We Can’t Train Our Way to Racial Equity

Erin is gone on a “work trip” and told me it’s time to write this blog post that I promised weeks ago. In true Heidi fashion, I need to start off my post with a disclaimer. I make my living as a racial equity consultant and most of my work comes from requests for trainings. So, it might not be in the best business interest to criticize the core service of my business, but here it is. I too am learning to undo the ways I uphold systemic racism and support white supremacy. Change, reflection, and applied learning are values I strive to model in my own journey towards racial justice. This is one of my “show what you’re learning, not what you already know” moments of living the Color Brave Space norms.

Training is NOT the destination

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Heidi preparing for a training

I now realize many mainstream organizations are approaching “training” as the destination for their racial equity work. This realization and discomfort are affirmed through employee surveys, where overwhelmingly the most common response to what their organization is doing to advance racial equity is training. Believing we can train our way to racial equity is fakequity.

There are two fundamental reasons training cannot be our destination. First, paraphrasing the Racial Equity Tools definition, racial equity is when race is no longer a predictor of outcomes. Training does not guarantee disparities by race will be eliminated. In the article, The Subtle Linguistics of Polite White Supremacy, the author defines the system we are trying to dismantle as one that protects white comfort, white control, and white confidentiality. Training also does not guarantee these systems of white supremacy will be undone or even disrupted. As our friend at Nonprofit AF writes, racial equity is about money and the ability for communities of color to have power and control over how money is spent to address racial injustice. Training does not guarantee money will go to communities of color to fight racial injustice. (Sidebar, I know you will continue to conduct training so please ensure you are hiring facilitators who are people of color. Hiring white facilitators because it makes mostly white participants feel more comfortable continues to center whiteness.)

The second reason training is not the destination is most organizations have staff who are starting at such varying and disproportionately low skill levels. Having participants at such varying skill levels makes conducting an effective workshop almost impossible. I use language learning as a parallel cognitive skill. Imagine you were trying to teach a Spanish class to participants who don’t know any Spanish, who know some Spanish, and a few who are fluent in Spanish. Then imagine the expectation was that after 8 or 9 hours of training everyone will be fluent. We are setting ourselves up fail. We are creating a false sense of progress that upholds the very system we are working to dismantle.

Relying mostly on training continues to give whiteness the benefit of the doubt

A predictable pattern of systemic racism is giving white people the benefit of the doubt while requiring people of color to show proof and evidence. This double standard plays out in who organizations hire and promote based on a perceived potential. It plays out in requiring people of color to prove or show evidence of racial discrimination before we are believed.

Relying mostly on training to achieve racial equity continues to uphold this double standard. People of color are required to know how to navigate white systems before we are deemed “qualified.” Yet through training at mainstream organizations, mostly white people are disproportionately invested in and seen as having the potential to learn strategies to achieve racial equity. Going back to the language analogy, we are trying to train people to speak Spanish in a few hours, when what we need right now are fluent Spanish speakers.

Moving beyond training, addressing racialized POWER

  • Hire for Racial Equity Skills – Hire people already fluent in understanding systemic racism and strategies to achieve racial equity. This should be a required, not just a desired, qualification. At the very minimum, stop hiring people who don’t believe systemic racism exists.
  • Promote based on Racial Equity Skills – Like hiring, racial equity skills should be viewed as a required qualification. This means developing and using job performance “metrics” reflective of this requirement, and of course having evaluators/supervisors with high racial equity skills as well.
  • Design for Racial Equity – One of my favorite examples to share is the behavioral economics study that looked at different rates of organ donors in Europe. What the study found is the opt-in or opt-out form at the department of motor vehicles had the most influence over rates of donors. We currently have an opt-in approach to racial equity, when what we need to design are programs and process that default to racial equity. Erin wrote Luck Doesn’t Create Equity – Good Design Yields Better Results back in 2015, it is still one of my favorite blog posts.
  • Put your Money Towards your Racial Equity Values – We need to do a better job of tracking where our money is going. Often people get uneasy when I tell them I consciously try to spend money at businesses owned by people of color (if you haven’t seen our open source POC business map, check it out). If I asked you, do you want almost exclusively to support white businesses, the answer is usually no. But if we are not consciously thinking about it, we probably are supporting mostly white businesses. That is what the default system is designed to do. Be transparent with your money, how much is supporting white businesses, white staff, white consultants and how much is truly being directed at poc businesses, poc staff, and poc consultants?
  • Change Decision Making Tables – Decision making is connected to money and resources. Who sits at the final decision-making tables for how money is spent, invested, or how staff time is used? If these tables have been and continue to be disproportionately white this is systemic racism at work. If you continue to justify why and how these tables can’t be changed, this is paternalism upholding white supremacy.

What would you add to this list of ways we can work towards racial equity beyond training?

Making training more effective

I’m realistic, you’re still going to spend time and resources on training. I will also continue to train, as it does allow me to get my foot in the door of many organizations that would otherwise never have these conversations. Before you jump on the training bandwagon, check out this past blog posts on how to make racial equity training more effective. Here is a hint, all or mostly white groups discussing racial equity is a recipe for fakequity. We need to stop treating racial equity trainings like 8-hour degree courses, and start viewing them as continuing education opportunities. Here are my commitments. What are yours?

  • I am committed to taking on more projects that help people change organizational practices and processes to address racialized power.
  • I am committed to supporting organizations to find ways to have training be one, but not the only, strategy to work toward racial equity.
  • I am committed to facilitating racial equity workshops among people of color, as we also have work to do and often this work doesn’t or can’t happen when whiteness is overwhelmingly present.

When you see me next, feel free to ask me how I am doing on my commitments.

Posted by Heidi Schillinger

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3 thoughts on “We Can’t Train Our Way to Racial Equity

  1. A.R. Alonzo says:

    Thanks for making the point that we can’t “train” our way to racial equity. I have been grappling with this as well. And I agree. I work as reading specialist in a large urban school district and I also work as a resource and guide for Race Equity Teams in the district. I no longer do “trainings.” I have learned many painful lessons while trying to WAKE people up through trainings. ( Full disclaimer, I didnt read your entire blog.) There is one point I want to push back on and it is about hiring White facilitators. As a person of color, I believe that, even though I DO address racism, it is NOT MY JOB to address racism. I don’t need to tell the majority of people reading this blog that racism in our country was created by white people, for white people (more specifically, rich white male people). Because of real dangers to my economic stability and psycho-emotional health, I am strategic about when, where, and how I speak up. I believe facilitators need to work in TEAMS of mixed backgrounds both White and people of color. This is because, no matter how intelligent or eloquent POC are when presenting, White people are still more likely to listen to another White person. White people need to see and hear other people who look like them say, “Yeah! I had those thoughts too and you know what? It didnt kill me to let go of them. And it wont kill you either. You won’t suddenly lose all the comforts of your life when you acknowledge that, other people, through no fault of their own, do not have access to the same privileges. Your children can still have full and happy lives without the unearned advantages of Whiteness…Yeah it’s UNCOMFORTABLE to have to think about this all the time but guess what, POC dont have a choice. The least you can do is sit in DISCOMFORT. That will not kill you. Racism DOES kill POC.” Racism is a problem created by White people for the benefit of White people and White people are stepping up to address it and need to keep on stepping up because seriously, POC, especially Black people, have enough on their hands just learning how to find peace and safety in daily living to be responsible for waking White people up too.

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