In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, colleges and universities across the country have enthusiastically embraced training as a tool to promote racial justice. These trainings go by different names, including sensitivity training, diversity training and antiracism training.
Here are some things training is good for: customer service, Excel and CPR. One thing it’s not good for: diversity, equity and inclusion.
At a time when trainings are proliferating across institutions of higher learning, people could be forgiven for confusing training with education. But they are vastly different and should be seen as such especially when it comes to issues of diversity. The purpose of education, bell hooks reminds us, is critical thinking. Requiring “courage and imagination,” the “heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know — to understand how life works.” With hooks’s words in mind, here are 10 ways to tell training and education apart.
- Training makes assumptions; education challenges them.
- Training is packaged; education cannot be contained.
- Training rewards compliance, education curiosity.
- Training is having to say something, education having something to say.
- Training tells you what to think; education teaches you how to think.
- Training answers questions; education poses them.
- Training is generic; education all about context.
- Training simplifies the world; education reveals its complexity.
- Training promotes conformity, education independence.
- Training is performative; education is transformative.
Training has its uses. It can even save lives. (See CPR above.) But training is woefully inadequate when it comes to confronting social problems such as poverty, discrimination and racism. These are long-standing, knotty and complex issues that defy ready-made solutions. Any serious effort to address them must start with education, a process for which there are no shortcuts.
Consider these two hypothetical examples of a college trying to deal with issues of race and diversity. The first is a prototypical training module; the second takes an educational approach.
In many trainings, you likely will be told that your racial identity defines who you are — and that participants will be divided into two main racial affinity groups, white and BIPOC. You will be informed that white people are oblivious to race, while BIPOC people see everything through a racial lens. You will be advised that white folks use “white talk,” which is “task-oriented” and “intellectual,” whereas people of color use “color commentary,” which is “process-oriented” and “emotional.”
It will be explained to you that traits like precision, individualism and objectivity are hallmarks of “white supremacy culture.” “White supremacy” will be defined as an ideology that maintains “white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions of white people are superior to people of color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs and actions.” In order to reveal unconscious biases, you will be made to share the racial stereotypes you hold and then catalog the racial microaggressions you have perpetrated. Finally, you will be encouraged to make a public commitment to transforming your institution into a “fully inclusive antiracist multicultural organization.”
In contrast, an educational approach would more likely begin with a puzzle: How come a white mother can have a Black baby, but a Black mother cannot have a white baby? The answer would explore the development of the “one-drop rule” where any hint of African ancestry makes a person “Black.” Looking at legislation, court rulings and the Census, you would analyze how a distinctive racial hierarchy emerged in the United States, with anti-Black racism entrenched as a central feature of our politics, economy and culture.
You would also delve into the fascinating history of “whiteness.” Prior to the 1940s, the Irish, Italians, Slavs and Hebrews were seen as separate races, markedly inferior in intellect and moral virtue to the likes of Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians. How did all of these different groups become “white”? In terms of culture and status, academic publications, films and literary works would provide the foundation for grappling with the “multiplicity” of whiteness, drawing attention to the ways in which white people have been divided along the lines of class, religion and region, just to name a few salient sociological categories.
Regarding white supremacy, you would be asked to consider its many different forms, from plantation slavery to sharecropping, lynching, voting restrictions and redlining in housing. You would also be asked to assess the meaning of white supremacy today, including how you would respond to the Black scholars who reject this term on the grounds that “it racializes a lot of problems that a lot of people face, even when race is not the answer.”
Given the urgency and the newfound will to reckon with past and present racial discrimination, it is unfortunate that colleges and universities have resorted to trainings. Often proven to be superficial and ineffective, diversity training should not be the default response for institutions. Instead, colleges and universities should invest in the most powerful tool of all to combat racial injustice: education.