says Williams. "It speaks of understanding our differences. You have to go further."

Beyond Talk

The most common diversity training models, beginning in the early 1980s, have focused on the individual and interpersonal aspects of race and racism. Motivated largely by the for-profit sector, many of these models conveniently avoided connections between interpersonal problems and institutional behavior. For instance, trainers might talk about improving race relations in the workplace without broadening their analysis to that same organization's use of overseas sweatshop labor. The bottom line remains intact, and the end goal never shifts from getting the "work" done.

It is worth noting that while diversity trainers have their roots in just about every field one can imagine, most do not come out of a social change framework, but rather out of organizational behavior frameworks. As such, they perhaps never claimed to be about political change. On the other hand, they are conducting work in institutions that affect peoples' lives profoundly.

Ironically, even the right has recognized the often shallow nature of these programs, exploiting liberal vulnerability to support the right's so-called "colorblind agenda." Syracuse University history professor Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn takes trainers to task in her book Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution. Apparently uncomfortable with naming race and uninterested in the realities and root causes of racial inequities, she argues that diversity trainers would be better off focusing on the universal qualities of respect and civility rather than having racial and cultural differences account for different codes of behavior and misunderstandings.

Politics aside, many critics point to the simple fact that diversity training as an industry has not slowed down the number of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Commission. In 2002, job discrimination charges, including those based on race, hit a seven-year high.

Many trainings and dialogues have been shown to generate no increase in political activity or advocacy among participants. A 1999 case study, by the Applied Research Center, of the National Conference for Community and Justice's work in St. Louis left questions as to how successful the "change agent" strategy is. "Most of workplace programs developed by participants were dialogue groups or diversity trainings," according to the study, "not institutional changes in hiring, training, promotion, procurement or board composition."

The industry's strongest critics, anti-racist organizers, have eschewed the focus on the individual and likened diversity training to a form of therapy. These organizers see themselves as challenging the roots--not the symptoms --of structural racism.

"Anti-racist training and political education are absolutely central to building movements for fundamental social change in this country because racism is the major barrier that divides social justice movements and prevents us from working together to make those major changes," says Sharon Martinas, co-coordinator of the Challenging White Supremacy workshops. She cites this year's anti-war movement as an example. "If we who are white are doing 'anti-war' work, the word 'war' is usually singular--we assume we're all out there fighting against the war on Iraq, which we should. But if we add a plural to it--'wars'--then we can talk about the war for empire abroad and the wars against people of color at home. Without this move, we'll be fighting the same system but excluding a whole realm of primary experience for most communities of color. The political way we (as white people) typically frame stuff comes out of the history of white privilege." That, she says, is why anti-racist training is needed.

When asked to compare anti-racist training and diversity training, Margery Freeman of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, says, "It's like comparing apples and oranges." One fundamental difference is that the two are not competing for the same audience, with People's Institute focused primarily on current and prospective grassroots activists.

In the institute's trainings, Freeman says participants often start with general questions like, What are the causes of poverty? That's then linked to housing or healthcare and then to race with a focus on defining racism. "Our training is really focused on the dynamics of power, the way race has concentrated in institutions," Freeman says. "The personal is important but we need the analysis."

Anti-racist work such as that of the People's Institute distinguishes itself by addressing structural racism, privilege, and power beyond the workshop setting. This is not always the case, even in trainings that define themselves as anti-racist. In some anti-racist training, Martinas cautions, "the workshop becomes the world rather than a laboratory for doing the racial justice work in the real world. I think that's very problematic because that doesn't provide what we need in terms of grassroots organizing. What distinguishes the People's Institute model (the model that spawned the Challenging White Supremacy workshop) is that it's geared towards transformation, justice, and equity in the world, rather than what I would call personal empowerment in a workshop."

She adds, "In order to address oppression and particularly racial oppression in the world, you have to start from an institutional, historical, and political or structural analysis. That's the starting point. That doesn't eliminate the personal or interpersonal components, but the starting point has to be structural and historical."

No Experts

For something that tackles race relations, shows up at a cross section of society (high schools, non-profits, corporations), and is worth millions of dollars, it is curious that there is no licensing or accrediting association for diversity trainers. The American Society for Training and Development does not accredit programs or track how much companies actually spend on diversity training. Anyone can place that "diversity trainer" shingle outside their home office and go to work. "When you look at the area of diversity, there is no expert," says Elizabeth Williams of National Conference for Community and Justice.

In this field where no expert can be found, there are books (Creating the Multicultural Organization) and magazines (Managing Diversity). There is also schooling. While organizations mainly rely on recommendations and track records to find trainers, a few certificate programs have begun. Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations started a certificate program last year. In nine classes, students learn by working with case studies how to deal with racist jokes, cultural differences, and how diversity impacts an organization's mission statement or bottom line. They take an exam and get to place CDP (Certified Diversity Professional) after their name.

Online, about 18 students have graduated from Diversity Training University International, an online certificate program. Students take nine online courses for up to six weeks at a cost of $5,300, or one class for $700. They learn to design a policy for companies around diversity and to conduct focus groups and interviews with employees. The school's website abandons any pretense at loftier goals, encouraging people to sign up for the classes "if you truly want to put thousands of dollars directly into your pocket every year."

Developing Consciousness

The problem with traditional diversity training is that most of it fails to acknowledge the root causes of current racial inequities. By accepting the premise and goal of "getting along," trainings consistently jump the gun to symptoms and provide no language for communicating the often subtle dimensions of structural racism. By focusing on a single institution or workgroup, trainers often allow employees to remain singly focused on their immediate co-workers or supervisor, blinded to broader power relationships in which they are party, let alone workers, consumers, and conditions affected by their work. As a result, racism gets defined too narrowly, band-aid solutions are applauded, and transformative alternatives go undeveloped.

This is not to say that training and workshop settings cannot be useful to social change. Indeed, it is conscious individuals that make movement happen, and consciousness must be actively cultivated. But true consciousness demands to be experienced in real time. Without the real time experience, it would just end in navel gazing.

Daisy Hernandez has written for The New York Times and co-edited the anthology Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. Kendra Field is a research associate at the Applied Research Center.
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Title Annotation:report
Author:Field, Kendra
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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