In the era of George Floyd’s murder and international protests against racist police violence, there is a movement afoot that says diversity and inclusion training will not be a part of the racial justice revolution. This is in response to the call to upend traditional models of diversity engagement. The “pacifying” and “calling in” methodology is no longer seen as effective. Activists are pushing for a shift to a “revolutionary” and “calling out” model.
I understand the impetus behind this call. I have been doing diversity trainings for over 10 years at the local, state, and national levels. My colleagues in this endeavor agree that there is a common pattern. After every major outcry against racialized violence, there is a call for more trainings to sensitize people to these challenges — trainings that boil down to how to treat Black people like human beings and other sensitivities the White majority should know about their fellow Americans who have been here since 1619.
Drawing on a recent essay by the diversity trainer and scholar Holiday Phillips, I’m going to call such practices “performative diversity training.” Performative diversity centers on training people to make token gestures toward inclusion and tolerance. Such training involves treading as carefully as possible with attendees so as to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings or making anyone feel uncomfortable. As the facilitator, you feel the need to keep the information general so that your audience need not see themselves in your examples. Make racism a national issue so that taking personal responsibility is not even implied. Presenting the material in this way helps attendees feel that they can perform allyship out of the goodness of their hearts rather than out of an obligation to address their own privilege. This extends to the trainer as well. Make sure you smile to put attendees at ease. Tell a few jokes to lighten the mood. Don’t become passionate or over-serious. If an attendee makes a comment implying that they have more important things to be doing, nod politely and say, “I understand.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about performative diversity training is that it does not really seem to satisfy either attendees or trainers. Certainly, some attendees do engage with the session and try to profit from it. Yet the majority — based on their comments to university administration — either find the training too bland, full of “obvious” points they already knew, or they find it too aggressive, blaming them for problems out of their control. On the other hand, trainers find it tedious to walk on eggshells in an effort to avoid stating hard truths too boldly. It is exhausting, not to mention demoralizing, to practice our craft for fear of saying and doing what we think most urgently needs to be said and done. Yet experience teaches us to be cautious. When a White person’s feelings get hurt during a training, the tone in the room shifts to “How dare you come into this space and push us to think about Whiteness in this way?” The Black trainer is then oftentimes ostracized and bad-mouthed.
Now, however, in the face of the murder of George Floyd and so many other Black men and women, we are seeing numerous calls for more demanding trainings. The universe is calling out to those who would like to support Black people to do more because there is a heightened sense of urgency for this cause. We do not need more token performances of tolerance and support; instead, we need serious allies motivated by a sense of personal responsibility for racial justice. While this discourse has the public’s attention, we have a rare opportunity to challenge old paradigms and break out of a repetitive cycle of the same old “Racism 101” diversity trainings.
In place of performative training, I want to recommend what we might call “Gangsta training.” These training sessions would not place the comfort of the White audience as their top priority. They would not encourage White attendees to believe that support for Black colleagues and fellow citizens is an option rather than an obligation. They would not replace the urgency of personal responsibility with the balm of the abstract problem. In Gangsta training, it is not the trainer’s job to ensure that the audience likes her; she has no duty to smile, tell jokes, or take it easy. Certainly she should not be rude, but neither should she lie.
Instead, Gangsta training aims to transform performative gestures of support into a personal commitment to racial equality. It asks White attendees to think about not only the general problem of racism, but also their own complicity in that problem, even if that complicity amounts to inaction. This type of training offers potentially uncomfortable truths to the audience. If they are just now reaching out to the diversity professionals at their workplace, they need to ask themselves why they waited so long. If they have a list of anti-racism books from The New York Times bestseller list, they need to show that they have read and thought about these books. If they like the anti-racism message but not the in-your-face method of Gangsta training, they need to be quiet and listen to someone who has actually experienced the direct effects of racism. If they think they have no need for training in cultural competence, they need to consider the possibility that this means they need it urgently.
Will such training make White attendees feel guilty? Possibly. But trainers should follow the lead of the anti-racist activist Sophie Williams and say to their audience: Use these feelings to push for more action, not to stop you from taking the next step. We are at a point of reckoning in our country. Denying the fact of racial injustice has become as egregious — and as deadly — as denying the spread of COVID-19. If diversity trainings are to be a part of this reckoning, we need to develop a more ambitious, Gangsta sense of their goals. Yet trainers will only be able to do this if they believe that they have the support of the institutions that hire them. And because these trainings are typically conducted by Black people, it is important that we acknowledge that labor. These trainings are vital to the revolution because they are happening with people for whom this may be their only contribution to the revolution.— and this goes for both the participant and the facilitator.
Catherine Pugh, an attorney and expert in the intersection of race and law, recently offered this to White readers in an article on Medium.com: “Racism is yours and leaving us to carry your water is not what good men do.”●
Winsome Chunnu, PhD, is the strategic director for diversity and inclusion and multicultural programs and initiatives at Ohio University. This article was published in our October 2020 issue.