This was supposed to be a news story about diversity training at an Oklahoma college. But it turned into a column about the challenges of reporting on diversity training at an Oklahoma college.
In mid-August, the University of Oklahoma posted an announcement for “the Fall 2019 schedule of Diversity Ally workshops for OU faculty and staff.” The workshops, described as the “Unlearning” series, were touted as a way “to help our campus community have safe and meaningful conversations about differences, to increase awareness of personal and community bias, and to promote inclusion at work and in the classroom.” The series included “Unlearning Sexism,” “Unlearning Racism,” “Unlearning Classism,” and “Unlearning Ableism.”
The announcement said the workshops would “assist in demonstrating how common practices and behaviors can systematically harm and marginalize others.”
Another page on the OU website that touted the diversity training series also revealed that on-demand training would be available to discuss “Unconscious Bias,” “Microaggressions,” “Stereotype Threats,” and “Inclusive pedagogies.”
Such training programs are controversial in both the private sector and in academia. Defenders say the programs help people better relate to individuals from different backgrounds, while critics decry them as time-wasters at best and brainwashing systems at worst.
At the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, we decided it was worth attending one of the workshops and reporting on it so Oklahomans can judge whether such trainings represent good use of state-owned facilities and the time of taxpayer-subsidized college students and faculty.
On Aug. 21, I emailed an OU communications official who referred me to Dr. Teara Lander in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. When I emailed Lander, I was then referred to the college’s office of marketing and communications at [email protected]
On Thursday, Aug. 22 at 8:22 a.m., I emailed the public-affairs office and informed them I hoped to sit in on the Aug. 28 “Diversity Ally Workshop” on racism and asked, “Are there any procedures required for media to attend?”
Friday morning arrived and I had heard nothing back, so I called the OU public-affairs office. The official I spoke with asked me to send an email. I said I had, but had not gotten a response. I was then told the public-affairs office “was working on finding” an answer to my question and would “email you back as soon as they know.”
Several hours passed and still no response, so I called the public-affairs office again. This time I was told “if they haven’t responded yet there’s probably nothing you have to do. But I’m sure they will respond eventually.”
Fair enough. I wrapped up my work and left for the day. The following Monday, I drove to the OU campus and made my way to the training session, making sure to introduce myself to the instructor, George Lee, telling him who I was and why I was there. Lee appeared unperturbed.
When Lee began the workshop, he warned that “tempers may rise, sometimes.”
“I promise if you haven’t thought critically about race, race formations, white supremacy, white fragility, anti-blackness, you’re going to think about these things,” Lee said.
He continued his preamble: “I’m usually asked a question: ‘George, why are you always talking about race? George, is everything about race?’” He paused, then answered: “Yes.”
As a debater who traveled the country for five years, Lee said he “was able to master how to tie” racism to almost any topic.
“I’m able to find the internal link to racism in anything, whether we’re talking about language, dress, knowledge, history, make-ups of rooms, microaggressions, implicit bias, anything you can think of,” Lee said.
He conceded that one challenge of diversity training programs is the “absence of any real standardization and agreement within the intellectual communication” regarding the definition of racism.
He also warned that “the status quo of having this dialogue is usually structured around: How do we make white people feel the most comfortable?” and trying to not make whites “feel like y’all are the bad guys when it comes to race.”
Lee indicated that was not his focus.
“I’m not going to be trying to, basically, go soft,” Lee said.
I never had the chance to see if Lee’s pitch was as good as his wind-up. About 15 minutes into the meeting, I felt a tap on my shoulder and was asked if I could call an OU public affairs official. I stepped out and did so, and was informed the meeting would not be open to the press because, among other things, it was a faculty training that had full enrollment and my presence would displace someone else. (When the program started, seats remained available in the room.) The university spokesperson said an e-mail had been sent to me late Friday.
I said that was no problem and asked about future opportunities. I was told a future session might be opened to press.
When I arrived back at my office, sure enough, there was an email from OU in my inbox. That reply was sent at 3:36 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23. My initial request had been sent Thursday, Aug. 22 at 8:22 a.m.
I emailed back to ask when I could attend a session. The university responded: “Since this is a new type of training, it is still only open to OU employees. Once they have something that is open to the public, they will have an announcement to send out. “
The University of Oklahoma is funded with a mix of taxpayer dollars and student tuition and fees. The school has also been the source of some racial controversies in recent years. Despite those facts, it appears the millions of Oklahomans who directly fund the university won’t be allowed a close-up look at how the college is dealing with racial issues—at least not anytime soon.