U’s diversity workshop needs work

Not long ago, I was part of a group of mostly white students that attended a diversity workshop sponsored by the University. The format was pretty much what you would expect: dialoguing, role-playing — that sort of thing. At one point, we broke into groups of four to build towers out of marshmallows and raw spaghetti noodles. The exercise was a race to construct the tallest tower in the allotted time. The facilitator, a University employee with the word “diversity” on her business card, handed each of us a slip of paper on which was written a “cultural trait.” These represented roles we were to play during the exercise.
As it turned out, the combination of traits rendered cooperative effort within the groups impossible. In each group, one participant — instructed to be “goal-oriented” — struggled in a sort of multicultural Twilight Zone to construct a tower while the others vigorously blocked any timely progress. One insisted on lengthy discussions, requesting each participant’s opinion and a subsequent vote on every detail. Another, apparently uncomfortable working with strangers, required introductions all around. Most ineffectual of all was a character obstinately free of the constraints of linear time.
After a frustrating five minutes, the exercise ended and we gathered for punch, cookies and dialogue. How did we feel in our roles, the facilitator wanted to know; did we feel misunderstood? We talked about how annoyed we had become with one another. Our difficulties arose from a lack of cultural understanding, our facilitator said. People can’t work together if they don’t understand each other. She also talked about the importance of diversity initiatives in the work place. I disagreed that comprehension of our “cultural” differences would have made the task progress any smoother. After all, it was a timed race and one of the participants didn’t even have a concept of time. I said that if I was the boss in a company that built marshmallow and spaghetti towers as fast as possible, I would fire such a person — or not hire him in the first place. I looked around the room for any sign of agreement. Most people stared at the floor, embarrassed, as though I had farted.
It was time for a new game. The facilitator again gave us each a slip of paper. They read, “Fairness is the final result of years of effective effort combined with the experience of diversity.” We were to count the number of Fs in the statement and then gather in groups. The people who thought there were nine Fs stood together. A sizable yet smaller group thought there were eight Fs and stood next to them. Fewer still thought there were seven, and then six. Comprising the last group was a pair of hopeful looking individuals who had counted five Fs. It occurred to me we made up an almost perfect half-bell curve. I ignored a perverse impulse to blurt out, “Say! Has anyone here read ‘The Bell Curve’?” I hadn’t read it, but I imagined the mere mention of the infamous book would surely evoke the “who farted?” look again and send everyone’s gaze back to the floor.
Our facilitator sat us down for more dialogue. How did we feel? Did people in the largest group feel superior? Did those in the smaller groups feel inferior? Everyone sort of shrugged. We hadn’t been aware that we were supposed to feel anything. We managed to admit that we all felt vaguely apprehensive at the possibility that we might be wrong about the number of Fs. Those in the largest group felt a little more sure of their conviction than the others, maybe. The facilitator discouraged us from using the terms “right” and “wrong” in our discussion. “I never said there was a right or wrong answer,” she reminded us. I shifted uneasily in my chair but refrained from pointing out that the number of Fs in the statement was definite and not open for interpretation, cultural or otherwise. As it turned out, the point of the exercise was to show some of us — apparently those who could not count so well — what it felt like to be in a minority.
Finally, the facilitator discussed something she called “white privilege.” She told us that, as we all learned more about diversity issues, we would likely experience feelings of guilt as we eventually recognized the unearned privileges we enjoy for being white. She went on to explain that, though such feelings are appropriate, we should not let them prevent us from building coalitions with victim groups. This was not our first encounter with the privilege concept — our facilitator had bandied the term about throughout the workshop. The privileged class was one of many distinct groups that people our society. The facilitator said these groups included, among others, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, the Indigenous Peoples, Chicana- and Chicano-Americans and The Privileged Class. People in the Privileged Class, the facilitators said, have it made in the shade. Life is handed to them on a silver platter. They effortlessly build marshmallow and spaghetti towers and can count how many Fs lie hidden in slogans. Up until then, I had assumed the term defined people born to fabulously wealthy families. Now I knew it meant whites, rich and poor alike; whether they live in a mansion on the hill or sleep in an appliance box in the alley.
Such was my odd introduction to multiculturalism as presented by the University. To be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it. The exercises didn’t seem to illustrate what the facilitator thought they did. Or if they did, they seemed to embody all the worst instincts of what, these days, goes by the name diversity. For instance, our teams of tower builders failed because the facilitator specifically coached most of the participants to adopt “cultural traits” which made them unsuited to the task. Surely she did not mean to imply that ability is a matter of ethnicity. Similarly, failing to count the correct number of Fs put some participants in a minority; but making a mistake is hardly a suitable metaphor for race. I’m not hostile to the realization that there are differences between people. The world would be a better place if we could recognize these differences without prejudice or resentment. But the University, if we take this workshop at face value, seems intent on excusing failure and ineptness as cultural predetermination and vilifying whites as privileged. I don’t see how this could be seen as anything less than offensive to all groups.
Charles Foster’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday.