Footsteps pounded the sidewalk behind us. We turned as a young man careened around the corner and headed down the narrow Boston side street toward us. My wife and I stepped out of the way. At 25 feet, I noticed he was clutching a woman’s purse to his chest. His quick glances over his shoulder made it obvious that he was being pursued. At 20 feet, I realized that everything I was seeing was telling me he had stolen the purse and someone was coming running after him. At 15 feet, I sized him up to determine if I could stop him. He didn’t have a weapon, wasn’t any bigger than me, and his haste would make him easy to delay. At 10 feet, I decided I could easily stop him by tripping him to let who ever was chasing him catch up. At 5 feet, I realized he was black.
In a fraction of a second, my mind raced back over the past three years. I had moved from a rural Fort Scott, Kansas to Grand Rapids, Michigan to head up the IT department for a large non-profit. The non-profit was trying very hard to get more “diversity.” They were bringing in diversity speakers to do training sessions. They were careful to have various cultures represented at all their events. Any printed materials showing people had to show minorities in a much higher percentage than were native in that part of the country.
As the runner closed the distance, my mind went back to what one of the speakers had said. He explained how, even though you don’t realize it, most people are racist against black people and told everyone to count how many black friends they had. I couldn’t think of a single one. While I didn’t think I was racist, the fact that I didn’t have any black friends hit home.
As the runner approached, I decided that, based on everything I had learned over the past three years, there was a high chance that my judgment was being influenced by the fact that this person looked like a thief because I was unconsciously prejudiced against his skin color. Maybe the purse contained vital medicine for someone at home and he was looking back to see if the person with the syringe was keeping up. Maybe he was part of some sort of delivery service that would bring someone their purse when they forgot it. As the distance closed, I stepped to the side and let him pass. Two seconds later, a policeman tore past us in hot pursuit of the purse snatcher.
Had it not been for the diversity training, he wouldn’t have gotten away. In those few split seconds, I was practicing racial discrimination–the fact that he was black made me treat him differently than someone else. Had it not been for the diversity training, I wouldn’t have noticed the color of his skin. How do I know? When the speaker asked everyone how many black friends they had, I couldn’t think of one, but it wasn’t because I didn’t have any. I just didn’t define my friends in terms of their skin color. It turned out that, of my close circle of friends, 20% were black. It just took me a very long time to realize it. After deep soul searching prompted by being told that I was a racist for not having any black friends, I finally started noticing the color of people’s skin.
Isn’t this the opposite of what we really want?
Before “diversity training” I saw people in terms of who they were and how they acted–not the color of their skin. If you treat people differently because of the color of their skin, you are practicing racial discrimination. Training that tries to emphasize, “See that person over there? He/She looks different than you. How do you feel about that?” teaches you to treat people differently based on the way they look.
I am certain that there are still some serious racial issues with certain people and in particular parts of the country, but many of the current approaches do more harm than good. If someone is really racist, then it is very unlikely that “diversity training” is going to change anything, and if someone isn’t racist, much of the current training methodology is going to create problems that don’t already exist.