In the wake of the largest racial reckoning that this country has seen in decades, initiatives focused on achieving racial equality have popped up across the country in many different forms, whether that be programs for Black and non-white students, corporate awareness of activism or, most commonly, diversity training programs. Diversity, equity and inclusion training, while well-intentioned, is often misguided, not engaging, unspecific and ultimately tends not to prompt lasting behavior changes by those that hold power. DEI training sessions on this campus do little more than allow organizations to brush off true biases and silence voices that ask for genuine change.
DEI training is often unengaging and repetitive, which lowers participation and doesn’t leave room for lasting impact. Usually, training involves a quick lecture about implicit bias, accompanied by a quick activity that often centers on the idea of privilege. This formulaic approach is no longer good enough. While research shows that repetition can be helpful in memory and information retention, keeping audiences engaged is essential to improving inclusivity, especially with college-aged audiences. Whether it is a simple slideshow or a virtual activity, many of these training sessions are made up of worn-out ideas and activities that, quite frankly, become more of a chore than a time to actively engage with biases and work to fix them. Creating engaging content that focuses on problem-solving as opposed to simply lecturing will allow students to engage with biases present in their specific organization and work to fix those specific problems.
Moreover, DEI efforts are often vague, choosing to focus on generic circumstances of implicit (or explicit) biases instead of tailoring scenarios to the specific program that is hosting the experience. Coca-Cola’s diversity training famously included slides on how employees should focus on being “less white.” It goes without saying that this goal is both impossible and unnecessary, but it shows how DEI training often involves broad, vague ideas of oppression instead of concrete goals. This is counterproductive and only leads to resentment towards both the organization and minorities within it, further perpetuating the problem. A bias training session hosted for Fraternity & Sorority Life should look very different from one hosted for resident advisors, with two completely different sets of circumstances in which biases arise and need to be solved.
In my three years at this university, I have been through multiple different DEI training programs across the different groups I have been involved in. One thing that has remained constant across them all has been the centering of white identities as the foundation for eventual equality. Many DEI programs involve a privilege walk, in which students will take a step forward or mark down a certain answer which sums up to account for some sort of score. It serves as a way for the more privileged people in the room to reflect upon themselves and their own privilege, but only by comparing their lives with those of people who grew up with less privilege. And since this university is approximately 65% white with a median income of $154,000, the disparities in privilege only serve to make non-white and low-income students feel the full weight of their own marginalization. Activities that force a contrast in privilege between groups of students are asking for marginalized students to shoulder the brunt of the burden in creating equal space. They force more privileged students to look down on less privileged ones with pity instead of allowing them to criticize the organization in which they both belong.
The ensuing discussion about privilege rarely helps either with white people often monopolizing the conversations with their own first-time reckoning with privilege. Centering whiteness allows the presence of people of color to be acceptable only because white people say it is. Instead, diversity efforts need to be centered not on giving white people space to become comfortable with their own prejudice, but on allowing the needs of BIPOC to be centered instead.
Inclusivity should be the goal, and centering the non-white experience and allowing BIPOC to speak for themselves about their needs in an organization is crucial for effective diversity efforts.
Diversity training programs can be valuable, especially on a college campus where people come from a variety of different backgrounds, and I don’t intend to entirely de-value them. They are a straightforward way to get information to a wide audience, which is why they are so common among student organizations on campus. However, without changing the cultures of exclusivity present in so many organizations, they are effectively empty words meant only to placate minority students into continued silence. Instead, these DEI programs should be replaced with sessions that give BIPOC students a voice to change their organization. Their experiences should be centered by having students of color lead and be consulted in creating teaching or problem-solving sessions. We are capable of creating true change and more inclusive organizations across this campus, but that begins with improving the way we teach and talk about diversity.
Ultimately, the only way to create a more inclusive organization is to make space for voices that have been marginalized. Historically, this space has not been easy to come by, with Black and non-white students forced to protest or strike in order to get the visibility and space they needed. Cultures are changing, though. We now have the resources to create this space without asking marginalized people to assume that responsibility alone, and we owe it to future generations of students to create the campus they deserve.
Mrinalini Iyer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.