How to Make Diversity Trainings Better

“Far too often we trust external experts to bring solutions.”

An image of chairs
The Atlantic; Peter Finch / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I asked, “What do you think of the diversity-training and DEI industries?” Dozens of readers shared their personal experiences, good and bad––so many, in fact, that I’m going to run some additional responses on Wednesday (if you haven’t yet signed up for the newsletter, do so here).

Today, we’ll start with four people who’ve led diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in some capacity, and then we’ll hear from people who’ve been on the receiving end of diversity training at work. E. is a cynic about the aims of diversity work in corporate America:

I have worked in HR for Fortune 500 companies for 25 years in diversity, diversity and inclusion, and as an Equal Employment Opportunity officer. The intent of DEI training is for executives to think they are improving the organization for “minorities,” LGBTQ people, women, people with disabilities, etc. Spend a little money without any accountability or significant change. DEI training is to check a box. It is not meant to improve anything, and it doesn’t. Some trainings––the Intercultural Development Inventory, unconscious bias––make things worse. In general, DEI training exists to make executive teams and boards feel good.

M.V. is “enthusiastic about DEI work” and believes the grassroots group he leads at his workplace conducts it better than most outside consultants:

Far too often we trust external experts to bring solutions, which can neglect the critical value of truly centering employees and building culture from the bottom up. I’ve sat in corporate training sessions in which well-intended academics identify behaviors like “avoiding eye contact” as racial microaggressions. These generalities can do more harm than good; what if the person who can’t keep eye contact has social anxiety? Have we propagated that anxiety by encouraging the recipient to assume the worst implication?

The road toward reinforcing separation and the road toward building connection are, in fact, two different roads with different approaches. So how does our group approach DEI?

First, we value personal storytelling, which has been championed by the Moral Courage College founder Irshad Manji. There is a difference between hearing, say, about the importance of pronoun use from a nonbinary employee as compared to a training module. A discussion about labels with a diverse set of employees drives home the message that the “correct” term for a person can’t just be looked up but can only be gleaned through personal connection and the grace that comes with knowing the limitations of words.

Second, we adopt the teachings of Loretta Ross and Loan Tran on “calling in the calling-out culture,” which they offer in a superb online course. Though call-outs have their place, building trust and fostering mutual vulnerability are superior for having challenging conversations.

Third, we promote genuine curiosity and asking questions. The work by Mónica Guzmán of Braver Angels—including her book, I Never Thought of It That Way—teaches us to strive to understand the people we read and hear about but never meet. As she states, “Whoever is underrepresented in your life will be overrepresented in your imagination.”

Personal storytelling, calling people in, and getting genuinely curious: These three sets of tools can transform a culture and really help people be seen for who they actually are, not just the phantoms that fill the gaps in our heads, which are the root of much bias. These approaches that challenge the usual corporate DEI programming are largely championed by women of color (Manji, Ross, Guzmán, Chloé Valdary). For skeptics of DEI alternatives who also believe in centering the thinking of women of color during these times, I can suggest no stronger slate of philosophies to challenge their thinking.

Taisha has worked in the diversity industry for 15 years and believes a shift in its approach is needed: In a crisis-prone world, she writes, we need to organize people around shared goals, not shared identities. If a diverse group focuses on a goal (such as higher wages) that would benefit everyone working toward its, or a goal (such as reducing carbon emissions) that would benefit society in general, diversity goals will be achieved as a by-product of everyone cooperating.

She writes:

A common goal motivates people to handle themselves, so their personalities become less of a hindrance to the group’s purpose; to identify and develop their unique assets to benefit the group; and to recognize and mobilize their peers to do the same for the group’s good. Humans are inherently selfish and self-centered. But when we find something to believe in, we are more willing to set aside our personal likes and dislikes to work alongside others who share our goals. Then we think less of our identity differences. This sameness of purpose achieves inclusion without sacrificing differences.

The success of current unionizing efforts illustrate this new approach to DEI that I call  “Purpose not Personalities.” Unions organize a diverse group of people around a centrally compelling purpose (better treatment, higher wages, etc.) that motivates them to set aside whatever issues they might have with one another and dedicate the best of themselves, including their unique perspectives and skills, to help the group achieve success. To solve the many crises facing us, organizations can and should shift their DEI efforts to encourage less focus on personality or identity differences and more on group GOOD, trusting people to work out their differences as they lose sight of themselves.

Now on to the great majority of correspondents who have experienced DEI training sessions as participants. John agrees with the notion that an emphasis on shared goals tends to yield success:

I spent 24 years in the organization that, in my opinion, has done the best job with diversity and inclusion: the U.S. military. The real success happened at a cultural level: We all had a unifying mission. Anyone not in the military was the other, for the kinds of people that need an “other.”  And if someone did bring their prejudices and racism to work in the military, they were dealt with quite harshly. In this example, we should see a way forward. It is a shared mission and shared purpose that brings all people together. Anytime you substitute some other word for human, dehumanizing behavior occurs.

Our leaders, DEI educators, and media should all stress our shared culture and humanity. Instead, our leaders and DEI educators emphasize and exacerbate differences. We are doing the opposite of the right thing to bring about less racism and prejudice.

It’s noteworthy, I think, that the military took this approach with race far earlier than with sexual orientation, with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell formally in place until 2011, when the unifying mission (and the justness of equality under the law) was treated as mattering more than the difference in identity.

J., a high-school teacher in Canada, writes:

Diversity training is not about diversity. Diversity training is about providing excuses to institutions that don’t want to tackle poverty and the fundamental inequality of our capitalist system. Instead, they blame “institutional”' racism, an intentionally obscure term. What does it look like? How does one measure it? Who is implicated?

The conceit of these sessions during my 20 years as a teacher: You frontline workers, YOU are the reason these students fail. In my context—high schools—the only “proof” required for this conceit is the fact that some demographic groups do worse than others. We know that outcomes tell an incomplete story when variables like income, family, mental health, etc. are ignored. Diversity training is privileged people (professionals, administrators, politicians, professors, academics, many of whom make a good living as “experts” in this field) advancing a story, a theory. Yet, the literature demonstrates no meaningful successes to this decades-long progressive experiment.

We need viewpoint diversity in our institutions. Our fixation as progressives on dogma, and a narrow, Orwellian definition of what counts as diversity, is as much fuel for the culture wars as the excesses of the right. It’s just that we lefties are, ironically, too blind to our own privilege—educational privilege, class privilege, trauma privilege, etc.—to see it.

S. used to love being a professor:

I am a Bernie Sanders voter. I have spent 25 years working toward countering racism. I have lost friends and family, as I was “too woke.” I had my dream job, teaching mostly underprivileged students. I now almost loathe my job.

Faculty have been subjected to an authoritarian agenda of DEI/social justice since George Floyd was killed. His death had nothing to do with our campus or state, but it’s as if nothing matters anymore but racism, DEI, and payback for his situation. We are constantly peppered with meaningless utopian aspirations toward “equality of outcomes,” which is patently absurd, even within a family, let alone a state, school, nation, or planet. We are forced to listen to meaningless equity language and endure tortuous training and workshops, often required. They are usually run by unimpressive people whose qualifications seem dubious, usually taking the chance to scold the white faculty who have earned master’s and Ph.D.s and are established and renowned teachers who committed their lives to average-to-low pay for the sake of equity and justice.

Nobody dares offer any dissent. I have spoken to high-level administrators, people white and nonwhite, and they will not say anything. Nobody dares counter the social-justice/equity people. All are fearful of cancellation or firing. All have families and bills to pay and err on the side of lethargic caution. Everybody knows none of this is helping students.

I will never vote conservative on any policy, for what it’s worth. I will, however, wonder if I am in the most Orwellian career imaginable. My irritation is endless and my despondency palpable. My friends are tired of hearing about it. I’m a tenured, published, respected professor in California. on the verge of depression for the first time in my life.

Sherri, a gay woman who worked from 1988 to 2017, shared her thoughts on diversity training:

I’m a Ph.D. chemist, meaning I spent my career in a very male-dominated industry at a time when senior-level women were very rare, much less senior-level out LGBTQ people. I was closeted for the first 10 years of my career and then very out. In the ’90s, while I was still fairly junior and still closeted, my company, like many in the chemicals industry, started a Leadership Training protocol that in part focused on diversity awareness. I am convinced it is one of the worst things the company could have done.

They took a gaggle of senior managers off-site, away from day-to-day work pressures for a week; raised their awareness ofn “diversity”––which really just focused on representation––then sent them back with no skills for truly creating change. They all then felt that they “got it” and weren’t the problem. But day to day, they went back to their ingrained behaviors. Only now they felt enlightened and didn’t even try to look in the mirror.

Later, when I was out, I became a popular speaker on the internal circuit of department meetings to discuss what it felt like to be a gay senior woman at the company. I spent a fair amount of time trying to sensitize people to the concept of privilege without calling it that. The analogy I used was a fish versus a scuba diver. Both could survive in the ocean, but the fish did so effortlessly as the environment was built around their needs and capabilities. The scuba diver needed an oxygen tank, wet suit, fins, and had to expend a fair amount of energy to just survive in the ocean, much less thrive. The scuba diver was constantly aware of his difference and how much conscious effort it took to navigate underwater, and it was exhausting. The fish didn’t even know what water was.  

We are all fish in some ways and scuba divers in others. Where you are a fish, remember what it feels like when you are a scuba diver. And reach out to the scuba divers and help them survive.

We are so bent out of shape focusing on what we consider a “defining characteristic” that we miss what is most important: seeing each person as an individual human. We generalize and make assumptions based on gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, or what have you. Maybe instead we should follow the Ted Lasso model of being “people curious.” Teach people about unintentional bias that all humans carry and use nontraditional examples like assumptions about how someone dresses or the school they went to or their accent. Then focus on the fact that bias in and of itself isn’t bad; it’s what you do with the knowledge that you carry bias. Don’t focus so much on someone’s speech or behavior as much as on what they should learn from it.

We will all make mistakes; we will all offend; in most cases it is not intentional. We all want to be seen as fully human and treated with respect. Can’t we just focus on that?

Richard is an engineer and describes how the DEI initiatives he’s been exposed to have changed:

In 2000, I moved from the U.K. to the U.S.A.

It was a job-related move, within a large company, working with semiconductors for automotive applications. About three years later, I encountered my first corporate DEI initiative. In the simplest terms, the company informed us that hiring practices were changing to increase profit. The training consisted of a few pages of reading, followed by a discussion during my manager’s weekly group meeting.

My boss provided us with a relevant example, and a nod in my direction. “Imagine a car with a subsystem design flaw that’s only exposed when driving on the left-hand side of the road.” He’d made his point: having a diverse team working on a problem would result in a more robust solution.

By 2018, I was working for a different tech company. I was also living in a much redder state, and DEI had become a divisive issue. Arriving extremely late to the game, my employer started rolling out DEI training. The introductory reading material was reluctant to mention the profit motive for maintaining a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce. DEI was presented as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

Over the course of a year, a new branch appeared on the org chart, a vice president was hired, corporate goals were set, support groups established, and mailing lists created. Personal DEI goals were defined, refined, and aligned with corporate goals. Employee-development task lists were expected to feature several DEI-related objectives. Progress would need to be demonstrated on a quarterly basis. Mostly, my DEI training consisted of online “unconscious bias” courses provided by an external company.

At first, I was enthusiastic. Engineers like knowing how things work, and I thought I might gain some insight into my biases. But I soon realized that instead of gaining an increased level of self-awareness, I was simply learning the names of a long list of biases. Meanwhile, the continuing stream of emails from the DEI branch of the organization prompted me to set up an email filter, and my enthusiasm for the initiative began to wane. I started to feel like my corporate parents were openly expressing a preference for one of my siblings. It turns out you definitely can have too much of a good thing.

During one of my unconscious-bias courses, I learned that groups who’ve enjoyed an unchallenged, privileged position are the same groups most likely to feel threatened by change. What the courses didn’t mention was that any backlash directed at the intended beneficiaries of DEI initiatives would have been misplaced. I certainly felt exasperated with my employer, though.

The company seemed unwilling to explicitly state that certain new employees provided extra, unquantifiable value. And at no point did the company decide that some of that value should be returned to each new hire in the form of a higher salary. In fact, while the DEI initiative was being rolled out, salary ranges were tightened to prevent perceived discrimination. I’ve become less tolerant of heavy-handed corporate initiatives. A corporation should be able to profit by becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive while maintaining the morale of existing employees. In my experience, hitting the optimum rate of corporate culture change is difficult.

Greg, 61, says diversity training at the large aerospace company where he works has been addressed more intelligently and effectively than he would have anticipated based on media coverage.

He writes:

The training we had was pretty good, even to a skeptical observer. I remember a compelling discussion by one diversity trainer who said that we most frequently associate diversity considerations with gender and race, but that was in part a historical accident because those groupings were particularly important in the 1960s and 1970s when thinking about diversity as a workplace concept emerged. This trainer used an alternative case of employees in today’s workplace with prominent tattoos, a group that may be viscerally disturbing to older employees based on our conditioning when we were young, but tattoos are essentially irrelevant to workplace performance.

After President Donald Trump was elected, about 2,000 of our senior-level employees were on a quarterly phone call with our CEO. One asked: Given the change in administration, were we going to change our diversity policies? Our CEO replied that we would change nothing, because our policies were not to curry political favor. Our diversity strategy was to out-compete our rival companies, because we would expand our access to talent by addressing issues that have historically undervalued certain groups of people.

K. resents the training she was subjected to while doing civic work:

I have volunteered with the City of Madison (Wisconsin) Clerk’s Office every election since the 1990s and in recent years have worked as a special voting deputy helping with voter registration, taking absentee ballots to nursing homes, and the like. The city clerk’s office motto is “We exist to assist,” and most of us there let that be our guiding light in the service of democracy. Because our city is deeply concerned about equity, “diversity training” has been required for city personnel for the past several years. These sessions seem to be aimed at people who have never considered—much less worked to ameliorate—the problem of inequity and have only served to offend and alienate me.

I am an old progressive whose first professional position was bringing support services to migrant farm workers and their families. As a female raised in the 1960s, I know ALL about discrimination; you don’t need to describe it. The condescension implicit in these “woke” puppies presenting the novel idea that some people start off at a disadvantage to others is offensive.

I love my city, deeply respect its staff, and am still fully committed to equality as a cause, but showing me diversity slide shows has not had what I am pretty certain was the desired effect. And, yeah, it’s not about me, but please. I’ve been trying all my life. All. My. Life. I’ve been trying to make a difference.

Megan believes the DEI programming she has seen in higher education doesn’t address academia’s most pressing problems:

Grad school is a toxic environment: Students on assistantships are paid poverty wages, given health care they can barely afford, are overworked by advisers who perpetuate the bad mentorship practices they experienced, and get degrees in fields flooded with people vying for jobs. This is a bad environment for even a cis white male or female with good mental health … and the focus is increasing departmental diversity and pronoun training.

How is any person supposed to thrive here?

T.M. doesn’t fit neatly into any identity box:

I’ve worked as an adjunct professor for over a decade, mostly at a prestigious northeastern university. I’m also of Assyrian descent, with a heavy mix of old-school New England. I sometimes think the reason I wound up in American studies as a discipline is because in 1991, while I was doing a genealogy project for fifth-grade social studies, the teacher told me I couldn’t be an American. Here I was, 11 years old, the United States had gone to war in Iraq, and I didn’t feel comfortable trying to explain who or what Assyrians are. Iraq didn’t exist in 1906 when my father’s family came to America.

I don’t consider myself white-passing, but it’s been obvious since I was young that my grandfather and great-grandfather were of darker complexion than I am. I’m aware that I’ve been privileged by my white complexion, but I am often met with resistance to my belief that DEI is actually reinforcing the arbitrary cultural signifier of whiteness rather than decreasing it. Today, because I don’t fit neatly into one box, I find that the administrators at the university where I teach lack the same nuance as my fifth-grade social-studies teacher. My questions as to the efficacy of trainings are met with vague, bureaucratic language.

Echoing the language of Martin Luther King Jr., we at the university are told we are now a “beloved community,” but unlike MLK, the DEI initiatives ignore economic equity or inclusion. Diversity, instead, is merely a way to fit people into categorical racial boxes. It’s no wonder some people are resentful of being categorized into something that is so ill-defined.

The academy has failed to generate conversations that truly explore the functions of race and class. It’s off-putting to get boilerplate messaging about racial diversity from people who make six-figure salaries when they are the same people who cut my health care last year. I don’t see the equity or inclusion of that decision, but yet we are now “beloved.”

How can we truly be diverse, equitable, and inclusive when over half the faculty who teach in higher education are treated as disposable? We’re denying the very cracks in our foundation the administrators claim to be fixing. DEI isn’t a solution. It’s a corporate orthodoxy that creates problems. I am distrusting of these initiatives.

Caleb scoffs at “equity” efforts that ignore income:

I was an administrative assistant at a law firm in Maine. Through six hours of mandatory DEI trainings, professional and administrative staff alike were educated on the nuanced definitions of equality and equity, complete with visual aids of children standing on different sizes of wooden boxes. Meanwhile, there was an elephant in the room that was never acknowledged: the attorneys sitting in on these Zoom trainings with us were, and are still, paid in the range of five to 20 times what the administrative staff make.

During the pandemic, while we were expected to consume gas and time commuting to the office, masked up and at risk of infection, to sort and scan mail, print checks, etc., the professional staff could work from home, expense meals, and receive compensation for work-related travel. When I asked if I could receive compensation for my 90-minute commute, I was laughed out of the office. The consensus of the administrative staff after our mandatory six hours of preachy DEI trainings: They are a cruel joke so long as they ignore financial inequality. Of course, they could hardly be so popular in the business world if they highlighted the outrageous economic inequality it fosters.

Jaleelah, a student, describes how diversity programs feature in the world of competitive debate in Canada:

Virtually all debate teams and competitions have “equity officers” (a name that would give Ron DeSantis an aneurysm) who are responsible for “making sure participants are comfortable.” In practice, this means that barely trained university students are tasked with a wide range of responsibilities. Here is a list of equity functions I support:

  • Arranging subsidies for students who can’t afford to pay for competitions
  • Communicating with organizers to ensure disabled debaters are only assigned to rooms they can physically access at tournaments
  • Ensuring that there are no conflicts of interest between judges and the teams they are assigned to adjudicate

Here is a list of functions I oppose:

  • Mandating that trigger warnings be given before speeches (thankfully, this practice is not ubiquitous)
  • Vetoing debate topics on the grounds that they might prompt people to make offensive arguments

And here is a list of functions that I have a neutral or varying opinion on:

  • Constantly reminding people not to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people
  • Mediating conflicts between students (some equity officers are horrible mediators, but I generally support the approach)
  • Providing input on debate topics (when it is clear that students are not permitted to issue vetoes)

That’s a long list, but equity teams usually run pretty smoothly. I suspect that there are three reasons for this. First, equity’s power in debate is sufficiently limited. Judges do not penalize teams for the sole reason that a speaker said something “inequitable.” Equity teams cannot intervene in debate rounds (outside of a situation where one competitor is screaming targeted slurs or physically assaulting another), nor can they alter the results. Their most severe power of removing people from clubs and competitions is almost exclusively reserved for students who have committed crimes against other students (and those people usually resign anyway). When people perceive overreach, they complain loudly. Trigger-warning mandates for speakers have been greatly reduced because a number of people (including me) argued that they are ineffective.

Second, there are social incentives for equity officers to avoid doing stupid things. All equity officers are also debaters. It’s a bad idea to harshly punish someone for accidentally saying something offensive when you know you’ll have to spend an entire weekend with their friends. Equity officers are not above other students. This is sharply different from DEI trainings in the corporate world where a team of outside instructors assume a position of power over a given office or team.

Finally, the debate community assumes that people have good intentions. When conversations about ideological bias arise, conservatives and communists never accuse liberals of intentionally rigging rounds against them—they analyze the ways in which common unconscious biases cause judges to favor certain arguments.

And last in today’s roundup, an anonymous reader shares a diversity-training experience that caused him a lot of anxiety:

After years of teaching history at the college level, I took a job at an elite private high school, drawn in part by their stated goal of investing time, energy, and money in DEI education and initiatives. The school had a contract with a DEI-training company to educate all the faculty and administrators via a three-day retreat on race. My research and teaching has focused on race throughout my career. In a real sense, talking and writing about race is my job. Due to my personal and professional goals, I signed up to go.

We were immediately told by the facilitators that the purpose was not to train us in DEI but instead to have us spend the entire time reflecting on our own racial journeys. It was immediately clear that the space was designed to be a sort of deconstructed learning experience, where we were expressly forbidden from discussing the issue from the standpoint of research or debate. Instead we would discuss it at a personal level. Such ideas and stories, once shared, were subject to attack by the facilitators.

One white, female teacher was talkative and engaged in the first couple sessions, and the facilitators called her out for what they felt was a race-based domination of the space. Certainly, she’d made some “mistakes” in what she said about race, but the goal appeared to extract some kind of mea culpa. She meekly apologized and never spoke again.

Later, we were told with the utmost confidence that none of us talk about race in the classroom and that when the subject comes up we all shy away from it out of fear and cowardice. When a couple of teachers, including me, said that we were required to talk about race as part of the subjects we teach, this was met with a reiteration of the assertion that we do so reluctantly. The white facilitator then sat down cross-legged on the floor and spent an hour telling us how racist she was. I’m not being flip: The gist was that she once thought she wasn’t but then learned that she was and now understood that no matter how much she learned, she’d never escape her racist origin. She asked the whites in the room for their thoughts.

No one said anything for a long time. Then a white teacher started crying and said she'd been picked on for being poor and dark-skinned as a kid. The facilitators made it clear that this was the wrong answer.

On the final day, the most notable activity was one in which the group was split into white and people-of-color affinity groups. Afterward we came back to the main room and reflected. A Black teacher talked about positive stereotyping of Black people being just as reductive as negative stereotyping. I responded that this was something I've taught about in the case of the Middle East, saying that Orientalism not only perpetuates nasty things about Middle Eastern peoples (e.g. “All Muslims are sexist”) but posits supposedly good characteristics as uniform (e.g. “All Muslims are hospitable”). After a break, we came back together and the facilitators said that before we went on they wanted to tackle something.

Facilitators: “In the last session, you used the word ‘Orientalism.’ We want you to know that ‘Oriental’ is a very racist term to describe Asian people. But you put an -ism at the end and we wanted to ask what you meant by that.”

Me: “Um, well, ‘Orientalism’ refers to a group of scholars who called themselves ‘Orientalists’ because they studied the Middle East, and from the 1960s onward, were criticized by other scholars (especially Edward Said) for their reliance on Western biases.”

Facilitators: “Well, that is the scholarly, academic world. Here, in this space, ‘Oriental’ is a racist term. And we want you to reflect on that.”

Me: “I’m, um, sorry if anyone took it that way. In my work, this is a term we use to talk about racism …” [face red, heart racing]

Facilitators [interrupting]: “We’re out here, in this space. That space is academic. In this space, this is a space where ‘Oriental’ shouldn’t be said.”

I was fuming. To me, that exchange totally undermined any authority they had to speak on race, if they didn’t even know the primary word used to describe racism against Middle Eastern people. It doesn’t matter if people who are supposed to be experts in race have never heard of the term “Orientalism,” as if they missed the post-9/11 debates over Western biases against anyone deemed “Eastern”––I could lose my job over being called racist.