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Sensitivity training proves insensitive, even racist

By ROBIN BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2000


For his blue-streak rant in Sports Illustrated against gays, Latins, immigrants and women, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker bought himself a long suspension from baseball, a hefty fine and an appointment with the thought police.

Part of Rocker's punishment for saying he didn't want to ride a New York City subway train "next to some queer with AIDS" and calling a teammate of Latin origin a "fat monkey" includes mandatory sensitivity training. Whether one thinks Rocker and his trash-mouth should have been temporarily benched, bounced from baseball or just left to stew in his own bile, you should be wary of this mind-control aspect of his punishment.

Purveyors of sensitivity training or its corporate cousin, diversity training, claim these programs help people recognize and discard their ingrained prejudices. But a closer look at the world of attitude adjustment reveals a cadre of well-paid "experts" who merely exhort their audience to trade in one set of stereotypes for another.

According to Forbes, U.S. companies spend as much as $10-billion per year trying to banish prejudice and prepare management for a racial and ethnic mix of workers. One of the original kings of diversity training is industrial psychologist Edwin Nichols of the Washington D.C.-based Nichols Associates. For the princely sum of $20,000 to $35,000, Nichols will conduct a "cultural audit" of your company to analyze its discriminatory practices and attitudes. A lesser amount will buy one of Nichols' sensitivity workshops or his "Cultural Awareness" seminar.

For much of the early 1990s, Nichols seems to have been the trainer of choice for the government. His list of clients includes the employees of six cabinet departments, the FBI, NASA, the Internal Revenue Service, a number of branches of the armed services and a long list of other federal, state and local government entities.

What kind of transformative pearls of wisdom did all those tax dollars buy? A bunch of racist drivel.

Nichols spouts the view that people of different races and ethnicities are born with certain cultural values. To effectively manage a diverse workplace, Nichols believes, supervisors have to understand and accommodate these differing values. He goes so far as to suggest that performance standards such as punctuality may be racially biased.

On a handout sheet that often accompanied his seminars, Nichols explains his view of the variations across the races:

Euro-Americans are acquisitive, for them "the highest value lies in the object" or in obtaining it. This group "knows through counting and measuring." For blacks, Hispanics and Arabs, "the highest value lies in the interpersonal relationship among men." This group knows "through symbolic imagery and rhythm." Asians, on the other hand, "know through striving toward the transcendence."

After viewing a Nichols lecture, Kishore Jayabalan, an employee of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wrote of it with disgust in the Washington Post. Jayabalan recalls Nichols telling the assembled group of 300 BLS employees: "We can't ask non-whites to maintain "white' standards. If a pair of black employees arrives late for a meeting, it's not because they don't have the company's best interests in mind. They may have been chatting in the hallway, developing those personal relationships."

Like many diversity trainers out there, Nichols is promoting the idea of "valuing differences." Alan Richter, who created the "Diversity Game," an interactive game on cultural awareness, says the goal is to teach "how to manage someone across difference." The game's questions, which include race, cross-culture and gender scenarios, teach such things as: Male employees who don't make eye contact aren't in conflict. It's just the way men communicate. And men will frequently interrupt women colleagues in order to gain control of the conversation, whereas women interrupt other women to establish a rapport. You know the chorus: Men cold, women warm.

Training like this seems to me to be a sure-fire way to engender racial and gender antagonism and reinforce some of the very negative stereotypes that it was supposed to correct. It also puts managers in a quandary. Somehow they are expected to view their employees as individuals, sans skin color, gender or ethnicity and yet take into account broad generalizations about the way employees from certain groups behave.

Hellen Hemphill, a psychologist and diversity trainer who has written a book on the field's pitfalls, says while "valuing differences is a wonderful idea, in practice, . . . if (employees) have to change their belief system it won't work." She says the training may even lead to a hardening of attitudes and greater workplace strife. "You don't have the right inside a business to say how someone is to believe. . . . It may take 50 years before a fundamentalist Christian "values' a gay co-worker," says Hemphill.

As to sensitivity training for baseball's big-mouth Rocker, he's already quite good at making idiotic judgments about people based on their group affiliations. No more training is necessary.

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