Austin, Texas prides itself on being a very progressive, liberal city. One of the mayor’s crowning achievements has been putting together a taskforce on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities. As part of this effort, the city promotes Diversity Training for the general public.
As someone who has spent a lifetime exploring culture, I jumped at the opportunity to better understand diversity dynamics. My most recent endeavor has been to encourage people across ideological, racial and gender differences, to break away from the Twitter banter of 280 characters and engage in authentic discussion and debate through letters. I presumed this training was my chance to have these conversations in real time and face to face, in a setting explicitly designed for such a purpose. I was wrong.
Ultimately, the only way to root out and rectify institutional racism and systemic inequity is through education, and the Mayor’s initiative deserves applause. However, promoting voluntary programs that are inevitably attended only by adulatory (mostly affluent and white) participants, who already subscribe to anti-racism efforts, won’t have an enduring effect. Instead, it advances a familiar echo chamber unable to resonate outside its narrow (and dare I say, privileged) confines.
Despite Austin’s honorable educational efforts, real change is not accomplished through diversity training and the pedantic social identity theorizing that has little practical application to raising educational standards in low-income schools—where the real battle begins.
My first surprise was the theme of the training. Instead of focusing on diversity, the central subject was white identity. This was not a bait and switch per se—understanding white identity and the often invisible forces that shape culture is necessary to combat institutional racism—but diversity and creating unity through diversity was never a topic. To be fair, the title of the training was “Beyond Diversity.”
The primary exercise was to determine our white privilege scores. We carried our scores around with us as badges, which determined where we stood in a literal line-up. With our numbers held out in front of us, we were told, without talking, to find our place in line according to our score. Quiet weeping pierced the hushed and somber atmosphere, as a few whites observed the segregated queue.
Speaking one’s truth—whatever that entails—was also encouraged. Apologies, often wet with more tears, received a warm reception. I shifted nervously in my seat, a sheen of perspiration on my brow, as I listened to the internal debate in my brain on the wisdom of speaking my truth. While never one to dismiss an invitation to speak, I ultimately decided that what I had to say would likely be dismissed, and would therefore be a waste of emotional energy. You’re here to learn, I reminded my conflicted brain, not to challenge the program.
Then the facilitator asked for divergent views, and my hand shot up before my brain had the chance to interject. Dumb hand. My sweaty palm gripped the mic, and I began to speak. What follows is more or less what I said, minus the citations and the gloss of hindsight.
Culture matters. Better understanding white identity and culture is of great value, especially when, as designees of the dominant culture, we assess other cultures through a lens fogged with our own preconceptions. However, assigning blanket identities to a culture or race results in gross-oversimplification, which then leads to wedge issues, designed to create discord, rather than opportunities to generate empathy and partnership.
In our society—particularly in some areas of academia—we’ve come to accept either/or distinctions: either you’re with me, or you’re against me. At the slightest hint of disagreement, we can retreat to our safe spaces to avoid discomfort. Nowadays, we can easily dismiss those with diverse views as racist, or a slew of other epithets, to quickly shut down even the most benign of conversations or inquiries. When you throw out the r-word people come running, as if to the scene of a train wreck, to assess damage and salve wounds, sometimes with a thinly veiled delight in the electric atmosphere.
Race is a delicate topic, and black voices especially have been historically met with hostility. This traumatization can create a sensitivity that needs to be acknowledged. What is at risk, however, is the fostering of a victimhood culture—an umbrella culture that threatens to cover us all. John McWhorter calls this new trend “third-wave antiracism,” which is a “call to enshrine defeatism, hypersensitivity, oversimplification and even a degree of performance.”
This new culture, with its roots in the postmodern movement, transcends racial boundaries. As Michael Aaron notes, the postmodern movement “eschews objectivity, perceiving knowledge as a construct of power differentials rather than anything that could possibly be mutually agreed upon.” The postmodern urge to deconstruct all discourse to a power struggle leaves us with few options to craft real solutions to many of our problems and, most importantly, to racism. There will always be a struggle. Societies the world over are unequal in innumerable ways. And struggle on we must, but when the struggle becomes the goal, we miss real opportunities for change.
Under such circumstances, it is hard for someone to speak their truth, as you have encouraged. The slightest misstep in the minefield of race discussions can cause an explosion, leaving a gaping hole in any productive dialogue.
“I don’t believe that all views are welcome,” I concluded—and, with a trembling hand, gave back the mic.
Most people gave me a wide berth for the rest of the training, until we had to collect in affinity groups, based on similar white privilege scores. I don’t believe my brain simply conjured up the disdain radiating from at least a few of the alabaster faces at our high white privilege table when they came to the unfortunate realization that I was in their cohort.
Our next exercise was to come up with a few of the top white characteristics. We were told that these traits were neutral—neither good nor bad. To the extent that certain races have identifiable group traits, what I saw written, at least to my sensibilities, I would classify as almost entirely negative—indeed, as bad, if not evil. Let me name a few words that stuck out: violent, rape culture, fragile. I have a hard time arguing with any of these, but, of course, all of these could be used to explain other cultures too. However, that wasn’t part of the exercise.
But here’s my favorite story. One white woman in my group was adamant that we include a white savior complex as a “defining aspect of white culture.” To her, with a mobility issue, this was incredibly important. She besmirched white men in particular, who frequently asked if she needed any help. In line for lunch, one of the black male caterers asked if she needed any help. I had to literally bite my lower lip to stop myself from making the obvious observation. Although one person identified “the need for civility” as a white characteristic in this exercise, apparently, sometimes, just sometimes, kindness and civility bridge cultures.
At one point, Justice Clarence Thomas was accused of having a white consciousness because he didn’t agree with affirmative action. Could it be that he didn’t agree with a white savior system that may work to disadvantage blacks, and ultimately harm black consciousness by holding blacks to lower standards? To quote John McWhorter:
I know of no more vivid hypocrisy on the part of those who style themselves black people’s fellow travelers than to earnestly dismiss claims that black people’s average IQ is lower than other people’s while in the same breath nodding vigorously that a humane society must not subject the same people to challenging tests.
I knew by this point to keep my trap shut, but this was one of the issues that I actually came to discuss. I came to better understand enduring racism and the challenges it poses. To listen to black voices and find ways to meaningfully ally with the black community. To explore and debate different views on how to bolster the strength and resiliency that has been a part of black heritage in America. However, the training was crafted in such a way as to prevent authentic dialogue among racial groups, and disagreement was met with denial.
Nevertheless, I did gain important insights from these exercises. I came to realize that the sense of rugged individualism that permeates the American mindset is part of a predominately white consciousness, a pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality. We whites do have the privilege to adhere to such an ethos. Given that racism was institutionalized, we will need more than personal responsibility and individual grit to correct anti-black racism. How do we do it?
One of the most direct paths to correct inequity is our education system. But the system is struggling, and most acutely in schools in lower income areas. Is this a question of resources? That is undoubtedly part of the equation, but only part.
Prior to the dismantling of segregation, at a time where overt racism was still ubiquitous, there were a number of all-black schools that excelled, although they lacked resources. Thomas Sowell gives the example of Dunbar high school in Washington D.C., which “sent a higher percentage of its graduates on to college than any white public high school in Washington.” Today, there are several successful inner-city charter schools that are scoring above the national average. According to Sowell:
In 2013, children in the fifth grade in one of the Harlem schools in the Success Academy chain “surpassed all other public schools in the state in math, even their counterparts in the whitest and richest suburbs,” according to the New York Times. Nor was this an isolated fluke. In 2014, children in the Success Academy chain of charter schools as a whole scored in the top 3% in English and in the top 1% in math.
Studies have shown that charter schools are closing the achievement gap in low-income areas. This is true not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, where educators like Katharine Birbalsingh are having an indelible impact on the lives of poor, inner-city, mainly black students. Given these examples, along with numerous others, we should ask: where are we failing?
We can talk about spending more money, raising teachers’ wages and other hackneyed solutions—with none of which I disagree—but these have not proven sufficient to address better opportunities for the students themselves. And, when options that fall outside of these traditional solutions are presented, they are not only denounced, but there is also a lot of money spent, sometimes in lawsuits, to keep these alternative solutions from going mainstream.
However, to criticize the system, especially the National Education Association (NEA), for this failure is to risk serious and severe backlash. There are good intentions baked into the system, but are these intentions in the best interest of the students, or of the organization? Like many institutions, the NEA is stuck in a path dependency that induces bureaucratic rigidity, inhibiting change.
The NEA has considerable political sway, and can effectively block opposition that threatens its control of public education. Charter schools, operating outside of its purview, constitute such a threat. Also, the NEA gives considerable contributions to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and many similar groups. Therefore, suggested changes to the system are not only in jeopardy from pushback, but also risk eliciting charges of racism for critiquing an institution with strong financial ties to communities of color.
All this suggests that there are solutions out there—or at the very least different opportunities worth exploring. And yet the system remains broken.
Increasingly, our conversations have ossified around either/or false dichotomies, polarizing society and making true progress elusive. We are backsliding. Whether we are discussing concrete issues, such as school reform, or more general corrections to institutional racism, reverting to this simplicity degrades our critical thinking and our abilities to address complex issues. Furthermore, speaking one’s truth, as was encouraged in the diversity training, has become a dangerous enterprise. The situation reminds me of Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers Campaign: a solicitation for dissident views that ended in the persecution of any who accepted the invitation.
Understanding white identity is useful, but the often arbitrary assignment of a blanket identity belies the complexity of true diversity both in and among races as well as across a variety of valuable viewpoints. At best, it shuts down meaningful dialogue and critical exploration. At worst, it foments discord and disunity. Ultimately, true wisdom and progress is born out of the tension between differing perspectives, each of which lends important insight that can help us find a more sustainable path forward. To truly go beyond diversity we must, through authentic discussion and debate, wrestle with our various cultures and how they are shaped vis à vis one another, to focus on the social connections necessary to build a genuinely diverse and egalitarian society together.
Without expending the energy to take this extra step, we risk not only becoming diversity drop-outs, but also ensuring institutional racism and systemic inequities persist, despite our best intentions.