This article discusses six archetypes of white participation in DEI workshops. It’s the opening draft of a much more substantial argument towards differentiated DEI workshop instruction.
If you’re reading this, you’ve been to one. Call whatever you want — DEI workshops, Diversity and Inclusion training, anti-racism education, or “Anti-American propaganda,” you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the type of programming offered in most American workplaces and just about every single college or university. Sometimes it focuses on bias incidents; in other cases, the workshops and training seminars are part of long-term cultural change commitments to diversify their workforce.
They’re almost always required events. It’s one of the only meetings in your typical American workplace that everyone attends. After the training is complete, if Bob in accounting engages in impermissible behavior, it’s on him because Bob has been trained. Transparently, the event is about reducing the organization’s legal liability. You know it’s about liability because it’s also one of the only workplace circumstances that include a meticulous attendance procedure — don’t get it twisted, your employer is keeping receipts.
When I taught on a college campus, I loved DEI training day because it was the day that I always got to learn who was really who among my white compatriots. The provost’s office would always provide a suspiciously lovely spread of snacks and drinks, the first sign that our employer recognizes that no one wanted to be there.
If you know anything about teaching, you know that we don’t all learn the same way. Ironically, it’s one common lesson about diversity that almost everyone understands. If you accept this premise, you have accepted the argument at the core of differentiated instruction, which argues against the “one size fits all” approach to education. When it comes to DEI workshops, which are fundamentally educational endeavors, they’re almost always “one size fits all” solutions.
But all white people aren’t the same; they embody vast archetypes that range from totally unprepared and withdrawn to over-prepared and obnoxious. We often talk about “moving the needle” with white people. What’s the most effective way to do that? Wouldn’t we necessarily use a differentiated model of instruction?
That’s why I love DEI events. They’re an unparalleled site to study white people like you’re David fucking Attenborough. They’re like different species of forest-dwelling creatures. Some attendees are majestic lions bounding through the Sahara waiting to attack. Some move slowly and deliberately like sloths. Others capture much more of a deer-in-the-headlights vibe. BIPOC folks are intentionally outside the scope of this analysis.
The first group of white people are the management class — let’s call them Anne and Andy.
They always sit at the front of the room, nodding their head like a bobblehead doll. They were almost always responsible for selecting the trainer in the first place. It’s hard to get a read on these people because they usually say exactly the right things, but never a single syllable more than necessary. Anne and Andy have the most to lose because they’re going to be named in the lawsuit when shit goes down; nobody ever sues Bob in accounting. In theory, Anne or Andy could fit into any subsequent category, but we’ll never know because their persona is far too austere and completely contrived to get a good read.
The second group of white people is your Rebeccas and your Roberts — they think they’re the white all-star ally.
These white people think they’re woke enough that they don’t need to be on the remedial path of mandatory workplace diversity education. Their primary motivation is calling out other white people without a modicum of self-reflection. These white people generally don’t get much out of workplace “training” because they spend the whole time trying to perform how woke they are. They typically have a good grasp on the appropriate language, and there’s zero chance they let you forget it.
The third group is the middle of the road white people — we’ll call them Geoff and Georgia.
These are your C students; they’re not failing, but they’re not acing the test either. They’re excited to be along for the ride and are mostly open to learning. Still, their affective ability to learn is incapacitated by the need to make sure that everyone knows they are absolutely not a racist. Their understanding of the broader racial justice conversation isn’t completely off-base, but it’s not exactly sophisticated either. You’ll find these people painfully prefacing every sentence and always apologizing. Geoff and Georgia will join a meaningful equity agenda, but only if you don’t offend their sense of self.
The fourth group is Jerry/Garry and Jane, a subspecies of Geoff and Georgia.
A sub-species of this group are Jerry and Jane— they’re concerned with the same thing as Geoffs and Georigas, but you can predict we won’t ever see the upside. Jerrys and Janes mean well, but sometimes it’s true that you can’t teach an old dog a new tricks. No matter how much you engage them, they’re sufficiently tied to a particular pattern of behavior that’s generally harmless mostly because they don’t have much real power in the organization.
The fifth group of white people is your Kens and your Karens—these people don’t want to be there in the first place, but they usually won’t say that aloud unless you intentionally needle them to participate.
If they do choose to participate, they’re undoubtedly low-key trying to derail the training. This person will call it “racial sensitivity training” or still uses the phrase “PC.” You commonly find these people making detestable, retrograde points and procedural objections based on basic terms and concepts that their FOX News political overlords have taught them to fear. Kens and Karens destabilize the efficacy of the training space for everyone. These are the people that Trump is whistling at when he claims that he’ll ban “CRT” and “privilege” training. Just look at this Twitter thread — hundreds of Kens and Karens bemoaning training that they had to endure quietly throughout their career. If you didn’t believe in the existence of the “silent majority” that Trump said would carry him to victory in 2016, maybe you do now. These are your co-workers that don’t believe in the value of multiculturalism. The absolute best-case scenario for Ken and Karen is that your organization convinces them to keep their mouths shut and (hopefully) abide by the basic anti-discrimination legal requirements found in training.
The sixth and final group of white people are Sams—congrats on the gender fluidity of your name—the exceptionally rare breed who have studied the game long enough to place other white people into the preceding five categories.
That’s me. You didn’t think I would leave myself out, did you? I’m firmly a Sam. We’re the chameleons who blend in long enough to learn the secrets of what’s actually happening at DEI workshops. When we lose our camouflage, we stand out like a sore thumb. We don’t see these workshops as productive because we’re all-too-familiar with what’s happeningjust below the surface. But, we’re not without fault. We’re as problematic to workshop efficacy as any of the rest. Our analytical tear-down of the event virtually ensures that we won’t ever fully participate to the best of our ability because we’ll end up making some point that’s so esoteric and meta that it’s rendered meaningless by the other five types of white people. This type of white person is almost always unhappy, a perverse result of an education that removes the obliviousness of whiteness and replaces it with a sort of callousness that’s difficult to fake.
Originally published on Medium.