There's a Better Way to Improve Race Relations in America | Opinion

The headmaster of Dalton, arguably the most prominent of New York City's elite private schools, resigned last week amid scandals related to the school's new anti-racism agenda. Over at Brearley School, another Manhattan private school that costs $54,000 a year, an angry parent wrote a scathing letter to fellow parents about his intentions to withdraw his daughter from the school due to, among other things, its "obsession with race." At the Harvard Westlake School in Hollywood, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion curriculum led one mother, a successful entertainment executive, to complain to reporters that her son came home from school and said he was "bad" because "he is white and that makes him a racist and an oppressor."

As a recent article on the "antiracism tug-of-war" at elite private schools put it, "following a contentious summer of COVID and Black Lives Matter protests, a power struggle has emerged between those pushing for change and those clinging to the status quo."

But this summary is not quite accurate. As experts in the area of inclusive leadership, the struggle we see unfolding at so many of our schools, businesses and other institutions isn't between those who want change and those who don't, but rather, between two competing approaches for how to achieve change.

Of course, there may be some among us who have had their heads in the sand for the past year, indeed for the past many decades, and who believe that no change at all is necessary, but our research shows that those people represent a small minority. The challenge now is uniting those two groups who want change but disagree about how to achieve it, behind a change that actually works.

This impasse that we find ourselves in has been caused in large measure by trying to fix a problem with the same approach that caused the problem in the first place. Racism cannot be solved with divisive tactics that put all members of a particular identity or racial group in one basket. Efforts to squelch disagreement at institutions of higher learning will only further polarize us. And diversity training that stresses our differences can actually stoke "the very divisions they are supposed to heal."

One of us (Charles) has worked in South Africa since the apartheid era through the early days of truth and reconciliation. What worked there can work here—an unearthing of both past and present pain that neither places blame on today's middle-schoolers nor sweeps real suffering and discrimination under the rug.

white privilege
A woman holds a placard reading "White privilege" during a demonstration on June 14, 2020. Josep LAGO / AFP

Elite private schools in New York and Los Angeles, and educational institutions at all levels, from kindergartens to universities, would benefit from an understanding of the distinction between awareness- and narrative-based training in the area of diversity and inclusion. Awareness-based trainings and policies, like the ones employed by the schools mentioned earlier, stress our differences and our "separateness" through lectures on implicit bias, critical race theory, and white privilege. Narrative-based training stresses our shared humanity and the complex layers of diversity from socio-economic to racial to experiential. When you walk in and tell any group that they are the problem, they are all alike and they need to change, you have lost them from the get-go, however right your arguments and however good your intentions. A storytelling approach, however, engages students, colleagues, and peers in collective understanding and growth.

We cannot abandon efforts to hold diversity trainings and similar endeavors altogether. If we ignore all the events of the past year and all the pain and exhaustion experienced by Black Americans, and if we deny the existence of systemic racism, we are simply denying reality and risk a destructive escalation of an already tense situation in this country. A narrative-based training approach helps us get out of the cycle of mistrust and chip away at centuries of racism in this country.

A recent study by political science scholars David Broockman and Joshua Kalla shows that the only thing that works to reduce exclusionary attitudes is a narrative-based approach where we seek out examples of our shared humanity while acknowledging our individual struggles. Charles's work in South Africa has shown that it is through the unique stories of our individual lives that we come closer together and learn to work toward common goals. We will never solve the problems of racism, inequality and discrimination with the same misguided impulses that got us here in the first place.

Dr. Susan S. Harmeling is an expert in business ethics, an associate professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group, a new venture whose mission is to foster equity of opportunity and ethical decision-making in organizations.

Charles M. Henderson is a Global Diversity and Leadership consultant in Johannesburg, South Africa and Co-Founder of Equitas Advisory Group. He is also hard at work on his memoir, Heroin to Harvard to Happiness.

The views in this article are the writers' own.