New Internationalist

Sansitivity Trainers And The Real Thing

Issue 260

new internationalist
issue 260 - October 1994


Sensitivity trainers
and the real thing
Multicultural Toronto is abuzz with professionals willing to zip into workplaces and zap them with
anti-racism workshops. But how many are committed to real change? Erica Simmons investigates.

There’s big money in anti-racism education in Toronto these days and a new breed of educators is emerging for whom it’s less a radical commitment than a lucrative career path. Long-term anti-racism educators are disturbed by this development and wonder what will become of their movement now that the provincial Government includes an ‘Anti-Racism Secretariat’ and big business is hosting ‘diversity management’ training workshops.

Even the names of the workshops are changing. They now go by names such as ‘sensitivity training’, ‘cross-cultural communications’, ‘race relations’ or ‘human rights management’, and favour broadening white people’s cultural horizons over criticizing the status quo.

The new demand for workplace workshops means that many business management consultants have become instantly conversant with the relevant terminology and added anti-racism training to their portfolios. Even young university graduates with degrees in sociology or anthropology are looking for a piece of the action.

Equality educator Charles Novogrodsky calls these careerists ‘anti-racism technicians’ and says they are mainly interested in ‘getting people to enjoy the benefits of a woman wearing a sari in the workplace’. While the focus on encouraging tolerant attitudes is a sound starting place for any workshop, the more political educators are concerned with structural change. ‘For us,’ says Venier Wong, ‘it’s about power – about who gets to make the decisions and who doesn’t.’

Activists like Wong believe workshops must address systemic racism – the ways that racist thought becomes so embedded in institutional structure and practice that it is often hard to identify. People in an all-white workplace, for example, often assume that no people of colour have applied for a job. In a workshop, Wong will discuss how hiring procedures may be discriminatory. If employees of colour are clustered at the bottom of the office hierarchy, Wong will argue that racism is in evidence.

Feel-good factors
This is a far cry from the new mainstream workshops where, as veteran activist-educator Enid Lee points out, ‘they might not even mention the word “racism” in case it might upset somebody’. If the ‘technicians’ do use some of the same language as the radicals they are still likely to avoid discussing systemic racism. They shy away from explaining to white participants that however non-racist their personal views, they derive certain benefits from being white in a racially discriminatory society. ‘These workshops focus on prejudice,’ explains Tina Lopes, ‘and have everyone feeling good about feeling bad about doing nothing.’ The real need – to get beyond guilt and paralysis and actually work to change things – remains unaddressed.

The radicals, on the other hand, do tackle the possibility of large-scale organizational change. Aware that companies may use workshops just to improve their public image, many radical activists will refuse to facilitate a workshop unless the organization hiring them agrees to follow up with action. ‘A lot of it is public relations,’ says Lee. ‘There’ll be a workshop in lieu of action.’

Sometimes the people who hire an anti-racism educator don’t realize what’s on the agenda. Chrys Louis had to end a workshop in mid-session after the executive director, hearing his employees grapple with the idea of structural change, said: ‘It won’t happen here. We have policies and if something happens we know how to deal with it.’

Predictably the more radical activists don’t often get called by businesses and so do most of their work in community organizations and for the Government. But even within public-sector work, there is some debate about how much educational workshops can accomplish. It’s difficult to evaluate the impact of a workshop. Lee, who works primarily with schools, says that teachers in workshops ‘say all the right things’ and their schools may develop good policies, but she spends a lot of time in classrooms to assess whether the experience of students actually improves as a result. Most activist educators stress the need to maintain contact with an organization long after a workshop ends and, in particular, to keep offering advice and support to those who are trying to fight for change.

White bias
The ground a workshop covers depends partly on the needs and situation of the participants and partly on the concerns of the facilitator. Chrys Louis believes that ‘most anti-racism training is designed for white people who have had very little experience of or exposure to people of different cultures’. Venier Wong, however, says that when she does a workshop, she is particularly concerned with offering support to people of colour who have experienced racism in their workplace. ‘A large part of it is just validating that this bloody thing is happening and that they’re not going crazy.’

The race and ethnicity of the facilitator is also important. Chrys Louis says that as a black man with dreadlocks he faces ‘instant suspicion’ when he is introduced as the consultant who will run the session. Lopes, who co-facilitated a workshop with Louis, says: ‘You could see the fear rise in the room when he walked in. One woman started to choke on her coffee.’

Black anti-racism educators must first fight for professional credibility in the face of hostility from some white participants. ‘Who do you think you are, calling yourself a consultant?’, one paricipant asked Lee.

Racism is also felt in who gets hired to do the training sessions. ‘People who are white are generally preferred as anti-racism trainers,’ says Enid Lee. ‘And they are generally better paid than people of colour.’ Lee adds that this is one reason why many people of colour have found it necessary to attach themselves to white associates.

Organizations often assume that they will be biased and will inflict personal grievances on participants. Aside from the racism inherent in this assumption, activists are infuriated by the implication that they should be neutral in order to be credible. ‘There are sides that are moral, and sides that are immoral,’ says Lee. ‘I think you have to take sides.’

This need to take sides is perhaps the biggest difference between the activists and the slick professionals – the ‘technicians’. While the technicians may be sincere proponents of greater fairness and mutual tolerance, they are unlikely to forgo a lucrative contract because those doing the hiring do not seem committed to substantive change. But for activist educators workshops are only one part of a multifaceted struggle which includes street protest and grassroots community organization.

‘You cannot do this work without being an activist,’ Enid Lee says. ‘When I think about the horrendous things that have gone on in this city between the black community and the police, I ask myself where the hell are the people who do anti-racism work and make hundreds of thousands of dollars? Where are they?’

Lee does this work out of personal and social committment. But Chrys Louis worries that very few of the people now dominating the field have such conviction. ‘With them there will be no movement,’ he says. ‘That group is taking control, and taking the profit, and anti-racism is turning into an industry.’

Erica Simmons is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

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