Role-Playing Exercise Angers RA at ASU, Illustrates Potential Problems with Mandatory Sensitivity Training

January 30, 2007
A student at Arizona State University (ASU) has raised objections to a role-playing exercise he participated in as part of the diversity training required of incoming residence assistants, reports the East Valley Tribune (AZ).
In the exercise, Ryan Visconti, a senior at ASU, was required to portray a gay Hispanic male and told to “create his perfect life” by visiting booths (“life stations”) representing his opportunities in housing, employment, banking, worship, and other facets of life. At each booth, the exercise required Visconti to repeat scripted responses meant to correspond to his assigned sexual orientation and ethnicity, with most outcomes being negative. For example, no matter how much he pleaded, Visconti was told at the “church” booth that he was going to hell and that “his kind” weren’t allowed. Similarly, the “housing” and “employment” booths informed him that “he could be a landscaper and live in a ghetto apartment or be unemployed and homeless.”
While an ASU Residential Life spokeswoman told the Tribune that the exercise was an attempt to “examine the effects of racism, classism and ‘homophobia’ on different cultural and economic groups,” Visconti says that rather than demonstrate the ways in which demographic diversity enriches a community, the role-playing instead “reinforce[d] the most disgusting, hateful and ugly stereotypes in our society.” Visconti added that he found the examples used in the exercise to be too extreme to be of any real use in understanding the problems of others.
While in all likelihood ASU, as a public institution, may legally require employees to attend training sessions like the one in question here, Visconti’s concerns illustrate the potentially problematic aspects of mandatory sensitivity training, particularly when the training attempts to promote a particular conception of cultural difference. (Legal or not, FIRE would unequivocally oppose the imposition of such training on non-employee students.) Visconti argues that the training session was “basically saying that if you don’t feel the same way, you’re wrong,” and that if “you weren’t a minority or gay, you were supposed to feel guilty and that everything was given to you in life.” The problem with this kind of top-down enforcement of “sensitivity” is that it too often casually ignores the individual student’s right to disagree with the imposed viewpoint. Further, the trainers may be blind to the possibility that in insisting on a particular conception of difference, they themselves may be furthering harmful stereotypes. As the Tribune article points out, Visconti believes that “the students who designed the roleplay overlooked their own stereotypes, such as the notion that white men don’t have to work for wealth because society gives them a free ride.”
If executed properly, students may be able to gain useful insight from the kind of peer-to-peer dialogue that role-playing exercises attempt to promote. At universities in a democratic society, there is always value in finding ways to initiate discussion between students about politically charged and otherwise unapproachable subjects. However, great care—far more care than in evidence at ASU—is required to make sure that students with unpopular or simply different conceptions of social value aren’t steamrolled by an “official” worldview, replete with its own internal prejudices. Here, for example, it seems that ASU is attempting to combat negative stereotyping with, well, more negative stereotyping. That’s two steps backwards and none forward.
After all, it isn’t all that far a leap from ASU’s role-playing exercise to the mandatory “accountability training” that FIRE is actively challenging at Michigan State University. In each instance, students are forced to accept a particular viewpoint—and the ideological assumptions inherent within—in order to demonstrate their suitability as members of the university community. In a free society, this kind of thought reform is unacceptable. Before taking another crack at designing a role-playing exercise to facilitate discussion and consideration of difference, FIRE strongly recommends that ASU students and administrators first familiarize themselves with FIRE’s Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus, to make sure that they steer well clear of intruding upon their students’ right of conscience—a right James Madison astutely deemed one of “the choicest privileges of the people.”

Schools:  Arizona State University