There is no doubt that US society is deeply divided along racial, ethnic and religious lines. While schools, corporations and other institutions continue to embrace much needed diversity programmes, many such trainings are based on critical race theory, a misguided and dangerous ideological framework that holds that society’s institutions are inherently racist and that race is a social construct used by whites to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of colour. Diversity training based on critical race theory is detrimental to race and interfaith relations and has the exact opposite of the intended effect of creating a more just and harmonious society. Indeed, when diversity gurus such as best-selling author Robin DiAngelo insist that white people accept the way black people define their own oppression, and regard any disagreement as evidence of fragility, we despair of America’s national discussion on race.
It is increasingly common for members of minority groups to insist that only members of their own group should get to define prejudice and racism against their own community. Popular Jewish writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer, for example, recently tweeted, “Here is a complete and comprehensive list of the people who get to decide what is or isn’t anti-Semitic: 1. Jews.”
This is known as standpoint theory, which asserts that only members of the marginalized group know what it’s like to be marginalized and therefore only they have the right to describe and define the prejudices against them. Everyone else is supposed to accept any marginalized group member’s account at face value (although in practice this is impossible, given that individual group members often disagree).
We find it hard to imagine genuine engagement and social progress in the straitjacket of standpoint and critical race orthodoxies. People learn by questioning and challenging each other, not by accepting each other’s perspectives on blind faith.
Sociologist Musa al-Gharbi argues that the research shows that diversity training based on critical race and standpoint theories does not work: “It does not seem to meaningfully or durably improve organizational climate or workplace morale; it does not increase collaboration or exchange across lines of difference; it does not improve hiring, retention or promotion of diverse candidates. In fact, the training is often counterproductive.”
For the past three years, we have been part of a ground-breaking Muslim-Jewish engagement initiative called IJMA (Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance). Our collaborative, dialogue-based approach has proven very effective in deepening mutual understanding.
In our recent joint Muslim-Jewish sessions exploring antisemitic and anti-Muslim bigotry and stereotypes, we listened to each other intently. The Jewish participants all, to varying degrees, considered anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism. The Muslim participants all, to varying degrees, considered a focus on Islamic terrorism as furthering stereotypes of Islam and Muslims. But many of the Muslims didn’t agree that firebrand Muslim activist Linda Sarsour’s anti-Zionist diatribes are a form of antisemitism, and many of the Jews didn’t regard Jewish author Daniel Pipes’ numerous rants against Islamism as a form of anti-Muslim bigotry.
One group’s standpoint may therefore at odds with the other’s. Yet members of each community know that members of the other community experience real hate and bigotry. We recognise each other’s vulnerability. Despite our disagreements, therefore, we keep talking, planning joint activities and breaking bread together (virtually for the time being).
If Muslims and Jews were forced to abide by the dictates of critical race and standpoint ideologies, Muslims would be obligated to allow Jewish majority opinion to define what constitutes prejudice against Jews (and vice versa) and would have to pretend to accept those definitions, even if they disagreed.
What use is an ideology that requires people to say things they don’t believe? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in most diversity training settings.
There’s a lesson for larger society here. True allyship does not mean constant unanimity. It does not mean that everyone must accept our entire narrative, describe society in precisely our terms, subscribe to our theories or repeat our pieties. True allyship requires that we listen to each other and dialogue in good faith. It means interpreting other people’s actions and remarks charitably, whenever possible. And it means protecting each other from hatred, violence and discrimination.
Today’s diversity trainings should emphasize finding our common humanity amid our differences. They should avoid models that dictate what we must believe about the other group, shame participants for disagreeing or coerce them into making false confessions.
We have many divides to bridge in our society. We hope misguided approaches that limit dialogue will give way to more meaningful exchanges resulting in deeper understanding and much needed reconciliation. In the meantime, our group of American Jews and Muslims will keep talking, engaging and shining a light on a better way.