How to prevent diversity training from becoming a support group for white people (review of White Fragility)

crying-1299426_1920I owe the facilitators an apology.

I was taking my first mandatory diversity workshop at work. I was more than 20 years into my career.

This was not my finest moment. I sat with my arms crossed, back up and mouth shut.

I was suffering from an acute case of sudden onset white fragility. I thought the facilitators were preaching to the converted. I’d never said anything racist to a co-worker. I didn’t judge people based on the colour of their skin. Of course everyone should feel safe, welcomed and respected at work. So why was I there?

Robin Diangelo’s seen and heard it all during her two decades as a racial and social justice trainer and consultant. At least I didn’t sigh, cry or storm out of the room.

white fragility“After years of working with my fellow whites, I have discovered (as, I am sure, have countless people of colour) a set of unspoken rules for how to give white people feedback on our inevitable and often unconscious racist assumptions and patterns,” says Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

“I have found that the only way to give feedback without triggering white fragility is not to give it at all.”

Should a facilitator break the cardinal rule – “do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances” – Diangelo says you must then follow 10 other tongue-in-cheek rules, including:

“There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.”

“Highlighting my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (e.g. classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia). We will then need to turn our attention to how you oppressed me.”

Diversity and inclusion workshops have the potential to turn into support groups for comforting and coddling aggrieved white people. Talking about racism for two hours in a conference room somehow becomes more traumatizing than enduring a lifetime of racism.

“White fragility functions as a form of bullying,” says Diangelo. “I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me – no matter how diplomatically you try to do so – that you will simply back off, give up and never raise the issue again.”

So what’s the solution? Start with how we define racism to help diffuse tension in the room. “It is not limited to a single act or person. Racism is deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systematically enforce discriminatory behaviors with far-reaching efforts.”

We may not be Tiki torch-waving racists but many of us have benefited from systemic racism and its unlimited lifetime supply of white privilege. Reflecting on that advantage is an overdue conversation well worth having.

We also need to rethink feedback. Take it as a gift rather than an accusation. “Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned in terms of interrupting my own white fragility is that this feedback is a positive sign in a relationship,” says Diangelo. “Of course, the feedback seldom feels good – I occasionally feel embarrassed or defensive. But I also understand that there is no way for me to avoid enacting problematic patterns, so if a person of colour trusts me enough to take the risk and tell me, then I am doing well.”

Before offering diversity and inclusion training this fall, have everyone read White Fragility as their pre-workshop homework. And then, as a group, have the courage to call out colleagues who’d rather be comforted than have uncomfortable conversations about systemic racism and how to dismantle it at work.

This review first ran in the August 6 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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