The national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon is requiring all of its members to undergo diversity training in response to a recent controversy in which the fraternity’s Oklahoma University chapter was filmed reciting a racist chant on a bus to a social function. This reaction is all-too-typical in higher education. Jamal Watson notes in Diverse Issues in Higher Education that such programs are “often implemented in response to a polarizing incident on campus, like the discovery of a noose, a swastika or anti-gay epithets scribbled across a bathroom stall.”
But, is diversity training remotely effective in combating racism? Or is it merely a band-aid attempting to heal a much deeper wound of socioeconomic disparity?
Evidence from the workplace suggests the latter. A 2007 Harvard University studyreviewing 829 companies’ diversity training over 31 years found the programs had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” In fact, the study even found negative effects on management diversity in firms “where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits.”
How could training aimed at combating racism do the exact opposite of its intended aim? Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman strategy, provides an answer in the Harvard Business Review. Recalling an investigation he conducted for a major media company about their workplace diversity, he explains how the firm’s sensitivity training went awry:
The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn’t possibly cover every single situation.
The second training — the one that categorized people — was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them.
“Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice,” Bregman is left to conclude. “It promotes it.”