2020 turned into a momentous year for diversity training. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many diversity trainers, myself included, to re-invent themselves by adapting their workshops into an online format. The Memorial Day killing of George Floyd thrust anti-racism into the center of diversity training, challenging those presenters who had generally soft-pedaled the issue. President Donald Trump’s September 22 executive order, “Race and Sex Stereotyping,” caused government agencies and contractors, including some higher education institutions, to suspend or mute their diversity training.
For me, 2020 events created a special challenge, heightening issues that I am addressing in my book-in-progress, “Diversity vs. Speech.” That book examines the half-century historical interaction, often clash, between diversity advocates and free speech defenders. This includes the role of speech in diversity training.
For diversity advocates, speech is not neutral. It influences interpersonal and intergroup relations. It sometimes confounds the pursuit of equity, inclusivity, and social justice. Accordingly, much of diversity training addresses the issue of speech. This includes both restraining and promoting different types of speech. Which raises the question: how self-critical are diversity trainers about the ways they deal with speech in their workshops?
Take one example, microaggressions, a topic I address in many of my workshops, including my trainer-of-trainer courses. Microaggressions have become an important diversity concept. Unfortunately, however, they sometimes turn into a fetish. Consider Derald Wing Sue’s well-known list of microaggressions. When used with nuance and a sensitivity to context, Sue’s list can be extremely useful. However, when the list is employed rigidly to impose lock-step self-censorship, its misuse can poison interpersonal relations and undermine constructive conversations.
One of the expressions in Sue’s list is “Where are you from?” This is a question that I ask regularly, particularly when I have just met a person. So why is it on Sue’s microaggression list? Because some people in some situations do not accept the response and insist “But where are you really from?” This suggests that the respondent is hiding her true identity. An example often given is Asian Americans. When they answer with their city or state, they are sometimes pressed about their real origins, insinuating that they are inherently foreign.
So what’s the solution? Simple. Accept the answer, whether it’s Beijing or Boston, Tucson or Tokyo. Whatever your initial impulse, self-edit yourself. Do not proceed with the inane follow-up question, “Where are you really from?” implying that respondents are hiding their true origins. (With my Spanish surname, Mexican ancestry, and light skin, I wish I had $100 for every time I’ve heard the comparably microaggressive “But you don’t look Mexican.”)
Asking people where they are from is a perfectly useful question, certainly a decent conversation opener, which can sometimes be used to establish a rapid connection to a stranger. Unfortunately, partly a result of heavy-handed diversity training, some organizations now caution employees not to ask people where they are from, thereby short-circuiting such connections. Welcome to microaggression mania.
Another statement on Sue’s no-no list is “You speak English very well.” Of course there are situations when you don’t want say that. For example, when conversing with another American, such as one with a different skin color. In such circumstances, that statement implies surprise that this person speaks good English despite the color of her skin.
Yet there are times when “You speak English very well” is quite appropriate. For example, you may be complimenting someone from another country where English is not the native language. In this case you are bestowing an honor: congratulations on learning my difficult language.
When I lived in Brazil, I was absolutely delighted when someone complimented me on my Portuguese, which I didn’t begin learning until my mid-20’s. And I’m duly impressed when an outsider becomes highly proficient in English, a language with 18,000 rules of grammar and bafflingly non-phonetic spelling. That is why English is one of the few languages in which they hold spelling bees. So I sometimes honor such achievers by complimenting their English. Yet I also recognize that this compliment should not be used in certain other contexts.
Unfortunately, I have seen some diversity trainers advise participants that they should avoid using any expression on Sue’s list. In other words, we should stifle our ability to converse and connect by eliminating perfectly good, basic, useful statements and questions. This is how the laudable principle of avoiding offense can morph into a dysfunctional and counter-productive anti-speech obsession. Maybe worse, it can also encourage workshop participants to wallow in self-inflicted victimization and trauma. Instead we should be strengthening personal resilience and fostering sensible sensitivity to others.
Diversity trainers should promote honest, constructive, fearless conversations about challenging topics. Encouraging people to slavishly follow Sue’s list or any other compendium of diversity no-no’s does quite the opposite. It impedes healthy, honest relationships by frightening people into avoiding important topics because of a fear of saying the “wrong” thing.
Self-editing is good. However, imprisoning yourself in a world of conversational do’s and don’ts undermines the idea of courageous engagement across difference. And encouraging people to become hypersensitive about being the target of microaggressions contributes to personal fragility.