Inside 'diversity training' that came early in Main Line Philadelphia

If Americans were not already aware of the phenomenon of workplace "diversity training" before the Coca-Cola brouhaha, they certainly are now.

However accurate the distillation "try to be less white" is as a summary of Coke's now infamous training session, it remains the case that diversity training sessions are most definitely not a celebration of all kinds of "diversity."  For one thing, they are not a celebration of being Caucasian.

My first encounter with one of these meetings took place over twenty years ago at a private primary school on Philadelphia's Main Line.  These gatherings were intended to broaden the perspectives of those present as to the different experiences of People of Color (POC).  But not all experiences, as we soon learned, were included — just those that were unpleasant and supported the view that POC suffered specific slights that no Caucasian ever experienced or could possibly understand.

For instance, the black and Latino teachers would recount the humiliations they endured working in a predominantly white school in a very expensive white neighborhood.  They would lament the necessity of their having to prove themselves in the workplace above and beyond the norm, and bewail their loneliness as they insisted that no one who was not black or brown could possibly understand their plight, as if for the rest of us  — determining self-worth, building confidence, and competition with our fellow man — these struggles were unknown.

Further, these complaints took place at a school in which affirmative action policies were aggressively pursued.  But no matter.  To reinforce our roles as members of a group that was oblivious of the suffering of others as well as unconscious of the bubble of safety within which we resided, we were given packets of articles with titles like "Unpacking White Privilege" and so forth.

All of this was twenty years before Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility.

I have thought since that that very first meeting presenting this simplistic understanding of humanity was devoid of situational and historical consciousness.  For instance, the non-white teachers regarded the institution where we worked as a place that operated primarily to exclude people (minorities) while they either ignored or did not know that it had been created by Quaker women early last century in order to in-clude those who had been traditionally excluded from education — namely, women.

And at these meetings, while we deliberated at great length over how the few black students in the elementary school should be grouped (together all in one class, or separately) with the non-white teachers positively wringing their hands over the social damage wrought on these students by their being the only one or one of a few of their type in a class, no one had anything at all to say about the isolation experienced by the student with cerebral palsy, who, unlike the black students, could not run and play at recess, nor manage control over his own limbs.  Not only was there only one of him, but the social quarantine he endured was, among the students, non-negotiable.

I guess it would be futile to point out that alienation of one form or another is simply part of the human condition. 

Our obsession with race (and other opportunities for claiming victimhood, such as class and sex) enables the belief that life is uniquely wretched for some but not others.  This myopia is reckless, irresponsible, and inaccurate.  It completely ignores the suffering and oppression common to all human communities.  When a black teacher referred with indignation to the history of Irish antagonism to blacks in the nearby city, I could only wonder once again at the truncated timeline and the one-sided view that relegated to oblivion the demeaning situation of those Irish obliged to face "No Irish Need Apply" signs a hundred years before.

What do people gain from this continued affirmation of victimhood?  Well, certainly not a positive identity, for nourishing anger, self-pity, and hatred perpetuates a vicious cycle of negativity.  And since angry, self-pitying people insist on the narrow view and won't admit alternate perspectives on their lives, the rut deepens.

Further, the encouragement of victimhood, both in ourselves and others, flies in the face of common sense and sound psychology.  "Don't dwell on it!" we say to a child wallowing in self-pity.  "Move on!" we tell another.  We don't advise anyone mired in misfortune to nurse his grievances.  Why not?

Because developing into a mature adult requires transformation, and even better, self-transcendence.  Brooding over one's anger and indulging in self-pity inhibits both.

That rut might be comfortable, but once you're in it, you're not going anywhere.

Image: Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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