Defensive About Diversity Trainings

How do you respond to co-workers who do not recognize their own privileges? An after-school program staff member shares her experience.

My workplace is conducting internal diversity training facilitated by my supervisor, and to a lesser degree, me. The objective is to help staff members better understand our privileges and view the world with a more critical eye. To give you a sense of the importance of this training, here are a few statistics: Our staff is roughly 50 percent white and everyone has or is working on a college degree. The population of youth we work with is approximately 90 percent children of color and many are likely to be the first in their families to attend college. The neighborhood we work in is gentrifying, but most of the youth we serve live in poverty, with more than a third experiencing homelessness.

As part of our training, we take quizzes that highlight inequalities and we discuss our answers and reactions to them. My supervisor and I have used some of Teaching Tolerance’s professional development tools, including Test Yourself for Hidden Bias and the Anti-bias Framework, to facilitate discussions.

As a staff, we also participated in an activity—one that you may be familiar with—where each of us named some of our privileges. To my surprise, many of my co-workers struggled to identify their privileges despite holding or working on degrees in human services or social work.

“I don’t really know that I have any privileges,” said one co-worker—a white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied appearing, employed, college-educated, never-incarcerated young man. “I feel like I’ve had to really struggle for everything I have.”

I had to stop myself from groaning. Instead, I stepped back and reminded myself that learning about privilege—and to identify the privileges conferred to us—is a process. It’s a process that can include denial, especially if a person feels that they were marginalized due to economic hardship (as this young man had), grew up in an abusive family (again, as this young man had), or experienced myriad other circumstances in which they struggled in ways they didn’t see people around them struggling.

My supervisor did a much better job of listening to our co-worker. “I hear you,” she said. “You feel like you had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get where you are today.” She paused and waited for him to nod, an indication that he felt heard. “But I think there’s a difference between individual struggle, which sucks, and systemic inequalities based on things like skin color or gender or felony-status. We’re doing this to help ourselves become more aware.”

Our co-worker then started talking about pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, the progress made by the civil rights movement and feminist movements, and how we deny this progress by focusing on inequalities that still exist.

“It’s not that we’re denying progress,” I said. “It’s that we can’t stop trying to break down systems that keep only a certain type of person in power while we give ourselves accolades about how much worse things could be.”

“I’m not racist,” he replied.

I’m still learning how to combat the phrase “I’m not racist” without shutting the conversation down entirely. Often I’m not very successful because the person or people who use this phrase are already on the defensive. But I pointed out to my co-worker that while we might not act in overtly racist ways, we can still uphold racist (or other –ist) systems of oppression.

I then tried to shift the focus away from this co-worker by broadening the scope of our conversation. I mentioned that no one on our staff has talked about any of the recent killings of young men of color by cops, or for that matter, the protests in Ferguson and St. Louis. Why? Another co-worker brought up cop-watching* and how relevant it is in the community in which we work. It’s something that we aren’t formally trained in although several of us have already participated in cop-watches. Again, the question is: Why?   

This is where the conversation ended—divides among my co-workers on questions of privilege and inequities were not bridged. What this tells me is this: It remains important to regularly—and deliberately—have these types of conversations with the objective of building a stronger and more responsive practice. Not doing so exposes our students to the bias that can accompany unexamined privilege.

What phrases or approaches do you use to engage co-workers who feel defensive about privilege?

*Cop-watching is the practice of monitoring police activity with the objective of combating police misconduct and brutality. 

Clift works in an after-school program for youth and as the communications intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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