From TLD, Whole Number 17 (July 7, 1997)
A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare
A spoonful of sugar
for the prisoners of starvation
Some days I just despair.
The company that subsidizes my TLD research trips, cheerfully unaware of the alternate personality who writes these columns, recently offered me the opportunity to participate in a pricey Diversity Training program. (I work for a small professional association.) Since diversity training is the In Thing for companies like ours, and because upper management thought it important to show our membership that we were as sensitive as everybody else, they solicited bids from several Washington-area diversity-consulting firms. (Yes, O Best Beloved. There's a booming business out there carried on by people who are paid four figures a day to prattle about multicolored jelly beans to groups of captive grownups.) And management finally found a group of experts to teach us how we could all get along together. It's probably just a coincidence that this Liebfest took place on the fifth anniversary of the most recent L.A. riots.
Our staff of about 80 includes 21 blacks (one of them a Hispanic follower of Louis Farrakhan), five other Hispanics, six gays, three Jews, one Oriental, one Filipina, and 17 Future Dead White Males; the rest of us are Living White Females. So yeah, we're diverse, and in proportions that reflect the Washington-area population at large. The problem was that we didn't exhibit any overt signs of imminent race warfare, so our senior management, having heard stories of diversity-training sessions that polarized companies to the point of threatened jihad, was hard-pressed to find trainers who would maintain the status quo in the little melting pot that we called home.
I was really looking forward to being harangued into guilt for offenses that my great-great-grandfather hadn't committed, figuring that if I couldn't milk eight hours of liberal idiocy for at least half a dozen columns I might as well throw in the towel.
The first danger signal came roughly 10 minutes into the first session, when our subset of 30 random victims of diversity (seven blacks, two Hispanics, the Filipina, two gays, a Jew, and four FDWMs, with the rest of us mostly white women older than 40) were asked to define the "norms" under which we would conduct ourselves at the workshop. Norms, for the liberalthink-disabled among you, translates into Rules of Engagement, a much too violent term to be used in this setting. The group offered such virtues as "being nice," respect, trust, confidentiality, a sense of humor, and "active listening." Dear God. I had hoped somebody would blurt out "historical accuracy" or something of the sort, but the list was so obviously dredged in pink sugar that, clearly, hope was, if not dead, terminally ill.
The trainers then went on to explain that, in addition to the norms defined by the group, a few other ground rules had to be established. Nobody was to be made to feel guilty for being a member of any group; specifically, being white and male was not a bad thing. We simply needed to become aware of other groups' equal value to society. I cringed. This was clearly shaping up to be no fun at all.
Then we were led through a couple of icebreaker activities meant to demonstrate that people we didn't ordinarily communicate with during the work day were just friends we hadn't gotten to know yet. We illustrated this earthshaking idea by sharing an interesting fact about ourselves while broken out into groups of three. Ho hum. Finding out that the Black Muslim was a closet "X-Files" fan was kind of kinky but hardly enough to inspire me to spend quality time with her. Now, if she'd turned out to have a complete set of Wagner operas on video, we'd have had real possibilities, but alas, 'twas not to be.
Another exercise involved the trainers' attaching little snippets of masking tape between everybody's shoulder blades. The tape was marked with symbols, so that four or five of us wore little green stars, four more wore little blue smiley faces, four wore black arrows, and so on. Without talking or writing notes, each of us was to figure out what was on his own back and form a group wearing kindred symbols. The catch was that five of the participants had unique symbols and therefore belonged to no group. As most of us formed into little clusters, those five wandered from group to group trying to figure out where they belonged. After a couple minutes of controlled chaos, we were asked to talk about what it felt like to be part of a group. ("Silly," hissed a friend of mine through his teeth.) Everybody cooed about feeling nice, or accepted, or comfortable. I did not volunteer that I felt appalled to discover I was working with idiots. Then the groupless were asked to explain how they felt, and they assured us that they were anxious, sad, frightened, and insecure. I prayed for fortitude to any of the several deities whose adherents were present in the room.
After lunch, things finally got promising. We were all herded out into the hallway, where we clustered into a small compliant huddle. We were invited to regard the 30 feet of open space to our left as an area of privilege and the 30 feet to our right as an area of negative privilege. The word "discrimination" was uttered by no one. As several factors beyond our control (age, gender, ethnic origin, body configuration, and so on) were named, we should take a position in the continuum that represented the amount of preference each of us felt he was accorded because of that factor.
Age was the first. Fully half the women younger than 40 moved to the farthest extreme of No Preference, while the others stood on the Great Preference side. Two of the older-than-40 women moved to Great Preference, while the others trickled over to the No Preference side of the group. When asked to explain why they were standing where they were standing, the Great Preference over-40s declared that experience and cunning beat out youth and innocence every time.
We returned to the neutral central huddle and were asked to rank ourselves in privilege by gender. The same women who thought they were in the catbird seat because of their age (whatever it was) also thought that being female was an asset in today's marketplace. But the ones who classed themselves as Too Old or Too Young asserted also that it was still a man's world.
Then we did body configuration. The taller men and the women who spent their weekends doing painful things in the local gym all classed themselves as favored, while (surprise!) the women who were oppressed because they were too old and too female decided that they were also too short, or too fat, or too tall, or too something.
We did three or four other groupings, and by the time the dust settled and we returned to our seats inside the training room, I had identified three women (whom I dubbed the Furies) who were bound and determined to be disadvantaged by their race (two white and one black), their size (one tall, one short, one overweight), their age (one 45, one 35, one 26), and their language/accent (one Kentuckian, one Panamanian, one North Dakotan).
On the other hand, we had a group of five or six hardy souls who didn't seem to think that being short or chubby or 50 or female or Southern or black was much of a handicap at all. We were led through a few platitudes about class differences, and the trainers made it clear that practically everybody was a member of two or three privileged classes and two or three less-privileged classes, and (1) virtually nobody was an underdog all of the time, while (2) some people were able to parlay what might be perceived as disadvantages into assets.
Now we were winding down into the last 90 minutes of the day, when it was time to take all of our newly won awareness of ways we could be different and apply it to our working environment. Did we feel that some ethnic or racial groups were accorded more favoritism than others? Did we feel that ethnic slurs, or racial humor, or gender bias was creating a hostile workplace? Did we feel that there was an elite group that reaped all the recognition and privilege? There was a little flutter of movement from the corner of the room where the Furies had banded together. And then they let loose.
Yes, there was enormous racial polarization. Women with ability were given no opportunity to succeed. They suffered constant verbal hostilities. Their supervisors gave them too much work so that they were constantly set up to fail. Nobody ever praised them or appreciated them. And nobody ever socialized with them or asked them to go to lunch. The rest of the group sat in silence for a couple of minutes, and one of the facilitators finally asked whether anybody had anything to add.
"I do," said a woman the mother of mulatto children who hadn't opened her mouth all day. "I have the same supervisor all three of you do, and I like my job. I'm given all of the responsibility and opportunity I ask for, and when I need better equipment or more help, I explain what I need and I get it."
"Yes," we heard from the other side of the room as a short black woman stood up. "I don't socialize with lots of people at work. I have a job to do, and at night I've got my kids. But when I want to go to lunch with somebody, I pick up the phone and ask them to go to lunch. I don't just wait for somebody to come up to me. I'm responsible for my own happiness, after all."
"We're not polarized," came an indignant voice. "My whole division, black and white, is really close-knit. The only divisions we have that I can see is that upper management really treats us like galley slaves."
There was a rumbling in the distance that sounded like peasants with torches and pitchforks closing in on the manor house, and one of the facilitators suggested that perhaps, since we had to wind down in 15 minutes, we might want to move on to our wrap-up activity and continue this very fruitful and provocative discussion in a later session. Our wrap-up activity was drawing up a plan for action, and (if we wanted) we could make future discussions part of the action plan. In the meantime, we were going to draw up three lists: Things going on in our workplace that were good and should continue; things that were negative and should be corrected; and things that might be beneficial that we should start doing.
When the lists were compiled, about two-thirds of the action items read "Management should stop ..." or "Management should start ..." and hardly any of the areas of grievance were even remotely connected with race, age, sex, or religious biases. As it transpired, comparable results had been obtained from the other groups into which the staff had been divided. So much for the polarization of our diverse workforce. The jelly beans in chilling fulfillment of Marxist class analysis had banded together to overthrow the owners of the candy store. Sometimes my fellow man really astonishes the bejeezus out of me. Makes getting up in the morning worthwhile every now and then.
Management, poor clueless darlings, had apparently hoped for something sugarcoated so that they could have it both ways provide status-symbol diversity training like the big kids, but not risk stirring up any subterranean racial enmity. They would have been a lot better off if they'd found a set of trainers who would have had us at each others' throats black against white, Jew against Christian, Future Dead White Males against damn near everybody. Some companies just have more disposable income, not to mention liberal dimness, than is healthy in these parlous times.
Makes the heart glad, it does.
Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion and has the soul of a Dead White Male, which she wears in a locket.
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