Sunday, May 09, 2021

Diversity/Sensitivity Training Is A CIA Invention..., (REDUX Originally 10/20/20)

newyorker  |   The invention of the sensitivity-training group is often traced to a specific evening: Lewin was running a workshop for teachers and social workers in Connecticut, where he had been hired by the state to help address racial and religious prejudice. After the participants had left, a few stragglers returned and asked to be permitted to sit in on the debriefings, and Lewin agreed. Though it was initially awkward to have the participants present, Lewin realized that the setup led to frank and open conversations. He saw the transformative possibilities of uninhibited feedback in the real time of the group session, and established the idea of the corporate T-group—shorthand for sensitivity “training group”—at the National Training Laboratory, in Bethel, Maine. His inroads into social engineering could also be put to less conciliatory purposes; Lewin was a consultant for the Office of Strategic Services and developed programs to help recruit potential spies.

The T-group, which was sometimes called “therapy for normals”—rather insensitively by today’s standards but with the intent of destigmatizing the practice—was a therapeutic workshop for strangers which would take place in a neutral locale and promote candid emotional exchange. A typical T-group session would begin with the facilitator declining to assume any active leadership over the session, a move that would surprise and disconcert the participants, who would collectively have to work out the problem of how to deal with a lack of hierarchy or directives.

It sounds simple enough, but the experience could be deeply unsettling, even life-changing, for some. As one contemporary witness of the Bethel N.T.L. workshops remarked, “I had never observed such a buildup of emotional tension in such a short time. I feared it was more than some leaders and members could bear.” The T-group promised an antidote to the oppressions of Dale Carnegie-style insincerity that dominated the business world, and, crucially, the sessions seemed to provide a glimpse of a reality in which it was finally possible to know how one was really perceived.

the prize for the “toughest encounter seminar that had been ever convened at Esalen” went to one run collaboratively by George Leonard and Price Cobbs. Leonard was a white psychologist from the South, whose youthful encounter with the terrified eyes of a Black prisoner surrounded by a white mob instilled in him a lifelong commitment to fighting racism. He implored Cobbs, an African-American psychiatrist who was co-authoring the book “Black Rage,” to come to Esalen to collaborate. They organized a storied, twenty-four-hour-marathon racial-sensitivity workshop between Black and white participants that became rancorous: “the anger rolled on and on without end” and “interracial friendships crumbled on the spot.” Finally, Anderson relates how, as the sun was beginning to rise, an African-American woman was moved to spontaneously comfort a crying white woman, and this shifted the tenor of the entire session. Though the episode could easily be read less sunnily, as another troubling instance of the oppressor requiring comfort from the oppressed, the facilitators purportedly deemed it a success. Cobbs spoke to Leonard and declared, “George, we’ve got to take this to the world.”

Cobbs’s career encapsulates the shift of sensitivity training from its literary roots to corporate argot. He was sparked by early epiphanies about Black anger and injustice, inspired by reading Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. He admired the plot of “Invisible Man,” for instance, because “the unnamed main character’s sense of his own invisibility fans his ultimate rage into flames of self-expression. . . .” Cobbs credited Lewin’s research as a key precedent when he went on to found Pacific Management Systems, a training center for T-group leaders, and he played a role in the spinoff of diversity training from sensitivity training. His years of advising African-American businesspeople formed the basis of his guide, from 2000, “Cracking the Corporate Code: The Revealing Success Stories of 32 African-American Executives.”

In her provocative history “Race Experts,” from 2002, the scholar Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn examines Cobbs’s career as part of the larger story of how “racial etiquette” and sensitivity training “hijacked” and banalized civil-rights discourse. Quinn persuasively maintains that “sensitivity itself is an inadequate and cynical substitution for civility and democracy—both of which presuppose some form of equal treatment and universal standard of conduct,” and neither of which, of course, the U.S. has ever achieved.


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