Equalities Training Feedback
by Paul Hazelden


In March 2006, I did some more equalities training. Because it was the pilot run of a new course, we were asked to give fuller feedback than would normally be expected.

Here is some of the feedback I gave from the usual form, along with some further thoughts on this and similar courses I have attended. [And some explanations for people who are not familiar with equalities training courses, or with what was said on this one.]

Feedback Form

What had you hoped to get from the training?
I had hoped it would be a refresher, a reminder of the basic issues we face in tackling equalities issues, and (with any luck) some new insights. It's the sort of thing that is useful to repeat every few years: partly to hear about new developments in law and policies, and partly to encounter new people talking about some important and sometimes tricky issues.
Did the training meet those expectations?
On the whole, yes.
What did you find most useful on the day?
The legal overview. And, in a perverse way, the Brown Eye, Blue Eye video.
[The 'Blue Eye, Brown Eye' video was the part I was most looking forward to. It provokes some strong reactions, and now I can understand why. As I said on the day: while I applaud the obvious good intentions of the programme, I find the way people were intimidated and abused completely unacceptable. I do not believe it is a good teaching technique, and as a society we have prevented schools from using it for many years. I see no reason to believe that mistreating adults 'for a good cause' is justified. The Nazis and communists used to use such tactics but that does not mean we should also use them. I believe they have no place anywhere that calls itself civilised.]
What did you find least useful?
The 'race' game. [We were given a scenario and some stereotypical characters, and were asked if they could engage in each stage of the process. As the characters were only identified to us through the stereotypes (e.g., a 'single mother') we had no way to participate in the exercise while challenging the stereotypes.]
Surely the point of doing such an exercise is to get people to think about and challenge their preconceptions, not to encourage people to reinforce them in order to demonstrate how unfair society is?

Some Other Thoughts

[This next part was prompted by a discussion in which I said that the law could not prevent people from being racist, but it could prevent them from acting in a racist way in certain contexts, and maybe this would lead to people thinking about the issues, and lead to them becoming less racist over time. I didn't think legislation could solve the problem, but it could move society in the right direction. This seemed (and still seems) to me to be a reasonable position, but I was strongly attacked for it, and told that all racism was completely unacceptable: hidden racism is just as bad as explicit racism. I agreed that it was all bad, but suggested we need to prioritise our efforts and tackle the worst problems first. This, one of the course leaders told me, is completely wrong: we have to aim to completely do away with all discrimination, however serious or however mild.]

I really do have a serious problem with the whole "this problem is as bad as that problem" mentality, and the associated claim that everything is as important as everything else.

It seems to me that if you try to apply this thinking in real life, everything becomes unimportant, as you cannot live as if everything is important. In real life, you have to make choices; you have to prioritise.

If everything is as bad as everything else, I might as well give up, as I will never be perfect. [And, presumably, society will never be perfect, either!] I don't think this is a good message to give in a training course.

Surely the main point of equalities training comes from the fact that we have to make choices, so how do we make good ones? I need to be careful to be non-discriminatory in my recruitment procedure precisely because I can't employ everyone who applies. I have to make choices, so how can I be confident of making choices using the right criteria?

The day did not help me in the areas where I struggle, but I didn't expect it to. For example, I know more or less how to recruit people in a non-discriminatory way. But as well as not discriminating in any given recruitment decision, and advertising in a variety of places so minority groups will know they are invited to apply, I must also aim to have a diverse workforce. But how do I balance the need for hardworking, competent and qualified employees against the need to be diverse? If two applicants are equally good, I can choose the one from the under-represented minority group. But no two applicants are ever completely equal. So it comes down to balancing competing principles, and there is no guidance from anyone on how to do this.

[It has been suggested that the previous paragraph assumes that people from minority groups cannot be hardworking, competent and qualified. Not so. It simply recognises that, in any given set of candidates for a job, the most hardworking, competent and qualified candidate will not necessarily be from an under-represented group. If this are, that is wonderful. If not, then I have two competing principles I am seeking to satisfy.]

Finally, I want to say loudly and clearly that discrimination is a good thing! The ability to make judgements, and to make them well and efficiently, is one of the qualities we look for in new staff, and when we employ new staff we have to exercise discrimination.

In the equalities world, we are so used to using the word 'discrimination' as shorthand for 'improper discrimination' that we have started to talk as if discrimination is a bad thing. This leads on to the absurdity of 'positive discrimination'.

[Positive discrimination is the idea that treating people unfairly because of their sex or skin colour is a really bad thing, so we will do more of it. The answer to unfair discrimination is not positive discrimination, but affirmative action - putting more effort in to communicating opportunities to under-represented groups, offering additional assistance to some people to enable them to compete on as level a playing field as possible, and so on. It's not perfect, but then nothing is.]

It seems to me that the real value of equalities training is in helping people distinguish (discriminate!) between improper discrimination and proper discrimination. Is the quality being considered a valid one in the circumstances, and are we making our judgement on an objective and fair basis?

It might also be helpful within the training course to look at the difference between positive discrimination and affirmative action, and to give some good examples of the latter.

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Copyright © 2006 Paul Hazelden
http://hazelden.org.uk/gr01/art_gr026_equalities_feedback.htm was last updated 28 August 2006
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