[OPINION] Racial sensitivity training is not un-American propaganda. It builds community.

Being a black person in this world doesn’t kill you, but being a black person in America clearly can.” — Mustapha Okango, Nairobi-based anthropologist

In September, President Trump through Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Russell Vought issued a ban on federal funding for “spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege.’”

The memo urges agencies “to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these un-American propaganda training sessions.” This ban was extended by Trump himself to federal contractors, i.e., private companies who do business with the federal government.

It is somewhat disingenuous to label as propaganda what we have known for years as “diversity or racial sensitivity training.”

In light of the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a warrior in the fight against discrimination, this ban against the expenditure of federal funds for diversity training is alarming. It undermines efforts to help Americans see each other as human beings, and more importantly, to be aware of those structural and cultural practices that privilege Caucasians over other ethnic communities.

The challenge that we face in confronting the legacy of slavery, and getting beyond the culture of white privilege cannot be achieved by denying that white privilege and systemic racism persists in American society.

I am reminded of a different time, and of a different president, 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson, confronted with the challenge of moving America forward in light of protests and unrest, declared a policy of affirmative action with these words:

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair…We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”

We have made progress since LBJ enunciated these goals but as the recent incidences of police violence against blacks demonstrate, we have quite a ways to go. For many Americans, especially women, people of color, and minorities, these high minded goals, despite progress, are far from being realized.

Not to belabor the point, a recent article on Adidas the sportswear company (NYT August 2020) reported on corporate efforts to increase diversity, but notes, “for some black employees, missing from all of the pronouncements…was what they had been pushing for internally: an acknowledgment by company executives that Adidas had a problem with racism and discrimination, and an explicit apology for that treatment.”

Racial insensitivities still abound in the workplace despite the best of intentions, as illustrated by Adidas. Fortunately, Adidas has become more responsive, posting a statement on Instagram vindicating the criticism.

The consequences of racial insensitivities are not trivial, as illustrated by another story where a judge overturns a murder conviction of a young Asian woman citing “racial animus” by prosecutors who, “exchanged numerous images of Asian people, some accompanied by pejorative comments, and some unexplained,” the Judge wrote. “They exchanged ‘jokes’ about Asian stereotypes, and mocking caricatures of Asians using imperfect English.” (NYT, Oct. 1, 2020)

In denying the use of federal funds for diversity training, the federal government is denying Americans a cost-effective means of educating each other about the diversity of American society, and the existing inequalities and attitudes that stem from white privilege. This feels like a pushback that smacks of white supremacy; it is white supremacists who believe that there is nothing wrong with America, and that diversity training is “un-American propaganda.” Well, who are Americans today, anyway?

One way to answer this is to look at the demographics of voting rolls—those who are registered to vote—for who can be more American than citizens, native-born or naturalized. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) section 203, mandates that election materials be provided in the language of Language Minority Citizens if the number of such citizens is 5% or more in any voting jurisdiction.

In California, at the state level, the voter information guide is provided in at least nine languages other than English: Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Tagalog, Korean, Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese. Other jurisdictions are mandated to provide voter information in more languages if the 5% threshold is met. e.g., in L.A. County, the following languages in addition to English, are mandated by the VRA (L.A. County Registrars website): Armenian, Chinese, Cambodian/Khmer, Farsi, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog/Filipino, Vietnamese, Hindi, Japanese, Thai, Russian, Bengali, Burmese, Gujarati, Indonesian, Mongolian, and Telugu.

The diversity in L.A. County’s and California’s citizen rolls is awesome.

Ethnically, California, over the last two decades has also tipped over from being a white majority state, into a minority-majority state, where no one group constitutes the majority. By implication, the workplace, too, is becoming more diverse, making diversity training in the workplace all the more critical. There is value in knowing about your co-workers, their communities, values, and culture.

Caucasians or whites are not the only citizens of America. It behooves the federal government to take the lead in educating Americans about their fellow citizens who constitute what the VRA calls, “Language Minority Citizens.”

In my classes on Critical Thinking and Race, one of the fun and revealing exercises on race is to have the class divide themselves into groups and then to list on the board the stereotypes they know about. After they are done making this list, I then ask them to make another list of stereotypes they have of other ethnic groups. It is quite revealing to conclude this exercise by asking how many use these stereotypes to calibrate their behavior towards a person when all they know about him/her is their ethnicity. Just about everyone admits to using stereotypes (including this writer) to calibrate their behavior if they know nothing else about a person but their ethnicity.

Try to imagine this. A Caucasian from a predominantly white state, meets you, a Filipino, for the first time. Not having met Filipinos before, but guessing correctly that you are Filipino, he calibrates his behavior via the few things he has heard, such as “dog eaters!” This is a rather derogatory and racist stereotype given America’s fetish for pets: “this guy eats pets; how awful; gross.” So off the bat, you are already viewed with disdain and contempt. (In a separate piece I will explore how Filipinos became “dogeaters”—apologies to Jessica Hagedorn.)

Diversity training is valuable, because it helps break down stereotyping and helps us to get to know folks from different ethnic groups as individuals and human beings, not as stereotypes.

California is among the most demographically diverse states. Yet, our natural tendency is to cluster into ethnic bubbles or what anthropologists call “ethno-burbs,” suburban enclaves where one ethnic group dominates and where one can literally live out one’s life within the enclave. This leads to a form of insularity where one’s sense of community is defined by the enclave. There is danger in this. It undermines the larger sense of community that we need to build so that we can come together for the larger good in matters of health and public policy.

Without this larger sense of community, our city and the county risks becoming just a discordant collection of “not in my backyard” clusters. Diversity training is an essential tool for building a larger sense of community beyond the enclave.

At a time when our survival through this pandemic requires that we act together as a community, pronouncements that promote divisiveness rather than community are dangerous. They are un-American.

This exploration into the topic of who we are as Americans has opened a window into our linguistic diversity as Californians. The view from this window reminds us of our civic responsibilities, in an election year. As the largest Asian minority group in the State, the VRA requires the Secretary of State to provide voter information material in Pilipino/Tagalog. This is an affirmation of our presence and value as citizens. Let’s not forget that people before us struggled to get VRA into law. Let’s exercise the privilege that this affirmation gives us. Request voting materials in your language of preference. Vote!

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Enrique de la Cruz is Professor Emeritus of Asian American Studies, CSU, Northridge. He may be contacted via email at [email protected].

Enrique de la Cruz

*** Enrique B. dela Cruz, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the California State University-Northridge. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic) from UCLA and has written on Asian Americans, Filipino-Americans and Philippine-U.S. relations.  You can e-mail him at [email protected]

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