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The Issues With Cultural Sensitivity Training and Why It Isn’t Sensitive to Train People to Be Culturally Sensitive

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Two men greeting each other, one bowing and one extending his hand for a handshake

Cultural sensitivity training takes the form of a workshop (or several) that sets expectations for behavior in the workplace and beyond. They’re meant to encourage behaviors that are sensitive towards differences in race, ethnicity, and religion.

These trainings are often used by corporations and similar professional environments because they would suffer great losses from discrimination incidents, benefit from learning about cultural sensitivity, and want to look progressive in their handle of cultural insensitivities in the workplace.

Whether implementing this training is an intentional effort to bring about change in the workplace or not, cultural sensitivity training isn’t necessarily the most effective tactic to reduce discrimination incidents and ignorance in professional environments. 

Disrupt the Comfort

Cultural sensitivity training takes on the ambitious goal of trying to change people’s behavior and help them make culturally sensitive decisions. In a short two to three-hour workshop, issues regarding biases and prejudice are addressed; however, this shouldn’t be the case.

A group of people holding up a globe together.

Bias and prejudice shouldn’t be addressed in a digestible way that makes those in need of this training comfortable. In fact, conversations about race, culture, and diversity should be disruptive and uncomfortable so that real learning actually takes place.

The problematic ideals underlying the cultural insensitivity and prejudice exhibited by people should be addressed with the severity that it warrants. A one-time workshop isn’t going to cut it. 

In fact, when the training involves conversations on white privilege and its role in insensitivity, there’s a backlash from those taking the workshop.

These trainings tend to worsen prejudice, as they are oftentimes required, and consequently, minorities are resented for having been the cause for the training taking place.

Ideally, this is obviously not the intent of the training, but it inevitably happens as that’s how learning is achieved; it starts with discomfort. When people are uncomfortable or feel attacked, they get defensive and aggressive.

The issue with the nature of this training is that the conversation is left at discomfort with no follow-up, inevitably exposing minorities to microaggressions and harassment at the hands of uncomfortable defensiveness.

A drawing of a man greeting a woman and them conversing with each other

Undoing Generational Curses in a Sitting 

Cultural sensitivity training is usually one day, or maybe a weeklong, retreat, which is not nearly enough time to undo centuries of prejudice and ignorance. It’s not enough time to thoroughly highlight and recognize the dangers of having certain prejudices at a corporate level.

The simple logistics of not allocating enough time for this can have severe consequences, not only for the company’s image but for the minorities employed at these institutions. 

It may go without saying that a swastika is a very offensive figure that symbolizes the hurt inflicted on an enormous group of people or that prayer rugs are sacred tools for religious rituals for many, and it’s not meant to be capitalized off of.

Recently, Shein, a fast-fashion online shop, listed both of these items in their online shop for sale. There are a lot of things wrong with fast-fashion, but there is something despicable about capitalizing off of a hate symbol and a sacred tool for rituals.

Five people traveling and representing a diverse and interconnected world

In response, Shein apologized profusely and assigned a task force to ensure all of their products are culturally sensitive and responsible.

This model of incorporating a presence in the organization to ensure and promote inclusion, diversity, and provide open dialogue on issues of race and cultural insensitivity could prove to be a better substitute for a one-time cultural sensitivity training.

Cultural Proficiency

Instead of treating cultural awareness as a minor topic of a forgotten meeting, it should influence how we communicate and connect with others.

Cultural proficiency, similar to cultural competence, is the constant acknowledgement that our differences define us, rather than ignoring or demeaning them. It is an ongoing discussion that schools and companies alike must carry on if the modern work field is to change.

Adopting more recognition of one another, as an alternative to holding hollow training sessions, moves workplaces toward an acceptance that this decade deserves. Only by relinquishing former bias and accepting the role of culture in others can we come together as an indivisible nation.

With a consistent presence in the company, the conversation doesn’t end at discomfort, but rather, continues to be a fruitful dialogue that may result in actual learning and genuine shifts in behavior and attitudes. 

You can’t erase centuries of prejudice and misguidance in one sitting, but you can definitely make strides by allocating resources and time to a task force aimed at facilitating these teachings and policing insensitive behaviors. 

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