What exactly is a teachable moment in Diversity & Inclusion?

October 3, 2019Dr. Leeno Karumanchery

ped·​a·​go·​gy \ ˈpe-də-ˌgō-jē \ noun
1. the art and science of teaching

A Teachable Moment. We’ve heard this notion quite a bit over the last week or so as the drama of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Brown-Face debacle unfolded. Even as the pro vs. anti Trudeau camps crystallized, and calls for forgiveness or condemnation invariably slid into political spin, the one steady refrain that could be heard above the din was the important, and all too familiar cry that this was, once again, a “teachable moment.” I hate mixing metaphors but, too often, we just end up standing on soap boxes, preaching to the choir. I can’t say this any more emphatically: Righteous indignation can feel great, but it rarely moves the needle. Teaching is an art and there is a science to it; so HOW we teach in these moments is just as important as WHAT we teach.

So that being said, what exactly should we take to be teachable here? I’m not entirely sure what the lesson is, and who’s supposed to be learning it.

Is it that a younger Trudeau’s unknowing exercise of White Privilege was at the heart of this moment? Not according to everyone. Is it that Trudeau is a racist and a hypocrite deserving of public censure and disgust? Not according to everyone. Is it that moments such as these are inherently racist and hurt us all? Well, again, not according to everyone. So where does this discordance come from? How can we claim with such certainty that this is a teachable moment, if we aren’t even sure we have any students in the classroom?

We live in an age where everyone’s opinion, no matter how flawed or biased, is given credibility because validation is a simple mouse click away. We should remember, it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when we looked to expertise because the internet wasn’t available to confirm all our biases. We trusted the news because we felt that broadcasters and journalists were generally honest brokers of information. We relied on teachers to guide us because we understood that personal experience, truth and fact were not inherently bound together. But today, our willingness to learn hard and sometimes uncomfortable facts consistently butts up against our desire to believe what is socially, culturally or just personally expedient for us in the moment. And herein lies the problem.

As a society, very few people actually understand what racism is, nor do we all have the same notions as to whether OR how it should be addressed. Even as reputable news outlets provided stinging commentary on the racist history of Black Face and minstrel shows (see CBC: “Why wearing blackface or brownface is considered ‘reprehensible’“), and public intellectuals tried to guide discussions towards more nuanced explorations of systemic racism (see Ritika Goel’s Twitter thread on Trudeau), others were, shall we say, less earnest and more politically pointed in their analyses (see The Toronto Sun: “FUREY: The whitewashing is Trudeau’s blackface“)

So, as we seek to teach in these moments, the first key is knowing your audience.

When a hurricane is barreling towards Florida, every Floridian’s home in the projected path is at risk. They all have a common threat, and so they all have an impetus to act. The challenge with things like racism is that one person’s teachable moment, may just be seen as more politically correct nonsense to someone else. Facts are irrelevant. All that really matters is “personal truth.” If a person in a position of social power has no reason to see, recognize and acknowledge his own privilege, then why would he give any credence to someone lecturing about the historical and social nature of that “supposed” privilege. After all, the real power the underpins privilege is its invisibility.

If your intended audience is the choir, then by all means pull out the microphone, add your voice and join in for the chorus. They’re already there, they’re already with you, and you’re all singing from the same song book. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that we’re enticing anyone else to sing along.

This is the grand mistake that well-meaning organizational leaders make with Diversity Training. Too often, they bring in trainers who don’t know how to communicate this material in a way that has the uninitiated or uninterested able to engage and wanting to be part of change. This is reflected in why so many Diversity & Inclusion initiatives fail. Part of our challenge in doing good, effective, penetrating and self-sustaining D&I work has to be about messaging, and how you can drive people’s desire to want to learn, and want to engage this complex, challenging and even stressful material.

This was a teachable moment. It was an opportunity for all of us in the D&I space to really think about our approach. We cannot move this work by shaming people as we revel in our own “woke-ness.” Nor can we expect people in positions of power and privilege to miraculously just “get it” and want to join us in change. Real social change requires that we hit a tipping point where this message doesn’t just sit at the margins. It must resonate and drives from the centre as well.

That means we are at the heart of this and every teachable moment to come. We are the students, and we have to learn how to teach.

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