Defend Truth


Does ‘anti-racist’ training work?


Nicoli Nattrass is Professor of Economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and co-director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa. She is the former director of the Aids and Society Research Unit at UCT. Jeremy Seekings is Professor of Political Studies and Sociology at UCT. Nattrass and Seekings are the joint authors of Poverty, Politics and Policy in South Africa (Jacana).

Institutions and corporations in America and elsewhere are falling over themselves to contract consultants hooked into the Robin DiAngelo ‘anti-racist’ franchise, despite the considerable cost involved. But it has been widely argued that anti-racist approaches in the US end up supporting corporate interests, leaving neoliberal policies and dynamics intact.

Does American “anti-racist” ideology offer South Africans a way to combat the enduring injustices in our society?

There should be no doubt that deep-rooted racism as well as other biases and prejudices help to sustain injustice. Talking constructively about race as one of many potential sources of privilege and disadvantage can benefit individuals and society as a whole. But is the imported “anti-racist training” peddled by followers of American writer Robin DiAngelo the way to achieve this? 

We agree with Amanda Gouws that DiAngelo’s crude approach doesn’t recognise the complexities of “race trouble” in South Africa – and we have further concerns.

Advocates of DiAngelo-style training hold that the path to social justice lies through retraining “white” people so that they confess and atone for their sins. This is supposed to empower “black” people who are typecast as silenced and oppressed by an overarching system of “white supremacy”. Anti-racism promises to end racialised patterns of inequality and injustice – one converted “white” mind at a time.

Here in South Africa, anti-racist training is defended and promoted by consultants like Edwin Cleophas. Cleophas, who presents his company as holding the local franchise for the ideas spun by DiAngelo, has a degree in theology. He describes DiAngelo as his mentor and her writings as “the truth”.

Does it work?

There is a well-studied history of training in diversity or cultural sensitivity in the US which has been assessed repeatedly and the assessments subjected to systematic reviews. These reviews show there is little evidence from the US that this training reduces racial resentment or contributed to “transformed” workplaces through improved employment or managerial outcomes (see, for example, studies by Forscher et al and Paluck et al).  

Some scholars suggest that this is because the training was insufficient, ie that the interventions were too short in duration or insufficiently immersive to overcome prejudices built up over a lifetime.

Others worry that anti-bias training can easily backfire because it legitimates stereotyping (making stereotypes more cognitively accessible) and risks fuelling racialised resentment among those feeling misunderstood (see, for example, studies by Anand and WinterPlaut et alEgan and Bendick and Dobbin and Kalev). People are more complex than the stereotypes presented in the training. Most of us react negatively to efforts designed to control us – which is why mandatory training has the worst outcomes.  

The recentness of DiAngelo’s stardom means that there has been little research on her particular style of anti-bias training. Recent research from the US among “white” liberals suggests, however, that this training can reduce empathy for most poor people because the training leads to the perception that poor “white” people have somehow failed to take advantage of their racial privilege. In the US, where most poor people are “white”, an emphasis on racial stereotypes serves to undermine a more progressive understanding of poverty in terms of the class structure of opportunities and socioeconomic forces.

Watching “white” colleagues squirm under DiAngelo-style interrogation of their privilege and implicit biases no doubt plays well for some people in what can be a dog-eat-dog world of institutional politics. But what of the longer-term impact of DiAngelo’s approach that, as McWhorter points out, subjects “black” people to an “elaborate and pitilessly dehumanising condescension”?

Bergner recently reported that at least some DiAngelo-style anti-racist training in the US teaches that a “work ethic”, “individualism”, “worship of data”, “rationalism” and “perfectionism” are all “white” characteristics. 

If society is systematically rigged, then the skills and values that enable some people to compete more successfully must themselves be inherently “white”. Bergner worries that this approach discourages teachers from expecting these “traditional skills” from their “black” students and “unwittingly teach[es] white people that black people require allowances, warrant extraordinary empathy and can’t really shape their own destinies”. 

Ferguson, who directs Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, argues that the message that “the game must be rigged” leads to undervaluing “excellence and performance and the need to develop competitive prowess”. Ferguson himself argues instead for a multifaceted “socio-ecological” approach to reduce racial disparities in educational outcomes, starting with early childhood development, community programmes and educational interventions.

The alternatives: Building solidarity

Trade unions and social movements (and the occasional political party) have long held up a very different approach to the scourge of racism, rooted in practical, cross-racial solidarity rather than divisive forced re-education. 

Their approach is rooted in an analysis – or ideology – that acknowledges racism but does not reduce injustice to racism, instead taking seriously the broader structural forces that perpetuate poverty and inequality. This is especially appropriate in the South African context. 

Too many people in South Africa face inequitable opportunities and the hardships of poverty, not because “white” South Africans have unacknowledged biases, but because governments before and after 1994 drove the economy down a growth path that benefited “insiders” and impoverished “outsiders”. 

The solidaristic response of civil society to lockdown hunger illustrates how collective action can break down barriers, even between people in very different economic positions.

The cult of anti-racism genuflects in the direction of “intersectionality”, notably in showing that being poor and female adds substantially to the burden of being black, but sees any suggestion that socioeconomic class might be an independent cause of inequality and injustice as a heretical distraction from their race-reductionist “truth”. 

Academics have become afraid to engage with the anti-racist catechism which explains all racialised outcomes as arising out of racism. 

When Steven Pinker tweeted a link to a New York Times article reporting research showing that, in the US, there is racial bias in harassment by police (frisking, manhandling, arrests) but not in shootings specifically, critics condemned him for dismissing and denying racism. 

Such “cancellation” prevents any serious discussion of the socioeconomic dynamics which place black people more frequently in dangerous situations with the police, and of what policies besides addressing racism in the police force are necessary to reduce police killings. It is thus inimical to addressing social inequality and injustice. This is especially relevant to South Africa.

Race-reductionism also actively undermines broad-based movements for economic justice (whether liberal or social democratic or socialist). Adolph Reed notes that American anti-racists’ denunciation of Bernie Sanders – for allegedly being “class reductionist” and “denying race” – undermined Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party presidential candidacy in 2016.

Reed argues that anti-racist approaches in the US end up supporting corporate interests, leaving neoliberal policies and dynamics intact. The role of class interests, corporate power, abuse of state power and the revolving doors between business and state are obscured by this race-reductionist approach to social justice. 

No wonder, then, that institutions are falling over themselves to contract consultants hooked into the DiAngelo franchise, despite the considerable cost that is often involved.

As Sunkara writes, it is “not a coincidence that corporate human resources departments love to contract diversity consultants like DiAngelo to do anti-bias trainings” as they can be portrayed as demonstrating “a commitment to an inclusive workplace” and are a “lot cheaper than paying workers better and addressing structural inequalities”. 

In the US there are now growing concerns that the discourses and practices of DiAngelo-style anti-racism are making it easier to fire workers and trade union organisers, including black workers and organisers.

In stark contrast with the lack of evidence in support of anti-racist training, there is evidence to support the solidaristic path forward. Working together for a common goal through collective organisation (such as trade unions) not only provides an important basis for protecting the interests of workers in general, but actually reduces racial resentment among workers (as Frymer and Grumbach recently found, using cross-sectional and longitudinal survey data from the US). 

Union leaders have a clear interest in building racial solidarity and that working together for a shared goal facilitates trust and racial tolerance.

Address all of the causes of injustice

Enduring racism is a disgrace in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid continues to structure inequality in our society. But is unconscious racism today – in 2020 – the only or even primary cause of injustice? 

Unemployment, landlessness, police brutality, systemic corruption and deficient public services are not the result of unconscious racial bias. Addressing unconscious racial bias today is not going to solve these glaring injustices that characterise our society. These injustices are the consequence, for the most part, of conscious choices made by governments under and after apartheid in shaping the distributional regime of “who gets what”.

In South Africa, as in the US, many corporate and academic managers will, no doubt, be tempted to use anti-racist training as a way of deflecting attention from economic power relations, including in the workplace. 

Some trainers might well be able to foster genuinely constructive conversations about race. But the polarising and tunnel-visioned version of anti-racist training promoted by DiAngelo will make this harder. It will also undermine the principle of non-racialism embedded in South Africa’s Constitution and undermine the solidarity necessary to fight all forms of systemic injustice. DM


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  • What an interesting and informative piece; one of several by either, singly, or both, together, of these eminent academics.

    What what of “victimhood”, which appears to be particularly entrenched at their university? Is “victimhood” a state of mind or feeling that is simply the flip side of the same coin as racism/homophobia/and many other biases or prejudices? And just as corrosive, ultimately, in that it diminishes agency, and goes a ways in entrenching passivity.

    Which is why, maybe, those who have suffered from, say, breast cancer, don’t refer to themselves as “victims” of breast cancer, but, rather, “survivors”. Could not this simple, but powerful, single-word change empower those affected by racism (or, whatever -ism it is) rather than condemn them to eternal victimhood, with its inevitable potential to lay blame, rather than to assert their “self-ness”, and in so doing, demonstrate their innate worth?

  • Excellent conclusion regarding unconscious racism being not the only or most significant cause of racism in SA. Highlighting structural racial discrimination as a result of government policies is a brilliant and often overlooked highly significant factor in perpetuating racial injustice in our society.

  • There can be little doubt that most (although not all) racially inequalities and injustices have a structural and class base. But the problem is that race matters, and these structural inequalities will be around for a long time to come. Diversity in workplaces, educational institutions, and elsewhere is important. It helps prevent, or at least moderate, in-group racism, whether conscious or unconscious. The best antidotes against racism are the kind of laws we have in South Africa, with an affirmative action approach that seeks diversity but not discrimination (maybe impossible, but something to strive for). It would also help if the media consciously refrained from magnifying the type of racial oversensitivity/hysteria (take your pick!). The crass way in which affirmative action, whether by race, gender or other criteria, has been practised in South Africa is counter-productive, in that inexperienced and/or incompetent people are promoted, reinforcing perceived stereotypes.

  • Would be interesting to invistigate how recent successful international sport teams – e.g 7s and Springboks 2019 – dealt with “race”. I suspect while “race” was not glossed over, there was a greater common goal to pursue.

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