The Antiracism Trainings
By David Reich
Reviewed by Kadzi Mutizwa
BlazeVOX [books], 2010
Paperback, 384 pp., $22.00
There are two kinds of people in this country. The ones who refer to non-whites as “minorities”; and those who studiously opt for the term “people of color.” It’s tempting to think of the more politically correct “people of color”-favoring subset as the more progressive of the two. The problem is that there’s a subset of this subset that’s way too obsessed and impressed with its nominally progressive ideals, to the point of misplacement. And those who view themselves as the chosen progressives have a way of becoming just as insufferable as the supposed yahoos they rail against.
Middle-aged Mickey Kronenberg writes for a Boston-based magazine that’s published by the Liberal Religion Center. This LRC is a subsidiary of the Yoonie Church of Universal Love and Knowledge—a “fine old New England denomination dating back to the Transcendentalists and professing humane, enlightened views on any topic you could name.” A good Yoonie will refer to Christmas as “Winter Holiday” and speak of whites as “Euro-Americans.”
Technically free from any formal commandments, standard Yoonie thought is “guided” by six “suggestions.” Per the eventually-codified Suggestion VI, “Persons of Color, Persons with Disabilities, and Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Persons have been gifted with a special Wisdom. They are here to teach the rest of us how to live.”
It gets worse.
As an official, officious fleshing out of this Sixth Suggestion’s spirit, the LRC becomes increasingly hell-bent on “promoting antiracist thought,” primarily via mandatory antiracism training sessions for all employees. Pegged as healing-minded affairs, these trainings make every single new staff orientation program or day-long work-related workshop I’ve ever sat through seem like an open-bar pool party.
At such sessions, employees sit in alphabetical order while ministry leaders preach nuggets like “we have to assume that people of color don’t have wrong perceptions” and “all whites are racists.” Whites are asked to jot down ten things they like about being white; and non-whites are asked to do the same about “being of color.”
Mickey (whose initials are “MLK”) isn’t a practicing Yoonie and neither are any of the magazine’s original staffers. In fact, they’ve proudly turned the in-house publication into a “bastion of irreligion” instead of a “glorified church bulletin”—a trend line that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the paternalists in charge.
According to the Yoonies’ Suggestion II, “No one can be certain of Ultimate Truth.” And pursuant to Suggestion IV, “Democracy is Sacred.” So you’d think that Mickey’s apostasy wouldn’t be the end of their world. Yet it totally is. Once he gets to his own requisite training session, he publicly (and self-righteously) questions the present-day incidence of employment and housing discrimination—and his drift isn’t received too well. Most non-whites (and anyone who’s well-schooled about the intractability of civil rights-breaching slights and violations) know that this nationwide scourge lingers on in a way that’s not fairly dismissible. Nonetheless, in the interest of promoting meaningful enlightenment, these kinds of glib, misconception-driven lines of inquiry need to be calmly and rationally talked out—not hostilely and emotionally talked down to.
An office, any office, is a lot like a church—conformity is next to godliness. Mickey’s new boss tells him that he would increase his chances of internal advancement if he would “[look] more like part of the team. Attend chapel more often. Go to all-staff meetings, and try to look happier when you go.” When Mickey unblinkingly refuses to give in, he learns what can become of those who choose the sin of individuality over the sacrament of team playing. Before the altar of office politics, logic is supplanted by “elevated mind games” and rhetoric trumps reason or reform.
All told, The Antiracism Trainings is an ode to the virtues of self-employment. Reich superbly lays out what it’s like to not be self-employed—what it means to have to work for and with other people and other value systems; and particularly how it feels to spend the better part of your time toiling away on behalf of a cause you really don’t believe in, “sticking it out for years out of sheer inertia.” Sucking it up from 9 to 5, just to pay the bills and retain affordable health care, is one of the more common forms of contemporary social entrapment—and one of the more miserable aspects of responsible adulthood.
Instead of these hard-to-take-seriously antiracism trainings, an authentically progressive and productive liberal institution would hold something closer to anti-dogma trainings—sessions that pay more homage to open-ended arcs of thinking and respectful articulations of dissent. The uber-devout Yoonie followers’ impression of the truth and the way is one story. But there are others. Truths/perspectives/realities are like snowflakes or fingerprints—no two are completely alike.
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Kadzi Mutizwa is a Midwesterner who currently lives and works in New York.
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