Lynne Maureen Hurdle

Breaking Culture

If It’s Comfortable, It Ain’t Diversity Training

Three reasons why if it’s not broken we have not fixed it.

Posted Jan 31, 2018

Footage Firm, Inc.
Source: Footage Firm, Inc.

Yes, I used the word "ain’t" specifically to make the point that whether the standard English police like it or not, it has real cultural significance in African American culture, Southern culture and therefore educated culture. In some dictionary definitions, it is defined as “nonstandard and more common in uneducated speech than in educated.” When in actuality it is used by very educated people in informal settings where language rules are more relaxed and cultural norms take precedence. The dictionary also states that when used, it is often for emphasis which is what I most certainly am using it for now.

Language is one of those characteristics of diversity that can lead to debate, heated discussions, hurt feelings, and really difficult conversations. That just one diversity topic can be challenging, uncomfortable and even disruptive lays out the inevitable struggles inherent in the real work which comes as no surprise to a company like Google whose diversity initiatives have had a spotlight on them.

So, what’s interesting to me is that while most people are focusing on the recent news of the lawsuit brought by Google Manifesto author, James Damore and Google CEO, Sundar Pichai’s response to it, I have been much more laser-focused on a recent article related to diversity and Google.

In a Time Magazine article written by Joanne Lipman titled “How Diversity Training Infuriates Men and Fails Women,” she takes us through a timetable of the history of diversity training programs for US businesses and at the end of it pronounces that diversity training doesn’t work. She lays out the findings of Harvard organizational sociology professor, Frank Dobbin who according to the article was able to determine three situations which would determine that the training was doomed to fail and then points out that “about 75 percent of firms with diversity programs fall into one of those three categories.” Then she takes it a step further by writing “perhaps more to the point is the fact that the training infuriates the people it’s intended to educate: white men.” She cites another analysis to support this finding and then ends with the revelation that Google is trying a new workshop in unconscious-bias training explained as the science that “employees can understand that yes, we’re all biased, and yes, we’re all trying to fight it, and don’t worry, it isn’t your fault.” In her words, “this training is intended to be guilt free” and “is estimated to be offered by 50 percent of American corporations in the not too distant future.”

Right after reading this, I happened to see the New York Times article “Cleveland Indians Will Abandon Chief Wahoo Logo Next Year” where the approach here seems to be cut from the same cloth. The team will stop using the logo beginning in 2019 with MLB offering up their intention of giving weight to both the offensive and racist symbol that it is (my words) and “the cherished insignia that it is to many fans” (clearly their words). 

In fact, according to the article, the logo will not be used on the team’s uniforms or on banners and signs at the stadium or on anything sold on the website. However, “consumers will still be able to purchase items with the logo on them at the team’s souvenir shops in the stadium and at retail outlets in the northern Ohio market.”

Right about now, I can’t help but use a cleaned up version of a popular saying in my community, “Well ain’t this some ish.” Here’s the deal. Diversity trainings are uncomfortable because they are supposed to be. We are not dealing with comfortable material here and we need to push forward and take on the difficult conversations for a whole host of important reasons, but I’ll just leave it at three.

1. We Need To Break Culture

As a trainer who does the work of taking people through Racial Justice and Diversity Training, I am clear about what we are up against and that is a culture that is not only uncomfortable looking at itself and its history, but one that more often than not flat out refuses to do so. It is a major part of the work to interrupt and disrupt this culture and quite frankly when that is happening nobody in the room is comfortable. No one likes going to the dentist either, but the work still has to be done. However, there is no numbing the pain in diversity work.

2. Historically Oppressed Group’s Pain Is Not Secondary

The pain in that last statement in The New York Times article is a typical one when it comes to Racial Justice and Diversity work. Oppressed group’s pain is never as important as the pain of the dominant group. In The NY Times article, Phillip Yenyo, the executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio cheered the decision “but lamented that the move was being put off for a year. Why Wait? If you are going to go this far, why not do it now?”

Oppressed groups are always asked to wait as if their pain is not as palpable as the dominant group who should not be made to be uncomfortable. Don’t come for me about the fact that some of the fans who “cherish” the logo are non-white. I already know that. It speaks to my last reason.

3. The Systems and Institutions Put In Place Must Be Broken

Systems and institutions designed to discriminate against, exclude and perpetuate stereotypes and hatred cannot be broken and dismantled by being afraid of the discomfort that comes with talking about them and learning their effects. Ultimately, these systems affect and hurt all of us (though not equally) and intentionally blind us to the pain of oppressed groups outside of our own, making the work even more complex and difficult.

We can withstand this challenge. So many of us are in pain anyway. While there is nothing wrong with looking at biases, it is but a small step in the work. If diversity training does not break culture and systems then ultimately we aren’t fixing anything.