Promoting Racial Equity in L&D

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As we reflect on the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., let's talk about how we in L&D can promote racial equity.

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“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

As we pause today to reflect on the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to talk about how we in L&D can promote racial equity in the learning experiences we design, develop, or facilitate.

Keep in mind, I’m a white woman living in a predominantly white area (hello from rural central Oklahoma), so I recognize I’m not an authority on racial equity and anti-racism. I’m speaking from my own experience and what I’ve learned from listening to others. Take it for what you think it’s worth.

Make an Effort to Use Inclusive Language

“Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”

To put it less poetically than Dr. Angelou, the words we use influence how we think and how we act. They also influence how others think and act. That can be a good thing, and it can be very, very bad.

Sometimes, we use hurtful language without realizing it’s hurtful. We might have the best of intentions. For example, I have a client who, until recently, used the word “Tribe” in his teaching, to talk about the need we all have for belonging to a group. When he asked for my honest feedback, I explained to him how my future daughter-in-law, who is Indigenous Canadian, reacts when she hears non-Native people use that term. It’s hurtful to her because her Tribe is an important cultural and political affiliation. It’s part of her identity, and it’s not the same as your “squad” or “crew.”

If you want to learn how to be more inclusive in your language, here are a couple of Inclusive Language Guides:

One thing to remember about language is that it evolves. We need to be ready and willing to evolve with it. Using inclusive language is not about being “politically correct.” It’s about being kind, considerate, and respectful. (And not being an asshole.)

Include Positive Representations of Marginalized Groups

Unfortunately, in news media, TV shows, and movies, negative depictions of marginalized groups abound. We don’t need to add any more in the learning experiences we create. 

Early in my instructional design career, I wrote an eLearning scenario in which an experienced employee was mentoring a junior-level employee. Yes, it was the typical newbie scenario. I thought I was doing things right by including diverse characters. The mentee was a Black woman, and the mentor was an Asian man. I didn’t think about whether I was reinforcing stereotypes. Because I wasn’t used to thinking from points of view other than my own.

Fortunately, I was able to observe a group of target audience members while they took the course. I overheard a woman mutter, “Of course they made the Black woman the one who doesn’t know anything.” Ouch. I had not considered that perspective. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. But not being intentional about my choices was part of the problem.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can’t ever have characters in your scenarios screw up. That would be boring. But make sure you’re being fair about it. If the only depiction of a marginalized group is negative, what message does that convey to your learners? 

And remember, we can’t advance racial equity if we perpetuate stereotypes (even ones that seem positive).

Get Input from a Diverse Group of Stakeholders

Getting input from multiple perspectives can help identify problems you may not notice on your own, due to implicit biases.

For a class in my undergrad program, I had to teach a lesson while my classmates pretended to be students.  As part of a unit on interviewing skills, my lesson included reading and discussing an article on preparing for a job interview.

Unfortunately, the article approached the topic from a white-centered point of view. It advised interviewees not to show up with greasy hair. I didn’t think anything about this. When my hair is dirty, it gets greasy. I wouldn’t want to show up to a job interview like that. But my point of view was also white-centric. 

One of my students/classmates, Lisa, was a young Black woman who used hair products that could be considered “greasy.” After the offending line was read aloud, Lisa interrupted. 

“Are you calling my hair dirty?” she objected. “Are you saying I can’t go to an interview like this?”

I wish I could tell you I used her interruption as an opportunity to discuss inclusive language and implicit biases (although I hadn’t yet heard those terms). But no, I fumbled pretty hard, acting defensively instead of taking her point to heart. My attempts to smooth things over and move on with the lesson only resulted in her not feeling heard.

When we design learning experiences, we need to remember that we are not our learners. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of many different learners and consider how they will perceive the language, images, examples, and stories we use.

If I had listened to Lisa rather than receiving her input as criticism of my lesson, what a rich discussion my “class” could have had! And that leads me to my next point…

Listen to People of Color

White people, listen to your Black and Brown friends and colleagues. Read books by authors of color (even if they’re unrelated to L&D). Expand your viewpoints.

Take a look at your professional learning community—your mentors, people you follow on Twitter, your LinkedIn connections, and YouTubers and bloggers you subscribe to. How diverse is that group? Try to expand your PLC to represent multiple perspectives.

I’ve learned so much from following and connecting with people who are different from me and just “listening” to them. Keep in mind, this is different from expecting them to spend their energy to educate me

Be an Advocate

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

Nothing will change if we don’t speak up and speak out.

If you have any say at all in what goes into your organization’s course catalog, or the topics included in leadership programs, be a champion for DEI and anti-racism training.

In your needs analysis efforts and end-of-course evaluations, include a focus on racial equity topics. If you survey or interview employees about their current challenges and training needs, do you include questions about DEI issues? What about when you collect feedback on your courses?

For some specific questions to ask when you solicit feedback on learning experiences (and other tips), see this article by Helena Seli, published by ATD


Here’s a recap of my tips for how L&D professionals can promote racial equity.

  • Make an effort to use inclusive language.
  • Don’t reinforce stereotypes or paint marginalized people in a bad light.
  • Get input from a diverse group of stakeholders.
  • Listen to People of Color.
  • Be an advocate.

What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

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The toughest job interview I ever had was interviewing alongside two other candidates (as a group) at a school board meeting that dragged on past midnight. One of the other candidates was Lisa, my Black classmate who had challenged the article I used for my practice lesson.

It may amuse you to know that she kicked my ass in that interview and got the job offer. Well-deserved, Lisa.

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