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Tuesday, March 29, 2022

A Gay, A Straight, And A Trans Walk Into A Bar–The Comic Nature Of Diversity

FutureX, a startup company in Iowa was told by its board of directors that it had to institute diversity training in order to protect itself from lawsuits.  The state had never had a problem with diversity since it had few minorities to worry about. Its black population was one of the lowest in the country and concentrated in urban areas, its gay population insignificant, and transgender almost nil; so when the Managing Director of FutureX was told that he had to initiate a series of sensitivity session to ‘raise awareness of America’s historical oppression of minorities and by so doing reduce or eliminate racial discrimination and hatred’, he was unsure what to do.  It was like proving a negative, he thought.  Raising awareness of a problem which did not exist was at best an irrelevant and unnecessary enterprise.

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“Yes”, said Kenya Johnson, Director of Sensitivity Plus, a diversity training firm in Dubuque, “but that doesn’t mean that your white folk don’t have racist feelings.  It’s an innate white thing. They do”.

Ms. Johnson went on to explain her methodology, one built on three pillars.  The first was to review white racism in America from the arrival of the first ‘enslaved people’ to the present day, to show its ubiquity, persistent virulence, and corrosive nature. “Every white man is racist”, she went on, “and the sooner they realize this, the better”.  It would be uncomfortable coming out of the racist closet, she went on, but necessary.

The second pillar was to show the racial preeminence of the black man, his heroism in fighting enslavement, his cultural legacy and historical pride, and his essential humanity which had never been eroded by the unmanning and dehumanizing nature of capitalism like the white man.  “A black man’s poverty is his faith”, she said.

The third pillar was to explain how separate but equal, the previously disparaged notion of the South, had a new interpretation and revived relevance.  “Only through association with one’s fellow oppressed Americans, can black people consolidate their pride, increase their sense of self-worth, and generate a strong, revolutionary spirt of anti-racism.  Black bleachers, black fraternities, black clubs, and black venues are the symbols of racial solidarity.”

The Managing Director of FutureX listened patiently but was perplexed.  He remembered Martin Luther King and his integrationist message, pictures of whites and blacks holding hands as they crossed the Pettis bridge. He remembered the white boys who lost their lives in Mississippi, and the inspirational sermons spoken by both white and black ministers.

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“Times have changed”, Ms. Johnson  replied and helped herself to a cruller.

The problem was that the county in which FutureX was located was solidly conservative, and while the racial politics of the cities and the coasts were distant distractions, its conservatism was fundamental.  It was an ethos and a governing philosophy.  Foundational values of enterprise, individualism, freedom, and patriotism were taken for granted not as political ideas alone but as part of God’s plan – the one enunciated by Jefferson in the Bill of Rights.  

It was not hard to see how this conservative ethos would extend to both racial and sexual matters.  Acceptance, tolerance, and respect were part of the conservative code, so Iowans would have no problem with either black people or gays; but the kind of aggressive, doctrinaire, bullying that were explicitly clear in Ms. Johnson’s precis, would be unacceptable.

A technique of sensitivity training was to divide employee groups by race and gender, but because FutureX had no minorities to speak of, Ms. Johnson had to recalibrate and rethink her approach.  Without blacks, Latinos, and gays facing off, there was no way to get the ball rolling.  So, she tried her ‘second tier’ approach – ancestry.  Every American has an immigrant history, and those ancestors from Europe certainly faced discrimination and oppression.  “The Italians, Jews, and Irish among you know what I am talking about”; but the assembly was quiet.  None of them had such roots, and most had neither known nor were that interested in their Northern European and Scandinavian forefathers.  Once they set foot on American soil, they were Americans.  One had no need to look back.

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Ms. Johnson tried to elicit some kind of meanness in this story, some glimpse of ethnic oppression; but there was none to be found.  If anything, the land was the adversary; but each of these westward pioneers had desire, energy, and optimism.  They had made their own way, staked out their land, worked it, tilled it, harvested it, and raised their families.

Of course these Iowans were aware of ‘diversity’.  Most had taken their wives to see the Steven Spielberg updated version of West Side Story, and imagined the happy life of Puerto Ricans in New York – lots of enchiladas, chili peppers, and Cuban coffee, dancing, and camaraderie. 

They also couldn’t avoid the hammering of race, gender, and ethnicity on the national media; but when they had the patience to watch, they came away not with a sense of outrage, guilt, and responsibility for racial unrest and inner city dysfunction, but with anger.  How many decades had passed with public monies invested in social change and racial equality with no result?  Ghettoes were still ghettoes, and despite the black faces everywhere on television, the streets of Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Detroit were still unruly, unruled, and dangerous.

This was just what Ms. Johnson had been waiting for, an opportunity to get at the ‘systemic racism’ of all Americans.  Even though these sod-busting hicks had no firsthand experience of racism, they were not unaware of it, so she was sure that when she showed the recent civil unrest over ‘police brutality’, it would evoke sympathy for the plight of the black man; but these Iowans, under no pressure of liberal, progressive, Eastern opprobrium – no race-gender-ethnicity juggernaut had come this far west – reacted neutrally and, at least as far as Ms. Johnson was concerned, more analytically than she thought they every could.  It was a classic deconstruction of events – antecedents, proof, comparative history, details of suspicion, arrest, and detention  - and similar questioning about the post-arrest uproar, violence and destruction.

She told the Managing Director that she had never come up against such systemic racism in any workplace and she could not make a dent.  Her only recourse was to report FutureX to the proper authorities.

Her plan for dealing with sexism was no different, built on the same three pillars – a review of persistent male chauvinism, discredited heterosexual orthodoxy; a demonstration of the essential rightness and goodness of the ‘homosexual being’; and a detailed presentation of the gender spectrum.  “Our course is not for the faint of heart”, she said.  “We will show the falsity of straightness, its antiquarian notions, its inherent prejudice, and its total irrelevance.  By contrast we will address human sexual diversity, dismiss doctrinaire notions of XX and YY imperatives, and pave the way for all Americans, young and old, to reject their limiting, artificial sexual past and get on the soul train.”

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Because her contract stipulated a session on gender equality, she, despite her misgivings because of the dismal failure of the racism part of the course, had a go; but she was unprepared for the reaction of the employees. They had a genuine respect for black people, and although they disapproved of much of their behavior, attitude, and social miscreancy, theirs was a criticism of the socio-economic group, not the racial one.  They rejected the claim of universal white racism, and were quite right to do so. 

However, when it came to Ms. Johnson’s videos of transgender fashion shows, growly male-turned female athletes, and the ins-and outs of curious spots on the gender spectrum, they lost all sense of decorum.  It was a side show, a Barnum & Bailey three ring circus, a vaudevillian act, a fantasy of comic book proportion.  They could not hold in their applause, their cheers, and standup bravos.

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Ms. Johnson was completely nonplussed; and barely contained herself.  “These animals”, she said to herself.  “These backcountry crackers, apes….”, but realized that as private as these thoughts might be, they were unfitting for a Director of Diversity at a well-known inclusivity consulting firm. 

“That’s my point”, she said when the playground antics had quieted down; but couldn’t quite articulate or express whatever it was she was thinking.  Something about their own deviance, a twisted Biblical hatred, a barroom buddy joke; but nothing coalesced, so she just smiled, thanked everyone for their participation, signed the release form with the Managing Director, and left.

The sensitivity training session was the talk of the office and of the town for days; but it too faded in memory and importance.  Whether or not Kenya Johnson became more appreciative of the complexity of the issues she was presenting; or whether she hardened in her own hostility and prejudice, no one will ever know because she left Iowa for good.

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