05/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

We're All Biased: Reflections on Diversity Training

Drake Bennett of the Boston Globe March 7th article, "Who's Still Biased?" cites the work of psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University, Donald Green of Yale University and others that diversity training simply does not work. Both the article and the cited research are built on the premise that the goal of diversity training is to remove our deeply ingrained and often unconscious biases.

For some diversity practitioners, removing participant's bias may be the desired end result. In such cases, I would agree with the researchers that diversity training would simply not work. However, in the 20-plus years that I have conducted diversity training, eradicating bias has never been a training goal for me. Such a goal would be tantamount to boiling the ocean. As a scholar-practitioner, I am far too attached to diversity metrics based on SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timely) to attempt to remove bias from people--especially those individuals I have typically only just met and will probably be engaged with for only eight hours. I prefer to leave folks in their natural, hard-wired, tribal state where differences are feared and support them to develop skill sets to manage their biases in healthy ways that will hopefully lead to personal and professional growth. Acknowledging biases and the impact they have on our thinking and behavior, heightening awareness of oneself as a cultural being, and developing competencies to support effective interactions across differences are far more productive goals than working to eliminate bias.

I am joined by a number of diversity professionals who believe that we are all racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, ageist, etc. (the list goes on and on). We are all biased. It is just a matter of degree. My work as a diversity practitioner is to use myself as a tool for behavior change--mine and others. You can't teach what you do not know. Managing biases with intention and awareness will be something I will be working on even six months after I am in the grave. I have learned a lot about how to support people to manage their biases by working on my own biases. Effective diversity training is based on this premise.

Because we are human, we remain biased. There is no escaping a world where differences matter and biases exist. There is no escaping a world where biases have the potential lead to disruption or they can lead us to new ways of knowing and expression. Effective diversity training with competent practitioners moves us to more productive ways to manage differences. Diversity training supports civility and helps us to live more effectively in this world. As long as we are human, diversity training will be necessary.