Diversity Training and Moral Education

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the essays in this series, click here.


“Who says diversity says conflict,” writes Donald Black in Moral Time. Black is a sociologist who has spent decades studying morality, and his recent work identifies the causes of conflict in human relationships. Diversity isn’t the only cause of conflict, but diversity — whether it comes about because different cultural traditions come into contact with one another or because of cultural innovations — always produces conflict. That doesn’t mean diversity is bad. Conflict is just one result of diversity along with many other results that most of us view favorably. And, in any case, Black’s work makes it clear that it’s not possible to eliminate conflict.

What it does mean, though, is that if we want to foster diversity and reduce conflict, we’re likely to fail if we don’t recognize and address some of the challenges that arise in diverse social settings. How can diverse people — people with different ethnicities, religions, political beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds — interact with one another while getting along better, respecting one another more, and treating one another more fairly?

Once you recognize the promises and the challenges of diversity, it’s easy to sympathize with the universities and corporations that increasingly encourage or require students or employees to undergo “diversity training,” “sensitivity training,” or similar programs intended to minimize discrimination, offensive comments, and other problems likely to arise in diverse environments. It’s also easy to sympathize with a diversity trainer like Robin DiAngelo, who in her book White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, talks about the pushback she’s received as she’s led diversity trainings over many years.

It’s clear that, in DiAngelo’s mind, she’s confronting racism by drawing from a theoretical approach that’s uncontestably true and by using techniques that are uncontestably fair and effective. Those who argue with her, get angry, cry, withdraw, or in other ways fail to wholeheartedly embrace what DiAngelo is saying are therefore displaying what she calls white fragility. DiAngelo seems sincere in her frustrations, but surely many of the people who’ve argued with her over the years, and even many of those who’ve become angry or emotional, have been sincere too. And surely there’s at least a possibility that some of them were right. The problem with DiAngelo’s white fragility concept is that it seems to apply to any kind of resistance to her teaching. But should DiAngelo and other diversity trainers really be protected from disagreement and criticism?

One problem with delegitimizing criticism of diversity training is that any kind of serious moral education — regardless of whether it has to do with race and diversity — is bound to provoke disagreement in a pluralistic society. In The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age without Good or Evil, sociologist James Davison Hunter points to the difficulties of providing moral education in schools. The major challenge is that morality is particularistic. Moral cultures develop in moral communities — often religious communities. In a diverse environment where people of different moral communities interact, they have different sources of morality, they have different moral vocabularies, and they often come to very different moral conclusions. This means moral education can be noncontroversial only by being very thin. Any attempt to teach a thicker morality — and therefore a particularistic morality — would be resisted by those who aren’t part of the same moral community.

White Fragility makes it clear that DiAngelo isn’t just teaching widely accepted platitudes about race and diversity, but that she’s drawing from a well-developed but controversial set of ideas derived from critical theory — and especially the subset of critical theories called critical race theory (CRT). Critical theory adopts its general framework from Marxism but adapts Marx’s class-based analysis to include race, gender, sexuality, and other sources of “oppression” in addition to class.

From the standpoint of critical theory, racial oppression is inherent in interactions between whites and people of color. DiAngelo thus bristles when white people tell her they personally aren’t racist in the same way doctrinaire Marxists would bristle if told by capitalists that they weren’t personally exploiting the proletariat. Apparently, some of them bristle back when DiAngelo then explains that she’s using racism in a different sense, that it doesn’t just refer to individual and malicious acts, or when she says that “anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people.”

All of this is what we’d expect from any kind of diversity training or other moral education drawing from a thick, particularistic morality in a diverse setting. We’d expect people to be defensive, argumentative, or even angry when confronted with alternative worldviews and alternative moral ideas. This doesn’t make DiAngelo’s approach wrong, but it does raise the question of why one particularistic set of ideas about race and diversity — those derived from critical theory — should guide diversity training in public settings.

One possibility is that these ideas are so well supported that any objection to them displays ignorance or bad motives. Certainly, many sociologists and other social scientists use critical theory in their own work or view it favorably, but it’s not settled science — like heliocentrism or Darwinism — that’s only disputed by cranks. In fact, no sociological perspective has that kind of status. Sociology is a multiparadigmatic discipline full of arguments over basic concepts and even over whether sociology is or should be a science. Critical theorists, moreover, have tended to be outside the sociological mainstream, and many sociologists see critical theory as more of a political ideology than a sociological theory. In practice it’s often both, but DiAngelo’s thinking is especially unsociological. Her one intellectual contribution is the idea of white fragility, but her discussion of this new concept is heavy on moral condemnation and light on evidence or comparative analysis.

Early on DiAngelo says that even the title of her book “will cause resistance because I am breaking a cardinal rule of individualism — I am generalizing. I am proceeding as if I could know anything about someone just because the person is white.” A few paragraphs later she explains, “As a sociologist, I am quite comfortable generalizing; social life is patterned in measurable ways.” DiAngelo is right to see generalization as central to sociology, and any sociologist could probably give examples of individualistic thinkers resisting valid generalizations. Social life is patterned, as DiAngelo says, and therefore it’s also to some degree predictable. But our predictions of the social world are at best probabilistic, and when we generalize we need to be careful not to make claims we can’t support. DiAngelo’s claims almost never come with numbers, and they’re almost never discussed probabilistically. When she talks about what white people believe or about the things white people say in her training sessions, she doesn’t say how many white people believe it or how many white people said it, or how that compares to the number of people of color who believe or say the same things.

She also makes little or no effort to think about her subject in any broader context — to think about what kind of social phenomenon she’s observing, how it relates to other phenomena, what kind of variation it displays, or how that variation can be explained. Is white fragility defensiveness about accusations of wrongdoing, is it a kind of in-group loyalty, or is it a kind resistance to challenges to one’s worldview? If it’s one or all of these, wouldn’t it be worth exploring other instances? Ought we not analyze variation in white fragility and related phenomena? Not only does DiAngelo fail to do any of this, but she seems to reject the very idea of that kind of comparison, at one point saying “the term ‘white fragility’ is intended to describe a very specific white phenomenon.” She goes on to say that “the term is not applicable to other groups who may register complaints or otherwise be deemed difficult.” While DiAngelo says she’s comfortable generalizing, then, she resists exactly the kind of generality that might be useful in developing a sociological theory. The social world is patterned, but for DiAngelo it’s apparently not patterned in a way that anything else other than oppressive behaviors by whites could be similar or comparable in any way to white fragility.

The obvious irony is that if we’re going to consider defensiveness about one’s morality and one’s worldview a sign of fragility, we could consider DiAngelo’s accusations of white fragility a sign of her own fragility. Throughout the book she gives example after example of criticisms she says her fellow white people have made of her and her training classes, but nowhere does she indicate that any of those criticisms might be valid. Nowhere does she provide any way to distinguish legitimate criticism from white fragility. Her theory of white fragility allows her to dismiss any objection to her theory, her training methods, or her character.

DiAngelo’s book unintentionally serves as an illustration of why diversity training may be failing in its objectives. The evidence is clear that it does fail, and this probably isn’t surprising if we take Donald Black and James Davison Hunter seriously. Diversity leads to certain kinds of conflict, but the conditions that lead to that conflict make it difficult to create diversity training programs that would reduce it. Teaching people to get along in diverse environments involves moral instruction, but only the thinnest moral injunctions get widespread agreement in diverse settings. Any attempt to impose a more substantive and therefore particularistic moral culture sets one at odds with those who draw from other moral cultures, and it produces more conflict rather than less, as we see from DiAngelo’s experiences.

Does this mean diversity training is futile? Not necessarily, but it does mean that diversity training based on critical theory probably is. Diversity training has the same challenges that any other kind of moral education in a diverse setting has, and simply imposing one set of moral ideas on everyone else isn’t really an option.

Serious and effective moral education may still be possible. Hunter holds out the hope that we can find ways to allow for serious discussions of morality in which we recognize the diversity of moral communities. The idea is that we could then find areas of agreement, but that we would do this by finding “commonality through particularity” rather than trying to force commonality “at the expense of particularity.” Exactly what that would look like for moral education generally or for diversity training in particular is unclear, but if we want to better pursue social justice in a pluralistic and free society, figuring this out would be a good place to start.


Image: Clay Banks, Public Domain

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Bradley Campbell

Bradley Campbell is Professor of Sociology at California State University, Los Angeles. He is also coauthor of "The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars."

One thought on “Diversity Training and Moral Education”

  1. I’m an engineer. I recall an amusing conversation I had with another engineer years ago. (She has BS and MS degrees from UCLA)

    We were joking about which college majors attracted the dumbest students.

    I claimed it was the education majors. She refuted my argument and thought it was the sociology majors!!!!

    We agreed it was a tossup.

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