How White People Handle Diversity Training in the Workplace
Confronted with their own shortcomings, white employees often shut down the dialogue—or frame themselves as victims
As a former professor and current facilitator and consultant, I am in a position to give white people feedback on how their unintentional racism is manifesting itself. In this position, I have observed countless enactments of white fragility. One of the most common is outrage: “How dare you suggest that I could have said or done something racist!” Although these are unpleasant moments for me, they are also rather amusing. The reason I’m there in the first place is because I have been hired specifically to do just that; I have been asked to help the members of the organization understand why their workplace continues to remain white, why they are having so much trouble recruiting people of color, and/or why the people of color they hire don’t stay. They want to know what they are doing that is unsupportive to people of color.
At this point in my career, I rarely encounter the kind of open hostility that I was met with in my early days as a facilitator. I attribute this change to the years of experience behind my pedagogy. Of course, I am also white, which makes other white people much more receptive to the message. I am often amazed at what I can say to groups of primarily white people. I can describe our culture as white supremacist and say things like, “All white people are invested in and collude with the system of racism,” without my fellow white people running from the room or reeling from trauma. Naturally, I don’t walk in and lead with those statements; I strategically guide people to a shared understanding of what I mean by those claims. Still, white people tend to be more receptive to my presentation as long as it remains abstract. The moment I name some racially problematic dynamic or action happening in the room in the moment — for example, “Sharon, may I give you some feedback? While I understand it wasn’t intentional, your response to Jason’s story invalidates his experience as a black man” — white fragility erupts. Sharon defensively explains that she was misunderstood and then angrily withdraws, while others run in to defend her by reexplaining “what she really meant.” The point of the feedback…