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Diversity training is a step, not a solution

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 2, 2009 - If only we could train racism away. That was my reaction to the settlement regarding six African-American students from Washington University who filed a civil complaint of racial discrimination against Chicago Club, The Original Mothers. The club has agreed to mandate that all managers undergo diversity training and will host a series of fundraisers whose proceeds will go to community groups. 

Diversity training will not fix the problem. The club will need to do more than send their managers to training it if really wants to address the issue of discrimination.

What needs to be addressed is the institutional acceptance of such discrimination from the doormen all the way up to the owners. It is less about changing people and more about altering the norms, expectations and financial implications for the club's behavior. People will come and go, but the culture of an institution, its values and norms, are long lasting.

I recently attended a training by Crossroads , which focuses on institutional racism. One of the facilitators reminded me of an important point. If an institution were doing something that I felt was important, I would not want that something to easily go by the wayside. We want those aspects that we cherish about an institution to be steadfast and unwavering. However, we often get frustrated when change is hard to institute. Why should it be?

Institutions are entities with set norms and values that are difficult to change. Why do we think a training or workshop will automatically change things?

"It's not just one training," you might say. But even a series of workshops that requires people to listen to a new set of values will not magically transform an institution.

I am not knocking diversity training. It has its place. I quite enjoy leading workshops. But I am clear that these trainings are only one piece of a larger puzzle.

They might spark an interest in one person, further educate another and give others the motivation to keep working for change. They do not, however, change the rules and norms of a place. And in my opinion, they are oftentimes less likely to affect positive change when mandated.

"I have the people in positions of power in the room, so it's going to work." It might. I hope it does. But even if the president or manager is on board, he or she can still be crucified when making said changes to the norms. These powerful people also usually have to answer to someone (e.g. a board, constituents) who might not be ready to change.

"Well, if we keep doing trainings and get everyone on board with a common language, change is bound to happen." Again, it is not a guarantee. It is not the training alone that will make change happen. It is the hours of mobilizing and strategizing, which happens as a result of the training that transform an institution.

We like to look for an easy out. We like to feel as though we are doing some good. Let's make people sit through a training. But change does not come from sitting in chairs. It comes from exerting effort and often involves making waves.

If we go back to the rigid nature of an institution, common sense would say that to influence lasting change would require thoughtful and purposeful transformation from the inside out. It will not happen due to a mandate in response to a violation.

Again, training has its place, but too often we hold up diversity training as an end point rather than the beginning of a longer process towards change.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.