Anti-racism training: how do we ensure a meaningful and long-term impact?

Anti-racism training, or racial sensitivity training, aims to tackle and prevent instances of racism and prejudice in institutions ranging from workplaces and businesses to places of education. In September, Alexandra Wilson, a black barrister practising in London, stated on Twitter that she had been mistaken for a defendant three times in one day at the Magistrates Court and was treated rudely and dismissively. She called for compulsory anti-racism training at every level of the UK legal system, claiming that such instances are all too common for black people and other ethnic minorities in the country.

Her story garnered massive support on social media, with many others coming forward with their own experiences with racism in the workplace, including two more barristers who had faced almost identical discrimination as Wilson. Black barristers make up only 1.1% of the UK’s Queen’s Counsel Barristers, and the court system is still often viewed as stereotypically white male-dominated.

HM Courts & Tribunals Service, which is responsible for court staff, took on board Wilson’s concerns and affirmed that they are committed to tackling discrimination in the justice system: “Unconscious bias training is mandatory for all court staff, all new starters undergo diversity and inclusion training, and we are constantly looking at how we can further ensure all users are treated equally and fairly.”

This training must involve critical thinking. It needs to engage employees with thoughts and situations

– Macias PR

Racism and discrimination in workplaces are not new, and neither is anti-racism training. In 2018, American coffee giant Starbucks closed 8000 of its US stores for a day to train its staff on racial sensitivity after two black men were arrested while waiting to meet a friend outside a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The four-hour training was intended to address implicit bias, promote inclusion, and help prevent discrimination with the hopes of preventing future incidences.

The training included videos from Starbucks’ CEO and Chairman, as well as rapper Common and members from the Perception Institute who spoke on racial anxiety and how employees could better serve customers. Macias PR, a US public relations agency, said that: “Starbucks needs to make sure their company values, morals and approaches are aligned with the company… Interaction is crucial. Starbucks can’t just create training programs that tell employees what to do. This training must involve critical thinking. It needs to engage employees with thoughts and situations.”

This advice calls for a greater understanding among workers and an introduction to the way different scenarios play out and how to avoid falling into ignorance or discrimination. These statements echo those of Wilson and appear to be the model on which organisations and institutions can base their anti-racism training. Wilson said: “Rather than a question of nuances, this is about approaching the problem through the lens of ‘which steps must we take to become the truly inclusive organisation we want to be? What are the things we are going to have to do with individual perceptions and biases – and which practices are we going to have to introduce organisationally – to guarantee a wider talent pool, fairer selection and fairer promotion decisions?’ In other words, it requires a multifaceted approach.”

Wilson believes that a number of crucial and practical steps must be taken to generate a greater understanding of what fits in with the institution’s anti-racism mission, by involving individuals and their different thought-processes. Merely telling workers not to be prejudiced against someone because of the colour of their skin or the language they speak will achieve little, if anything.

In 2013 Merrill Lynch settled a race discrimination lawsuit for $160 million

Preaching to them that racism is wrong is an exercise in futility. Workers need to engage and actively take part in training that challenges preconceived stereotypes and prejudices. Anti-racism programmes should show them that not only are these ignorant and offensive, they are bad for business and reputation, are not conducive to an accepting and tolerant environment, and open up potential lawsuits. For instance, banking giants Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Merrill Lynch have paid out millions in settling discrimination lawsuits. Notably, in 2013 Merrill Lynch settled a race discrimination lawsuit for $160 million, with the bank paying out almost half a billion dollars over a 15-year period of settling discrimination cases. If not the human incentive, then the financial incentive should gear organisations and institutions towards investing and focusing on anti-racism training.

Frans Johansson, diversity expert and founder of strategy and innovation consulting firm The Medici Group, said: “You need an overarching philosophy about why diversity and inclusion matters.” Companies must establish this culture from the onset, he told CNBC. From there, they can then develop comprehensive race-based training that targets things like improving customer service and enhancing employee performance.

Ripa Rashid, co-president at the Centre for Talent and Innovation, said that sensitivity training must be part of a larger scale multi-pronged effort. According to her, there are three core ways to promote a culture of racial inclusion beyond training. Firstly, organizations must hire diverse decision-makers at the executive level. Organizations with diverse decision-makers have a “higher chance of being pre-emptive around these types of issues”. Secondly, businesses must understand how their employees and customers feel. Rashid advised that companies include questions about racial bias on employee and customer engagement surveys. Thirdly, companies must hold themselves accountable when it comes to tackling racial bias and consistently be making progress on it.

Almost all Fortune 500 companies offer diversity training to their employees. However, few of them have measured its impact. Diversity training can fail and backfire, according to the Harvard Business Review. Even when the training is beneficial, the effects may not last long after the program ends, especially when said program consists of a questionnaire where participants get points for getting the “correct” answers.

Nearly 1,000 studies have been conducted since World War II to check if people forgo their prejudices after undertaking racial-sensitivity training and actually become more racially sensitive. It was found that while it is easy to teach people about responding correctly to a questionnaire on prejudice, many participants forget the right answer in the real world. Impractical training like this does little to tackle racism.

Companies must hold themselves accountable when it comes to tackling racial bias and consistently be making progress on it

Lloyd Evans, writing for The Spectator, backs this, saying that anti-racism training had the opposite effect on him. He says the questionnaire he took awarded him top marks in an online racial sensitivity programme, but in real life made him even more confused and left him questioning the intention of the programme. Racial sensitivity training should be done in an appropriate, sensitive way, as opposed to a rigorous test that defeats the purpose.

Mentoring and contact can both lower prejudice and foster a more inclusive and accepting environment. Mentoring can allow new recruits or even experienced veterans to be provided with the right opportunity to act against their prejudices by being in the guidance of someone who can help them tackle racial bias. Similarly, working side-by-side can break down stereotypes, and contact between different groups of people can lessen or even eliminate prejudice.

This came to light during World War II when black recruits started to join the then-segregated US army for the first time. A Harvard sociologist, Samuel Stouffer, found that white troops whose platoons had been joined by black soldiers showed dramatically lower racial animosity and a greater willingness to work alongside their black compatriots than those whose platoons remained segregated. Stouffer found that different races and groups of people working together towards a common goal as equals weakened racism and prejudice. Modern-day business practices that generate this kind of contact across groups yield similar results.

Proper anti-racism training can go far in preventing incidences of institutional racism like that faced by Alexandra Wilson, an all-too-familiar experience for too many people around the world. The Black Lives Matter Movement and the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US highlight the ever-increasing need for racial sensitivity and the dangers of ignorance.

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