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Diversity Training in Organizations

  In my book - Addressing Culture in Organizations, I discuss how over the last three decades organizational psychologists and other social scientists have begun to give more recognition to the influence of race and culture in organizational systems. More importantly, over the course of the last 30 years organizations in the United States have voluntarily or through force of law attempted to increase the participation of visible racial/ethnic group people (i.e., a term used instead of minority that refers to Indian, Hispanic, Asian, and African-Americans). Recent reports predict changes in the racial/ethnic make-up of the country in 21st century. The presumed increase in the numbers of visible racial/ethnic people in the work force has given new energy to efforts aimed at increasing the racial-cultural composition of the work force in American organizations.

Confusion exists about the meaning attached to culture in diversity training that is evident in training methods and approaches. The assumptions and perspectives about culture are important because they circumscribe the types of knowledge and methods used in a particular approach. It seems to me that when people refer to diversity training, a number of unstated assumptions about the meaning of difference or culture exist. What is missing is a way to understand the various perspectives that underlie approaches to understanding racial and cultural difference. The perspectives are designed to capture organizational life and diversity practices in North America organizations. It is essential that any attempt to understand culture and difference in the United States consider the socio-political environment in which Americans have typically understood culture

While each assumptive approach has its strengths and weaknesses. I think a race, as culture perspective is a more viable because it is historically and socio-politically grounded. Nevertheless, each perspective will be discussed in terms of its advantages and disadvantages.

The Perspectives

The five training perspectives are: Universal, Ubiquitous, Traditional, Race-based and Pan-national. I have adapted these approaches to diversity training in organizations. I want to point out the difference between basic assumptions and strategies used to teach about cultural difference. I believe that regardless of the strategies (i.e., approaches, content, and so forth) used by a trainer or consultant he or she works from basic and fundamental assumption about the nature of cultural difference.


The Universal approach to culture places emphasis on human similarities while group differences are de-emphasized. The essential assumption is that we are first and foremost individual human beings and only secondarily does our experience and identity derive from other group memberships (e.g., ethnicity, race, gender, etc.). Much of traditional psychological theory and practice is characterized by the Universal approach. As is our dominant cultural belief, wWhat matters most are individual differences. The Universal perspective closely resembles the color-blind vision of all people living in harmony, wherein group differences are of little or no relevance.

Cultural sensitivity is required when one's approach to culture is general as opposed to culture or group specific. Diversity training based on the Universal approach to culture would teach trainees about “special populations” in an attempt to bring everyone together into the melting pot or salad bowl. The idea here is that by having similar goals and tasks in the work unit, the contact with one another will help break down racial-cultural barriers. If racially and culturally different people work together they can see that they're not that different, and they will then get along with one another.

The advantage of the Universal approach is that it reminds us that humans have many characteristics and attributes in common and that all people are unique as individuals. The disadvantage of this type of approach is that it downplays socio-political history and intergroup power relationships by assuming group memberships have meaning only for each individual.


The Ubiquitous approach is one that holds all difference associated with group membership as salient. All forms of social or group identity or shared circumstances are considered cultural. Culture can be a function of, geography, income, gender, age, religion, sexual preference, and so forth. It equates social group affiliations or domains of differences within a super-ordinate culture as representing distinct cultures. In this way, if a person develops a particular socially based identity based on class or age, then this, according to the Ubiquitous perspective, is culture. The view of difference as common experience or identity presumes that one's commonness cuts across super-ordinate cultural patterns. Thus, all disabled people, or gay people, or women or men share a culture that results from their reference group affiliation irrespective of his or her culture of origin.

Diversity training that uses this approach insists that differences be acknowledged and celebrated and that everyone's social identity be 'accepted.' By defining the various social group affiliations or what I call ‘domains of difference’ as “cultural," the domains of difference are legitimated. This results in a focus on multiple group differences, which is supported by the concept of culture.

The advantage of this perspective is that reference or social group differences of any sort will not be seen as dysfunctional. At the same time, the Ubiquitous approach can lead to avoidance and denial of groups' socio-political histories, intergroup power dynamics, and the relative salience of various reference group memberships. Also, ignored or minimized is the role and influence of dominant American cultural patterns.

An organization, which operates from a Ubiquitous approach, would seek to heighten the awareness of its employees to multiple sources of difference and would equate diversity as encompassing many group identities.


The Traditional approach defines culture as country, which means a common language, values, beliefs, rituals, symbols, and so forth. One is a member of a cultural group by birth. Central to this definition of culture is common experience as a function of socialization and environment. Ideally, variability within cultures is acknowledged; at least in regard to non-White populations, less variation within groups is recognized. Regarding diversity training, it is suggested that some "experience" of another culture is essential, the purpose of which is to give the person exposure to the new culture; the idea is that one person or family is representative of the entire group. Proponents of the Traditional cultural approach assume that exposure to the culture or cultural knowledge is the primary key to effective cross-cultural learning.

In terms of diversity training, then, little regard will be given to within country racial or cultural differences. Emphasis is placed on differences that emerge as a result of one's country of origin. The advantage of this type of approach is that it reminds us that society's institutions reinforce the meanings of behavior, thought, and feelings learned through family. However, the disadvantage of this approach is that it de-emphasizes similar processes that occur within a particular country or that evolve as a consequence of racism. The traditional perspective does not specifically address intergroup power dynamics.


This perspective holds that race is the primary form of culture in the United States, in that cultural groups are identified on the basis of race. People are classified into races by skin color, language, and physical features. Race-based theorists hold that the definitive aspects of culture, for example, cultural values, vary ultimately according to psychologically (i.e., racial identity) and socially based racial categories. The Race-based view assumes that the experience of belonging to a racial group transcends/supersedes all other experiences in the United States. Because race is the most visible of all "cultural differences” and because of the history of racial segregation and racism that exists in the United States, race has been and continues to be the ultimate measure of social exclusion and inclusion. The Race-based approach assumes that intergroup power dynamics are important

The Race-based approach makes explicit how untenable is the idea that it is possible to become sensitive to another's culture without first dealing with the overlay of race. White racism and dominance is seen to be perhaps the most important barrier to effective cross-racial organizational interaction, and that effective diversity training requires trainees to proceed through the process of race awareness and racial identity development. The Race-based approach holds that racism and racial identity should be the focus of diversity training. It would also suggest that the type of diversity desired by the organization would be primarily racial.

The advantage of this perspective is that it considers the importance of socio-political and historical dynamics on current events. It also introduces psychological variability to racial groups such that membership alone does not determine cultural affliction. The disadvantage of this approach is that it requires a deeply personal and potentially painful journey and soul-searching for each person to become comfortable with his or her racial socialization. It is difficult to address race as a social and personal issue since it tends to be treated as invisible in the social structure particularly in organizations.


This perspective views race in the global context as definitive of culture. The Pan-national perspective has been proposed by non-Europeans, and, with few exceptions deems European and American culture as antithetical to Non-European culture. According to this approach colonialism, slavery, and their legacies, were used to oppress non-European people and also alienated them from their cultures. In addition, Whites developed a culture and social structures that are based on violence and exploitation.

A Pan-national organizational training approach would focus on the rejecting European forms of oppression. It would attempt to enable trainees to understand and emancipate themselves from Eurocentric organizational approaches as a requisite first step. Thus, scholars who teach and train from the Pan-national perspective advocate knowledge of ancient history and racially- and culturally-based characteristics and experiences.

The Pan-national assumptions has the advantage of allowing for a broad and global understanding of race as it relates to oppression throughout the world and demonstrates how groups are connected by color and common experience. Its disadvantage is that when viewing racial oppression as the primary construct for cultural difference one may overlook the role of other important reference groups such as religion and social class variation.


I have shared with you a system of approaches to diversity training in organizations that was adapted from a model that I developed for racial-cultural training in mental health. I grouped approaches to training from five different perspectives that I contend will result in distinctly different recruitment efforts and outcomes and at the same time will determine the content and emphasis of efforts to manage diversity. I think this system of perspectives is important because it seems that people mean vary different things when they use the term diversity.

I have sought to make explicit the underlying assumptions of each perspective and what they mean and imply, in an attempt to provide a definitive picture of each view and its impact on diversity training. It is my hope that the perspectives will serve as a basis from which to gain a clearer understanding of what some people mean by their use of diversity as applied to organizational interventions.

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