In September of 2020, sensitivity training came to the forefront of discussion when the former President of the U.S., Donald J. Trump, moved to end racial sensitivity training that addresses white privilege and racial biases at the first presidential debate of the 2020 elections. The Trump administration had halted sensitivity training in government facilities, citing that racial sensitivity training taught people to “hate our country,” according to USA Today.
What is sensitivity training?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, sensitivity training is a “psychological technique in which intensive group discussion and interaction are used to increase individual awareness of self and others.” The goal of corporate sensitivity training is to increase individuals’ empathy and awareness, and to create a more inclusive and harmonious work environment.
The history behind sensitivity training
Sensitivity training did not begin in the era of Black Lives Matter and the Trump administration.
According to the New Yorker, corporate sensitivity training began in Vienna during the 1920’s as a form of theater, and “resembled a radical therapeutic theatre that courted conflict and urged participants to voice their raw fears, biases, and emotions.”
This form of sensitivity soon transformed into a mitigation effort in the mid-20th century, and corporate group therapy was normalized. This continued until the early 1960’s, when more focus was put on diversity, inclusion, and racism.
“Diversity Pioneers,” such as Elsie Cross, Judith Katz, Ann Rowe, and Roosevelt Thomas, were professionals and activists dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and equality. These individuals paved the way for leaders and programs that exist prominently today. Through their work in developing specialized training focused on racism, biases, sexism, and other forms of prejudice, today’s modern style of sensitivity training was born.
Modern sensitivity training
Today, many sensitivity training courses are completed online using programs from organizations such as Grovo, Udemy, Coursera, edX, and more. Companies can purchase access to full sensitivity course programs for their employees, and even mandate the completion of these programs upon hiring.
There are mixed opinions on the effectiveness of sensitivity training or, more specifically, unconscious bias training. Unconscious biases, also known as implicit biases, are subconscious ideas affecting some of your day-to-day life. Implicit/Unconscious bias is a term used to describe how racial stereotypes and assumptions infiltrate our subconscious. People can think or act out in racist and prejudiced ways without knowing that there is anything affecting their decision-making. Implicit/Unconscious bias can develop from the neighborhood that you grew up in, the political beliefs of your parents, where you went to school, even your exposure to peers all the way back in preschool; It doesn’t have to be from direct exposure to specific beliefs. You can learn more about implicit bias and unconscious prejudice here.
Unconscious bias training targets these implicit beliefs and teaches trainees how to identify and counter those biases that someone may not be aware of.
Although sensitivity training can offer great knowledge and insight to racism, biases, sexism, and other forms of prejudice, there are many criticisms to these programs. These criticisms include how the courses don’t result in long-term change in behavior, the changes aren’t automatic, training can cause backlash in certain organizations, and creating awareness of unconscious biases can have the adverse effect of reinforcing stereotypes.
While there are criticisms for the current forms of sensitivity training, it is an ever-changing and improving idea and it will continue to evolve with the workplace. Have you ever taken a sensitivity course or implicit bias training?