Going Through Anti-Racism Training

Especially in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by policeman Derek Chauvin, organizations everywhere have approved anti-racism resolutions and committed themselves to anti-racist training for their staff and their governing boards.  How can we understand our complicity in the pervasive racism of the United States, each organization finds itself saying, and how can we prepare ourselves for the necessary work ahead to make the future different?  A loosely structured movement coalescing around the slogan Black Lives Matter began to take shape in 2013 following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. 

This is a critically important effort: to be more self-aware of pervasive or systematic racism, and to draw as many of as possible together on behalf of efforts to make the future as free of race inequality as possible.  What’s the way forward and who is pointing the way? About that I’m less sure.

I’ve been through two episodes of these steps (approving a resolution, conducting anti-racism training) in recent months.  Each has involved several multi-hour sessions. (Because of COVID, both have been via Zoom.) One episode has been with a secular organization that had not been at all attentive to matters of race inequality or diversity in recent years. The other has been with a Quaker organization that has been relatively alert to race inequality and diversity.  I’m a board member for both.  What I have found especially striking is how similar the ‘trainings’ have been. 

Take a brief pause on the word ‘trainings’.  That’s the word that’s been widely used for these educational sessions about racism and anti-racism.  I first began hearing that term, “a training”, in the 1990s.  (Look at the Google Ngram for “trainings” and you’ll see a rapid increase in use of the term beginning about that time.)  At the time and since, I heard it almost always from people on the left, used to describe efforts to prepare activists and supporters for concerted political action.  On first hearing the term I remember feeling uncomfortable with it.  I’m an educator; I want to help people think critically and creatively, not just to see things as I see them.  ‘Training’ is what I do not do, I remember thinking; it sounded too much like follow-these-steps or even indoctrination.   

These recent sessions have often been described as DEI: diversity, equity and inclusion, or as JEDI: adding justice to the mix.  As I’ve heard these recent DEI sessions described as ‘trainings’, my earlier discomfort has come back to me.  The term ‘trainings’ has seemed apt. These are sessions telling me how to think and what to do.  They are not sessions to encounter alternative perspectives or to encourage one’s own thinking.  The good thinking, it seems, has already been done by others for us to take in: that’s been the ethos of these sessions. 

In both cases, the trainings have been led by groups of consultants for whom this is a for-profit business.  As I look around the web for other providers of such trainings, I see that this is pretty common.  Providing DEI training has become a thing that smallish, for-profit consulting groups provide.  And why not?  Not-for-profit organizations turn to for-profit consulting groups to help them with audits, with payroll services, with legal matters, with IT work, and so forth.  Still, it seems odd in the context of providing education and understanding.  I might have expected to see universities or community colleges or not-for-profit consulting groups providing such educational sessions.

There’s been what looks like a standard curriculum to these trainings.  In both, towards the beginning, we were invited to read or watch Robin DiAngelo on White Fragility.  She describes (as one reviewer put it) “the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged—and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy.”  Towards the end, both had us take the Race version of the Implicit Association Test, which regularly shows that most Americans have an automatic preference for white over black.  In neither were we pointed towards any evidentiary foundation for either, let alone critiques or contrary thoughts.  (I was already familiar with both and had read a good deal about each, including some pieces that voiced doubts or critiques.)

Those two (white fragility and implicit bias) loosely suggest an analysis of how and why racism persists in the United States and what it might take to move beyond it, but that analysis and that strategy were never spelled out in either training, not even hinted at. I don’t know why.

Also, in neither did we have much consideration of what our particular organization was doing and how this might manifest racism — overt or implicit.  That’s what I had hoped the sessions would be about: to help us think this through together,

I’ll likely have more to say about this curriculum, this orthodoxy, in a later post.  

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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