Thursday, February 28, 2008

"diversity training"- what's the point?

so part of my job involves training educators in the use of the curricula created by my org. i travel all over the five boroughs, visiting different afterschool programs that use our stuff. the trainings usually involve some combination of icebreakers, "identity" activities, a pedagogical mini-lesson, and an overview of the structure of the actual curriculum. we call our work "diversity" education, and because we deal with issues of identity, participants generally react to our work as "diversity training."

most of the time, these trainings are not hard. the icebreaker does in fact break the ice; participants have "moments of understanding" around the identity activities, thinking about ways in which they are privileged or not; everyone gets the pedagogy and the structure of the curriculum.

and then there are the other times, when things don't go so well.

how do i judge whether something is a success? to be honest? i only think a training is a success if i have what i feel is evidence of the participants having confronted their privilege.

"okay, so what?" you say. you're shrugging your shoulders right now, i know.

but the "so what" is that i think there's something to be unpacked there. like, why is it that i think forcing people to confront privilege is so necessary in the role that i play? and is that my job? is that my place, to go around asking people to recognize the privilege in their race or class or gender expression? is my need for the validation of their exploration about me or them?

i'm working on a lesson on race for a project right now, and it got me thinking. when we talk about identity, and try to shed a light on the structural nature of social identity, what is our goal? i know that consciousness is the first step towards acting for social change, but somehow i don't think that my job, as described by my boss, is to bring about social change in the lives of afterschool educators. i don't know that the two hours i spend with said educators is really even a viable place or time to undertake such a task. i don't know if i'm even really sufficiently trained to do that.

a few days ago i trained in brooklyn. the student population of the afterschool program is predominantly asian and eastern european. i, the black woman with a big afro, stood in front of a room of 6 white people (one a fairly recent immigrant from italy), and listened while they danced around the identity activity i placed in front of them. when i asked for reactions to the exercise, three of the six people stated that they were annoyed by the exercise, because "none of these things {race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ability, first language, biological sex, the list goes on...} really matter. i'm just a person. if anything, i see myself as american."

two of the other people stated that it was interesting, because the only thing on there that they ever thought about was age. one, the italian immigrant, said first language was important to her, because she only recently became comfortable with english and is "really glad it is now her first language." this came after a few of her peers spoke about the fact that they never think about first language, because english is so easy! it just rolls off the tongue!

so i tried to unpack, to push. i really did. but no one wanted to go anywhere. anytime i started to talk about privilege, eyes started to wander and doodling commenced. it was really frustrating.

and that, i guess, is why i wonder if it's my place to struggle against all of this at all. if i want to keep my job, at least. because at the end of the day, if the evaluations aren't great, i hear about it. if people feel bullied, or bad about themselves, at the end of the time they spend with me, i haven't "done my job."

it makes me wonder about the role of diversity training, and the end goal. sometimes it seems that making people feel better about themselves while giving them a chance to feel better about the "strange" people around them, is the only real goal.

argh. this is so not my thing.

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