The school that experimented with diversity training

Affinity groups and privilege walks in the Australian Primary Classroom


Last night, Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, aired episode one of The School That Tried to End Racism. This follows the format of a UK documentary of the same name that aired last year.

Both shows attempt to adapt U.S. style corporate diversity training to the classroom. As might be expected, both shows have sparked a lot of comment. The ABC has already responded to one press critic who wrote about the documentary prior to broadcast. Significantly, in this response, the ABC claim that this was an ‘evidence-based program’. It is mainly on these terms that I will comment on the first episode.

First of all, it is necessary to highlight that this experiment did not take place in a regular Australian classroom. The parents of the students, who were ten or eleven years old, opted in to the project and the sequence of activities was explained to them in advance. The students were also carefully vetted by the school. So, we have to take this into account when attempting to draw any general conclusions.

We also have to realise the potential to cause harm with an intervention of this kind. I think most people will assume that it will either have no effect or a positive effect. And yet there are well-documented cases of social interventions ‘backfiring’ and having negative consequences.

The programme starts with students sitting an assessment known as ‘The Cultural Issues Scale’ devised by Professor Fiona White, an expert from the University of Sydney who is present throughout the programme to provide commentary. This assessment apparently measures ‘blatant’ racial bias as well as ‘subtle’ racial bias. 10% of the students were found to have no bias, 58% little bias, 31% moderate bias and 0% high bias.

This is a notable departure from the UK programme which used the Harvard Implicit Association Test. Presumably, the producers where aware of the criticism of this test as invalid and unreliable and so sought a different approach. The description given of The Cultural Issues Scale in the programme struck me as strange. For instance, White described racist jokes as an example of subtle racism, whereas I would class them as blatant. When I looked for independent research on this scale, I found a paper by White. I quite like this paper because it has a constructive quasi-experimental design that tests an intervention to build understanding between students who attend a Christian school and students who attend a Muslim school. However, the reference to The Cultural Issues Scale reads: “White, F. A. (2010). The Cultural Issues Scale (CIS): a new measure of blatant and subtle outgroup prejudice. Unpublished manuscript.” This is a bit of a dead end and not exactly something that builds confidence in the measure.

From here, the students participate in a privilege walk. All students stand on the same line, some are then told to walk forwards or backwards in response to a series of questions before finally participating in a race to the finish line. The idea is that this illustrates the privileges some students possess that ensure their starting position is closer to the metaphorical finishing line, whatever that represents. One student is visibly distressed by his position near the back at the end of the race.

The questions struck me as eccentric, at best, yet they are presented to the viewer without qualification. Some viewers probably assumed they are based on research evidence, but that seems unlikely. For instance, one question asks students to take three steps forward if they have blue or green eyes and another asks them to take a single step forward if both parents’ first language is English. I find it hard to believe that having blue or green eyes affords three times the advantage to primary school students in Australia as having both parents with English as a first language. I am not entirely sure how you would research such a thing.

Notably absent in any of this discussion was a factor likely to swamp eye-colour - parental class and wealth. As ever in diversity training, class is ignored.

The privilege walk is intended to demonstrate the concept of ‘white privilege’. This is rapidly becoming uncritically accepted as an appropriate lens through which to view Australian society. Nevertheless, it is strange to insist, for example, that the ability to walk around a shop without being harrassed by the shopkeeper is a privilege rather than characterising the lack of this ability as being a form of discrimination. Should we not aspire to this being a right that applies to all and not view it as an unearned advantage?

The current conception of white privilege originates in Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 Invisible Knapsack essay and her list of supposed privileges is revealing. For instance, how many disadvantaged white Australians, reliant on social housing would accept that they have the following privilege:

“If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I want to live.”

Or, bizarrely:

“If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”

These are clearly not privileges shared by all white people and are at least as dependent on social class and level of education as they are on race.

Which leads to one plausible potential backfire effect. Imagine if the programme’s intervention were rolled-out at scale with students in disadvantaged primary schools who were not volunteers. Imagine the response of these students, and their parents, to being told they possess unearned privileges.

According to the programme makers, white privilege is not contentious, because an ABC survey shows that a majority of Australians agree that white people have unearned advantages. However, this comes from a survey conducted by the ABC and the actual figure is 56%. Even if the ABC have successfully managed to control for the fact that their viewers and listeners are likely to be a biased sample - which, despite assurances, I doubt - there are still a lot of people who are not on board.

Next, the students are split into affinity groups. Children who ‘culturally identify with a white culture’ are to leave the classroom with one of the teachers and those who identify as ‘anything else’ are to remain.

This is crass, not least in the context of somehow attempting to tackle racism. Why create a crude dichotomy between white identifying and everyone else? It seems, well, racist.

I think the producers, at some level, realise what they are doing is deeply wrong because they invest a lot of time in frontloading their excuses. Marc Fennel, the presenter, assures us that, “A key part of this experiment are racial affinity groups. They’re a social exercise designed to start the conversation about race. They’ve been running in the U.S. for over 25 years and across 20 states.” I’m not sure the example of the U.S. is particularly encouraging given how divided it is. Professor White adds further apologetics, explaining that in affinity groups, “There’s more members there that might be similar to them and that gives them a degree of confidence,” before assuring us that, “once we have established the confidence, the most important part… is to then bring them back together.”

The white affinity group is tiny, reflecting the cultural diversity of South West Sydney where the programme is set. Moreover, there is considerable confusion among some of the students as to which group they should join. One eventually leaves the already small white group. The white students squirm under questioning by their teacher about what being white means to them. All of this discomfort and confusion is commented upon by White and Fennel as ‘interesting’. Apparently, separating kids out on racial lines, somehow develops their empathy for each other. It is difficult to see how.

Oddly, the pernicious effects of dividing people up along racial lines are explored later in the programme when a mother of one of the students talks about her own experience at school. She describes multicultural days where the teachers apparently asked students to form groups based upon where they were from. As half-Croatian, half Syrian, she was left out and accepted by none of the groups, something that still visibly upsets her today. I find it strange that the producers could include this segment without it causing at least some self-reflection.

Throughout the show, we are presented with evidence from various surveys, either to show that the Australian public agrees with the producers, such as the statistic mentioned above about white advantage, or that it is worryingly racist. At one point we are told that only 34% think migrants should have government support for their culture and traditions. This comes from a Scanlon Institute survey that reports agreement with the statement that, “Ethnic minorities in Australia should be given Australian government assistance to maintain their customs and traditions.” I’m not convinced about what this demonstrates. Presumably, people can be in favour of different groups maintaining cultural traditions while also being of the opinion that the government should not pay for them. That would be a pretty conventional conservative position.

At times, the programme took on an anti-educational approach. At one point, a non-white student, who the producers have clearly selected to be a star of the show, told an anecdote about a plane that was not full and how an Asian man was dragged off it to be replaced with a white man. Another non-white student was incredulous and challenged this account, but the student who told the story insisted she had seen it on YouTube. In a normal educational setting, this would be critically interrogated, with the teacher facilitating a discussion that would include the reliability of the source. Maybe that happened, but in the version that aired, we were left with the impression that the incredulous student was simply naïve.

There were aspects to the programme I liked, such as the discussion of stereotyping, although I do not agree that white kids are never stereotyped, as the programme implies. I also thought the section near the end where Uncle Michael and Uncle Richard discussed their experiences as part of the stolen generation were deeply moving. Regardless of any effects, there is an educational case for students hearing the truth and the stolen generation is a significant part of Australia’s history.

So, is the intervention in the programme evidence-based? I don’t think so. The kinds of diversity training it is based upon do not have a track record of effectiveness. It is unlikely to reduce bias in the long-term. Nevertheless, the potential harm to the participants in this experiment is small. The parents we met throughout the programme were articulate and presumably able to place some context around their children’s experiences.

The danger arises if regular schools and teachers think this is an evidence-based intervention and attempt to deploy it in their communities without the consent and safeguards the ABC were able to obtain.