By Munira Mirza
Presenter, the Business of Race
Forty years after Britain's first race relations act, employers are starting to follow US firms by sending workers on race awareness courses. But instead of smoothing office relations, such lessons could be inflaming tensions that never used to exist.
Jane Elliott is white, short and tough. For more than 20 years, she has run her day-long workshops in racism-awareness training, US-style. Her approach is uncompromising, brusque and authoritative. She tells her captive audience, she is their "resident BITCH for the day - Being In Total Control Honey".
The programme, run and devised by Elliott herself, aims to give "nice blue-eyed white folks the opportunity to find out how it feels to be something other than white".
In it she divides participants into two groups; blue-eyed and brown-eyed. The "blues" are mocked, humiliated and abused by the "browns", urged on by Elliott. Posters are pinned up around the room saying things like "Would you want your daughter to marry a Bluey?" and "Blue eyes make good secretaries".
The blues are told this emotional distress is what black people experience throughout their lives.
Elliot's programme is just one of thousands in the US, and has just been launched in the UK.
Since the start of the 1990s there's been a huge rise in the number of consultants, courses, videos and books dedicated to diversity in the workplace in the US. This growth has largely been a defence against escalating numbers of race discrimination cases.
The "diversity business" has also taken off in the UK.
Diversity training became big in the US in the 90s
According to a recent survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, nearly 70% of organisations have diversity policies in place, in which training plays a vital part.
"You've got an enormous group of people from different ethnic backgrounds... if you can know more about them, you'll do so much better," says Alick Miskin of consultancy Grassroots.
Most diversity training has a lighter touch than Jane Elliot's course, designed to make people aware of racial differences and understand cultural or religious customs.
But many courses go further, "encouraging people to reflect on the impact of what they say," says trainer Tess Lees-Finch.
She asks participants to think about times when they themselves have felt excluded or offended, and to share these emotions with the group. The argument goes that an emotional release can waken people to the impact of their words.
She even asks participants to consider whether apparently inoffensive things like cracking "blonde jokes" ought to be tolerated.
The theory is that if people are careful about what they say, workplace relations will be more relaxed and productive.
Little known at the start of the 90s in the US, there were about 5,000 trainers by 1994
Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 puts duty on UK employers to 'promote good race relations'
100 specialist training firms listed on the Diversity Directory
But there are questions about whether such training actually delivers.
"We don't have at present very good long-term outcome measures to see what kinds of effects these training initiatives are having, if indeed any effects at all," says Louise Pendry of Exeter University
In fact, some courses could even do more harm than good.
Tracie Stewart, a professor at Georgia University who looks into the causes and effects of ethnic stereotyping, says people turn the anger on themselves because of their own prejudices.
In some courses, she says, participants' frustration about their inability to change can even lead to a "backlash" or "victim blame", where they actually begin to harbour resentment against other minority groups for the way they feel.
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a cultural historian in the US, argues awareness of racism has made people increasingly anxious about not wanting to cause offence. This, in turn, drives the need for more instruction in the correct "racial etiquette".
More harm than good
Even the mildest incidents and jokes can be deemed offensive and inflate tensions in the office. Diversity training, it's claimed, actually reinforces the sense of difference between people rather than bringing them closer.
One fear is that ethnic minorities may become over-sensitised about the problem of racism, feeling they need to be constantly on guard.
Presenter Munira Mirza investigated diversity training for the BBC
One black female participant called Natasha, was told during a workshop that when shopkeepers do not put change into her hand, this is an example of blatant racism.
She resolved to say something in future. But it's far from clear that such a minor incident is a racist act, and in fact, research suggests it happens to lots of people, black and white.
Sceptics say the message of diversity training is that racism is in the eye of the beholder. Put simply: if you think an act is racist, then it automatically is.
The result is a heightened sense of grievance, even when it is not warranted.
Worse still, commentators suggest it could mean genuine cases of racial discrimination get swamped in a mire of less credible claims.
It is hard to judge what the effect of diversity training is likely to be in the UK. We may like to think that as a nation we are better at handling racial issues than Americans.
At the very least, we should consider the American lesson, say observers. If the spiralling millions of dollars spent in court on racial discrimination cases is anything to go by, the cumulative effect of diversity training could be more tension in the workplace, not less.
The Business of Race is on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 GMT on Monday 12 December. Hear it again here on the Radio 4 website.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
'Diversity training' will lead to resentment, simply because grown men and women don't like being told how to behave. The whole business is superfluous. I suggest a straightforward mandatory clause attached to every employment contract in the country, reading 'You will treat all colleagues fairly and kindly'
I am actually quite shocked by this programme as it is in itself inherently racist as it implies that white people cannot understand prejudice. As a white person I know that racism exists in many forms. I grew up in Ireland where to be a British non-Catholic led to frequent minor abuse, occasionally physical threats. I am in a mixed-race relationship and know that some of my girlfriend's family have a much harder time with this than my family. I have travelled lots and have found myself the subject of respect, revulsion, envy and curiosity in equal measures. On a recent trip to Singapore were my girlfriend was living, racial comments were made about me as a white person. So it works all ways. It's not nice, but this is something we all need to confront, and singling out the 'blueys' will only make it worse.
Alasdair Cameron, Edinburgh/London, UK
We've just had our office party. Every year we have Christmas 'Awards' - an opportunity to have a light-hearted joke about someone locking themselves in a toilet, or turning up in blue jacket but brown trousers. This year we couldn't as our new 'Diversity requirements' meant we couldn't take a chance and 'offend' someone who could then sue us. Crazy.
Dave, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
Ms Elliot's own description of "nice blue-eyed white folks" belies the fact that this training is itself racist. This is tantamount to saying that if you're white then you are somehow a racist in embryo if not a fully fledged bigot. My non-white colleagues and I don't need lessons in how to treat each other with respect and I am sick to death of do-gooders with dubious motives trying to sanitise and censor our society. "Do as you would be done by" is the only rule you need to remember when working with anyone.
Ben, Fareham, UK
When I was at junior school, the whole year group participated in the blue-eyed/brown-eyed lesson. It was interesting and useful as a general introduction to racism/sexism.
Lucy Beaumont, Brussels, Belgium
I've often stood in a queue at the till and observed the behaviour of the cashier. White cashiers tend to put the change into the hands of white customers more often than they do into the hands of dark-skinned customers. This holds true even when you correct for factors like sex and age. To claim otherwise is to deny the existence of low-level racism in the UK.
Rohit Khanna, London
When I was about 12 we had a policeman come in to school to talk about racism. He showed us a photo of a white man in police uniform running after a black man in jeans. He asked us what we thought was going on. Everyone- including a black child that he pointedly asked -said that it was a criminal being chased by a policeman. We were then told that we had made a "racist assumption" as actually the black bloke was a plain-clothes police officer. No-one raised the point that we would have probably said the exact same thing if the plain clothes officer had been white and a load of 12 year olds were told that they were racist. How helpful was that?
".. if you think an act is racist, then it automatically is." As an Asian I find the above remark the laziest kind of thinking possible. Basically it gives carte-blanche to Asian/Black people to take offence at whatever they like without any come back. I've come across many Asians who were happy to shout 'racist' when their work was judged below par. The fact the work may well be below par never occurred to them. Having been attacked by skinheads & getting verbal abuse - believe me, it's very easy to tell when someone doesn't like you!
Asif Sardar, Stoke
You cannot over-estimate the damage to race relations that "diversity awareness" training is causing in this country. It's having the opposite effect to that intended, causing divisions, resentment, and an increase in judgements based on race, where previously such things were actually quite rare. How do I know this? I was involved in putting together a diversity "toolkit" for a government department, and saw first-hand the effect it had as it was rammed down the throats of the staff.
Michael, Brighton UK
Racism is a product of social and cultural conditioning. Rather than focus on the differences that exist we should be focussing on the similarities. We naturally respect and trust those people that we identify with. Unfortunately there will always be a significant minority that don't want to make that step. As a white middle-class professional I am considered to be in the elite group - I don't see it that way and am thankful for many friends across all backgrounds.
This woman sounds like PC gone mad. I think I'd end up walking out of one of her sessions - & I'm supposed to be an ethnic minority! What is needed is the good old-fashioned values of politeness, consideration for others, and tolerance. And that goes for all parties. not just the apparent 'white, middle-class'
Oh how I wish I was going on one these diversity courses, apart from the time off work I would love to pick holes in all of the assumptions of the trainers!
There is also another side effect with this kind of attitude I encounter regularly: People that are anxious not to be deemed racist are actually more forgiving towards (minor) transgressions of etiquette by people of colour than towards white people. This gives off wrong signals about what discrimination really is (in fact I think the people who do that are racist).
Ronald van Raaij, The Netherlands
Interesting point on the shopkeeper with change and hand contact. I lived in Manchester and experienced this on a daily basis in our local newsagent who refused to put change in my hand. He was a middle-aged Asian and I was a young white female teenager. I don't know his why but I think it may be dangerous and "blinkered" to suggest that these were racist incidents. Very interesting article though.
Tamara , UK
I agree that Diversity Training goes too far. In fact, it goes so far it can cause offence to other cultures. In the US some of my Latin American colleagues are refusing to do diversity training as part of it bans kissing on the cheek as a greeting - this is part of the Latin culture in the same way that bowing is to Japan and hand shaking is to the UK.
I've always been told that racism is wrong, and I agree. But I find myself trying to be too sensitive sometimes, too acutely aware of my whiteness and their non-whiteness, and really it just makes things a lot worst. It makes me think of people more in terms of their race, not who they are. I am not saying people should not talk about race issues or confront them; just that there is a risk of alienating/racialising people further if it's not done the right way.
This is an example of companies trying to see if two wrongs really do make a right. I don't doubt that some people are racist in the workplace, but punishing many because of the actions of a few is ludicrous.
Andy Thorley, Crewe, Cheshire
Diversity training creates problems by emphasizing differences and by making humour unacceptable. Instead of teaching people not to make 'blonde' jokes, how about teaching blondes to have a sense of humour? And for what it's worth, I am a blonde, and I grew up as part of a minority group disliked and resented by the majority.
Bella, Aston, UK
I am white. I see the need for laws and the CRE and I am not naive enough to think that everything is perfect. This looks to me a bit like a money-making scam. Some people and organisations are so politically correct today that they are as gullible as some pensioners sadly are, when faced by a thief in a peaked cap claiming he is inspecting for gas leaks and then rifling through the house and stealing money.
CRW, Fareham UK
I have been required to attend various diversity training classes in the US. Sadly, diversity has a very limited, and politically correct, meaning for the people conducting such classes. I worked for many years at a large electronics company that had employees from all over the world. We could not get the trainers to accept that not all Europeans are the same. Anyone who was not an African American was lumped into the same group, even our colleagues from India, and told we were racist by definition! Naturally, this did not go down well with the non-African American participants.
Jan M., Gilbert, AZ
I have been a victim of racist taunts most my life, but I have learnt to accept this because I am aware that people will always be ignorant, childish and self opinionated, but the worst thing is when people in the workplace who are racist who do not make racist comments, (for the obvious reasons to keep their job), but it doesn't stop them from making peoples lives more difficult. The government should therefore look at ways to solve this issue. Perhaps conduct a psychological test on employees, similarly to the CRB check, before employing such people.
R Joshi, Leicester
I once told someone to stop lecturing me on racism as I was not racist. Her reply was "That's what I am trying to get through to you, not being racist is also a form of racism" If anyone can explain that I would be grateful.
Ian Stewart, London UK
If I had to undergo that type of training, I would consider it inappropriate, and from what I've read on this site, would walk out. I can't see how this particular type of affrontive course can help. I'm totally against racism, sexism and ageism, but leave this to the Americans. Their social model works for them.
Greg Turnbull, St Albans
This kind of training will only serve to highlight the differences in race and thus increase tensions on all sides. Such training should focus on the simple fact that we are all Human Beings and as such the colour of skin, nationality or belief systems are irrelevant. We should all respect each other regardless. As an ethnic minority myself (African) I do not want non-Africans to have to think twice before they can approach me or say something to me!
Danny Thompson, Gravesend, Kent, UK
I am a 'victim' of a sexual harassment seminar and I thought when I read your headline that I would finally see my situation described. But you haven't got it quite right. What happened in our office was that everyone was required to attend the "seminar" which did not use any of the controversial tactics you mention, but was simply a straightforward, low-key presentation of what legally constitutes sexual harassment and how to avoid it. Nevertheless, the men in our office made no secret of not wanting to "have their time wasted" by having to attend such a thing, and blamed "all the women around here" for the fact that they were to be put through it. After the seminar they made a game of skating up to the legal line without ever doing anything actionable. I agree that these seminars do more harm than good, but I disagree strongly that it is because they create a problem where none exists. Rather, the problem IS there and those who have the sorts of attitudes that lead to antisocial behaviour don't like being confronted about it, and the seminars are a very clumsy and ineffective way of dealing with it.
I attended a cultural awareness course for one of my employers in 1999, but it was nothing new then and I don't think it is today. Working in an international environment, learning what customs can offend or insult business contacts from other countries is invaluable training, and I didn't feel at all that we were being taught how to handle people based on their colour, but rather on the culture of the country they were coming from.
Jennifer, Netherlands, ex-UK
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