My first encounter with Critical Race Theory (CRT) diversity training was in 1999. Yes, it’s been around that long. I doubt it was known as CRT training then but the underlying ideology was the same. I was a young non-profit executive participating in a leadership program that included an intensive three-day workshop on diversity.
I didn’t plan on resenting diversity training. I worked for a Jewish organization that combats racism and bigotry and builds relations across religious and ethnic lines. I was an organizer of regular Black-Jewish dialogues and helped build a program to recruit African Americans into the commercial real estate business. I believed then, as I do now, that black people have gotten a raw deal in America, and that we have an obligation to provide every opportunity for underrepresented minorities to achieve the American dream. I saw modern America then as I do now: deeply flawed yet not oppressive.
The session opened with a viewing of the 1994 film The Color of Fear made by “master diversity trainer” and filmmaker Lee Mun Wah. The film portrayed four men at a weekend retreat talking about racism: one African American, one Latino, one caucasian, and the filmmaker himself, who was Asian.This was a real, unscripted interaction, as far as I could tell. But from the very beginning, it was obvious it was a setup.The three men of color were all well versed in the language of multiculturalism.The white guy, however, was a total nitwit. I doubt he’d had a serious conversation in his life, let alone one on issues of race and racism.
The three trained diversity hands took turns browbeating the simpleton on how very clueless he was on race.They insisted that his “colorblindness” was a sham and that it was high time he recognized that his whiteness was a bonafide ethnicity essential to his place in the world. By the time they were done with him, he broke down in tears, finally recognizing his own racism and the role he’d played in perpetuating an unjust society. I was revolted by the display of performative cruelty masquerading as enlightened diversity.
When the film was over, we broke into groups of eight to discuss what we had just seen.The facilitator of my break-out session, who also happened to be the main organizer of the program, was Howard Ross. You may have heard of Ross. He was organising the federal training when Donald Trump issued an executive order to end all CRT diversity programs in the federal Government. He was the diversity trainer of the stars, having been assigned to, among others, John Rocker, the professional baseball player who scandalized the sport with his unfiltered bigotry.
Ross began our group session with a question: “How did the film make you feel?” After three others shared their deep-seated feelings about our fallen society, some angry and some sad, it was my turn. “I don’t know how I feel, but I do know what I think,” I stated. “I think it was a terrible film that says nothing about racism.” This did not ingratiate me with the group. I soon found myself in a sequel to the movie itself, and I, the swarthy son of an Iraqi Jewish immigrant who never saw himself as white, was the white guy.
An African American pastor of one of the largest congregations in the metropolitan area began to cross-examine me. He asked me if I thought I was a racist. “I try hard not to be,” I stated, continuing: “In my teen years, I told tasteless ethnic jokes, but made a very conscious decision not to do it anymore.” I said that while I fully recognize the ongoing reality of racism, I didn’t think it explained all the problems facing black people in the inner cities.The pastor, who clearly did not appreciate being challenged, bellowed: “What else explains these problems?” I blurted out: “How about young black school kids who make fun of other black kids for being too studious? Isn’t that a problem too?” There had been a few recent high-profile stories about this phenomenon.The pastor glared at me with a mixture of disgust and resignation, but he didn’t argue back. A black female participant sitting next to me quietly nodded in apparent agreement.
It hit me that this diversity training was actually a group therapy session for the mental illness known as white racism, and I was a patient.The therapist—one Howard Ross—was there to get us to recognize our own racism, the first step in overcoming any psychological ailment. My non-doctrinaire view on race was a cognitive distortion that could only be remedied through an intense course of diversity therapy. I was not an easy patient.
I didn’t know a lot about diversity training at that time but I did know this was no way to create a just society or a more collaborative workplace. I vowed to stay away from what I considered coercive diversity training programs.
Since that time, I have had several interactions, including a very pleasant lunch, with Howard Ross and consider him a decent human being. I have no doubt he believes that his work advances equality. He cheers for the underdog, as do I. Ross now acknowledges that the old style of diversity training was alienating and that more updated forms, focusing on implicit bias, accord greater respect to people’s varied life stories. But I see nothing in today’s training, based on the new canon such as White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist, which bears this out. Moreover, extensive research shows that these newer forms are no more effective and every bit as alienating as the earlier versions.
Regrettably, I could not keep my commitment to never again participate in this type of diversity training. I found myself in other such settings on multiple occasions, as work demanded, though chastened and more reticent than before. On one occasion the diversity trainer sent us into small group discussions after a typically dogmatic presentation telling us exactly how racism shows up in our workplaces.
When our breakout group sat down together, one man, my senior, stated: “That was unbearable, and that’s not how I fight racism!” “Me neither,” I exclaimed, feeling validated. The others in the group nodded. Finally, I wasn’t alone.
If you are uncomfortable with CRT based diversity training, you are not alone. Join us at Counterweight as we explore alternative ways to enable diversity, including viewpoint diversity, in the workplace.
To find out more about Viewpoint diversity consultancy services please email David Bernstein at DavidLBernstein66@gmail.com.
David Bernstein is an Affiliate at Counterweight and Principal of Viewpoint consulting. Follow him on Twitter @Blogunwoke.