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
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. 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.
"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".
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. 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
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.
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.
'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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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,
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.