I’ve been delivering training courses on diversity issues since 2013 and nobody has yet asked me this. Although as the excellent Mairi Damer (www.wordupscot.co.uk/about/) put it:
‘you can be pretty sure they’ve thought it!’
There is a group exercise I’ve taken part in that is effective for visually displaying the different levels of advantage and disadvantage, power and vulnerability, among the participants. Delegates are asked to stand in a line, with their eyes closed, all facing towards the facilitator. They are then read a range of statements, perhaps as many as 50, each containing a description of a living circumstance that relates to privilege. For example ‘you are able to leave your home without fearing violence’ or ‘you can step on or off a bus/ train unaided’ or ‘you grew up in a house with more than 50 books’. Each participant is then asked to take a step forward if the statement is true about them, a step back if it is not true. Although they don’t see it during the exercise, always the group quickly starts to move apart, with some ending up much further forward than others. When asked to open their eyes, the participants see a visual representation of the advantages and disadvantages they experience, in comparison to the others.
Whenever I have taken part in this exercise I have ended up with my face touching the wall in front of me.
I am a white, middle-aged, heterosexual, cis-gender man, from a middle-class background, with a degree education and no disabilities. There are more elements I could add to that list, but you get the gist. So what right do I have to be speaking about diversity issues?
While I do usually share a number of anecdotes and experiences in my training courses, the main content is a set of ideas that many people find help them to understand the issues in hand. So it may be a concept like ‘institutional racism’, an approach like the ‘social model of disability’ or a psychological feature like ‘confirmation bias’. In this course for example, I share three mottos to guide our approach to equality. The stories that I use to illustrate these models often involve friends and colleagues whose identities are different from my own, particularly privileged one.
There is an obvious irony to this. Obviously it should be the case that a woman describing experiences of sexism, or an asian man describing experiences of racism, should be heard in their own right. But we all probably recognise that there are people who will doubt their testimony – perhaps perceiving the description of the experience as self-serving in some way. From someone with my identity, they do not have this excuse to dismiss what I’m describing. I am perceived as being sufficiently removed from the issue that I have neutrality. It should not be so, but it is.
In essence this is the deeper, more problematic level of the above pattern. Research by Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights showed that where there are participants with conscious prejudice towards marginalised groups, such participants are much less likely to be influenced by a trainer from that identity. In simple terms, they don’t respect people from that group enough to be persuaded by what they have to say. For such delegates, a trainer perceived to be from their own identity is more likely to have impact. In my own experience, of course I do not have direct insight into the views of all my participants, and my sense is that only a minority do hold consciously prejudice, but for those that do, my speaking to them is a way of using my privileged identity for something positive.
Most of the time, the groups that I work with behave professionally. Mostly the people I encounter speak respectfully and although they may disagree with some of what I say, they don’t insult or threaten me. Most of the time, mostly. But I have had delegates say some pretty offensive things, comments that would likely be both more offensive, and more threatening if I was a member of the group that they were insulting.
It feels immodest to say this, but I’m good at what I do. Probably the most common feedback I receive is ‘I enjoyed that much more than I thought I would!’ I suppose I could be delivering training on health and safety, or time management, but this is the topic that fires me up. I believe that I can influence the attitudes and behaviour of some of the ‘harder to reach’ delegates out there!
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