Diversity and Inclusion Training is Failing – and it’s the Presenter’s Fault: Part II

Avoiding the 3 Training Mistakes

Having attended and provided hundreds of DEI sessions over 20 years, we suggest the majority of DEI presenters make three common mistakes that can leave participants even more entrenched in their biases, regardless of how well-intentioned, thoughtful and expertly trained in our subject matter we presenters might be:

  1. Preaching to the choir. Many participants who sign up for DEI training are already “on the bus”. The people who arguably need it most either are “too busy,” or reluctantly attend a mandatory session.

    Most DEI sessions now have a reputation for soundingpatronizing about cliched notions of respect. “Thank you for sharing that,” (condescendingly stated regardless of what the participant offers) and “Well, a comment like that excludes others and should not be said in today’s workplace” (passive-aggressively shaming a participant). Participants are quick to notice our patronizing. Even though we talk about valuing diverse points of view, many of us lead with a tone that we are the Keepers of the Truth, claiming higher moral ground because of how our own diversity, – our gender, our skin colour, our sexual orientation – has bestowed upon us insights that the privileged majority can’t possibly appreciate. If we truly wish to succeed in raising insight, we must beware the cloak of self-righteousness.

    Though this approach gets us heaps of praise from the already “enlightened” participants, our true mission is to get more genuinely curious about what’s happening with the most unconscious and the most biased among us, devoid of judgment.

  2. Excluding in the name of inclusion. No one wants to attend a DEI discussion that’s essentially a race to the bottom of who is more disadvantaged. Calling out participants’ privilege early in the conversation is bound to provoke defensiveness.

    Many people may see their whiteness, maleness, straightness, middle-classness, middle-agedness, or generally able-bodied-ness as diversity characteristics that are as valid as other identities. We educators can fall victim to confirmation bias (the bias to feel correct) and projection (the bias of placing undesirable traits outside of ourselves) even as we speak to the value of diversity, effectively sidelining and marginalizing the majority during our workshops. During an LGBTQ2S+ awareness workshop a participant posed the question “Why is society redefining the family?” and they were chided for their homophobia and straight privilege. Instead, we should include in the conversation those who need it most, as privileged as they may be perceived to be.

  3. Driving bias underground. Thomas Szasz has noted: “Every act of conscious learning requires a wound to the self-esteem.” In other words, change happens when someone realizes that something they believed for so long might be wrong.

    Effective presenters cut through Dunning-Kruger syndrome (the bias of assuming something is easy because we have no idea how hard it is) while still allowing participants to explore their biases. In the name of creating “safe spaces” for people who have suffered from bias and exclusion for so long, we may be inadvertently creating a space where it is very difficult for participants to ask questions that allow them to question their biases. The challenge for presenters is to create an environment that welcomes those who are already experts in what it’s like to be marginalized, and those who are less familiar with what it’s like to be sidelined by skin colour, different abilities or other characteristics of personal identity.

    Rather than tightly control what’s ok and not ok for participants to discuss at a workshop, if we truly wish people to challenge their own biases we must encourage and support tough and uncomfortable questions. Before society can reach true diversity, equity and inclusion 2.0, some of us need to update 1.0 first. This requires a level of grit specifically in the DEI presenter.

Voices calling for justice to bring an end to unacceptable racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of injustice are vital to ending discrimination, harassment and violence. Voices clumsily fumbling with understanding biases and resulting discriminatory behaviours are also vital to end inequities and injustices. Tone policing to ensure political correctness in a DEI session is counter-productive. The foundational educational principle of “no stupid question” is violated by a learning environment that suggests there are many stupid questions if they are in any way offensive to someone.

As facilitators of unconscious bias workshops, we must be courageous enough to hold space that invites the minority and the majority into the discussion as equal participants with genuine curiosity, empathy and support. Remove the cloak of self-righteousness, and we will find that our conversations may be harder, but are indeed worth the effort and investment.

Diversity and Inclusion Training is Failing – and it’s the Presenter’s Fault: Part II

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