Just as American workplaces have doubled down on diversity training in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter moment, President Trump has abruptly restricted if not banned diversity related trainings in federal agencies. Trump purportedly rejects the view that systemic racism in America is a problem and has now banned any federal agency trainings related the concepts of “white privilege” or “critical race theory”. A closer read of the Office of Management and Budget memo suggests that the ban is specifically focused on antiracism related trainings – arguably just what America needs most.
While most companies embraced some level of diversity training in the years after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, the results have arguably been dismal at best. Where have decades of broad diversity training brought us?
· There are only four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500
· Today’s most diverse Congress ever includes only 57 Black members of the 535 voting members
· The Black-White wage gap is approximately what it was in 1950
· Black households have about 10% the median net worth of white households
· The percent of Black men attending medical school has remained about the same since 1978
· Only 23% of U.S. organizations have high potential programs for people of color
· High tech companies continue to report dismal diversity statistics
Most companies consistently lean on the refrain “we need to do more” which leads one to wonder…With all the focus on diversity over the past several decades – why haven’t they done more? As issues of racism, discrimination and diversity are complex ones, there’s not a single obvious reason, but here are four key reasons why American workplaces desperately need training and programs focused specifically on antiracism, not just diversity.
Antiracism training provides the specificity that too often diversity training does not
In much the same way that “All Lives Matter” fails to capture and address the needs of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, this moment requires specific focus on antiracism if workplaces are to achieve real equity. The truth is that racism is the root cause issue that’s gone ignored, swept aside, minimized, misunderstood, avoided, even rejected for far too long. Indeed, it’s a cancer that has grown and spread throughout many organizations in part because workplaces (and organizational leaders) have been unwilling to sit down and take in the bad news, then start working on a treatment. Antiracism initiatives require doing just that – actively acknowledging, then working against racism. While that shouldn’t seem radical in 2020, Trump’s recent announcement is just one example of the resistance.
The truth is that we generally don’t like having hard conversations, reviewing disappointing metrics or soberly analyzing our own participation in discriminatory practices, procedures or cultures. Antiracism initiatives minimize our ability to pivot to topics and areas where we’re more comfortable and instead compel us to focus where we’re not comfortable. The hard truth though is that just like the most effective medical treatments use laser like focus to minimize or eradicate the tumor, our trainings and initiatives should be focused as well. There just isn’t an easy workaround – no matter how much we might prefer to delude ourselves. Indeed, “All Lives Matter” is an honorable goal, but all lives can’t matter until black lives matter, hence the need to focus more specifically on antiracism.
Antiracism is focused on action
Arguably, the single biggest reason why there’s been so little progress in this area over the past several decades is that there’s been so little requirement for action. It’s one thing to attend a one day implicit bias seminar, then continue on with business as usual and quite another to spend weeks or months analyzing the organization’s supplier selection or promotion processes to determine specific root causes that might create bias or disparate impact for certain groups – then make real changes to achieve real gains. In How To Be An Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi draws a distinction between a “feelings advocacy vs. an outcomes advocacy” and rejects the idea that antiracism is primarily focused on changing people’s feelings. While it’s noble and preferable, changing feelings should not be a prerequisite for changing racist policies or other practices. He cites the LGBTQ+ advances as an example of a situation where policies were changed (e.g. marriage equality) and individuals’ feelings and attitudes caught up later. What was important was taking a stand and changing policies, then interestingly enough, many attitudes and perspectives changed dramatically in a comparatively short period of time. A critical distinction for effective antiracism training (or initiatives) is the focus on changed outcomes. Indeed, the goal shouldn’t be to teach Helen to be friendlier to her Black coworkers but instead to educate her so she might better understand their perspective and also compel her to identify ways that she can combat racism within her environment. For organizational leaders, antiracism training and programs should similarly compel them to conduct the gap analysis necessary to determine how they can take specific action to achieve desired racial equity outcomes.
Antiracism training prioritizes honest education
Antiracism training acknowledges that there really is no moving forward without looking back. The truth is that we are not all on a level playing field in terms of not just our own personal experiences but also knowledge of racial discrimination so it’s critically important to provide the sometimes hard to hear history of race in this country. Too often diversity efforts shy away from deep discussions of race period much less the history of racism in this country (and beyond), but antiracism places education front and center. Kendi’s National Book Award winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is precisely the type of history that workplaces desperately need. Unfortunately, this sober review of America’s deeply racist history seems to be precisely the type of information that Trump’s recent ban is determined to censor. Knowledge is power, and the first collective step forward for our workplaces begins with learning our history.
Diversity trainers are often ill equipped to deliver effective antiracism training
Diversity trainers are often human resources generalists and/or trainers who identify with a particular underrepresented or otherwise marginalized community – not necessarily those who have done the work to study racism and discrimination in this country. Too often this leaves these difficult, emotionally charged sessions (or programs) to those with little specialized educational background or life experience to adequately provide the necessary training. Truth be told, too many diversity and organizational leaders are ill equipped and/or uninterested in dealing with the uncomfortable and likely painful reality of racism, and instead flee to the convenient cover of much broader, friendlier discussions of diversity instead. Does this mean that all antiracism training must be delivered by a Black person? Certainly not. Robin DiAngelo is one of the most learned and powerful trainers in the antiracism genre, but she’s also completed decades of intentional work in this area. It is important to also acknowledge that non-Blacks who have done the work can be particularly effective trainers and facilitators with non-Black or skeptical audiences who might be more welcoming or receptive to them. Oftentimes, these types of training sessions aren’t given the level of respect that they should and while the broad field of diversity attracts a broad range of facilitators, antiracism requires specific expertise to address these most delicate and sensitive topics.
Are diversity trainings and related initiatives still important? Absolutely. It’s certainly important to continue to acknowledge, include and celebrate a broad range of both visible and invisible differences in the workplace. Diversity, inclusion and equity programs can play a critical role in helping organizations become more inclusive, but these programs are necessary but not sufficient to meet the unique needs of each specific underserved, marginalized or underrepresented community. Diversity programs can be an amazing tool for reinforcing that messaging within the broader corporate ecosystem, but America’s observed outcomes clearly suggest that we need more than we’re currently doing. As the refrain about insanity tells us, it’s time to try something new.
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