Wait … so, we’re against diversity, equity and inclusion?

March 23, 2023 4:00 am

Photo illustration by Gerd Altmann (Public Domain illustration).

For being a party that allegedly embraces freedom, some Montana Republicans are certainly doing a lot of restricting.

Case in point: Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, wants to prohibit Montana state employees (except those on university campuses) from having to take classes generally considered “DEI” – the acronym that stands for diversity, equity and inclusion.

I can’t figure out why Trebas has exempted campus employees other than he believes they’re already hopelessly brainwashed liberals, or it’s an astonishingly frank acknowledgement that indeed the Board of Regents truly has the constitutionally-granted power to dictate what happens on Montana’s campuses.

Let’s just say: It should be a red-flag warning and you should recheck your work when you’re looking to ban concepts like diversity, equity and inclusion.

Instead, Trebas has tried to reframe bigotry by suggesting that tackling these hard-to-talk-about issues might offend the fragile conscience of state employees. The proposed law would make it illegal to teach concepts that might make employees feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress.”

Yet, that seems like a perfect definition for the kind of generational trauma that has been a key characteristic of so many Indigenous peoples’ treatment in Montana. In fact, I’d venture to say that historically Montana did a pretty good job of making plenty of minorities feel guilt, anguish or subject them to other forms of psychological distress. In fact, I’d say that’s exactly what lawmakers are doing to transgender folks currently.

During a recent hearing, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf wondered how learning about the generational trauma of Native American communities would happen with such a law. And the short answer is: It wouldn’t. The longer answer has to do with ignorance and bliss.

Yet, I wonder: How would folks who haven’t grown up in a different culture or as part of a minority community know unless they learned or were trained?

Learning by its very nature is uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. It’s embarrassing to admit that you don’t know or aren’t good at something. All learning happens outside a comfort zone, and Trebas’ bill doesn’t just protect the delicate idyllic lens of his worldview, but it completely misapprehends how we learn – which often includes psychological distress. If that’s not true, then I don’t know how to describe the nights of study and practice that happened as I crammed for tests, read chapter after chapter, or wrote papers in college and grad school.

Trebas used the opportunity to bat around some conservative buzzwords, including railing against woke ideology, a catch-all term used by the political right for anything with which they disagree but cannot define.

But diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t about being woke, it’s about being kind and compassionate, values you’d hope political leaders could agree upon. This is about understanding what others have experienced, and how to make others feel the same kind of welcome that people like me have taken for granted. It’s about acknowledging the differences and recognizing the damage that is done when are complacent or ignorant of others.

Why is the goal of some Montana lawmakers to be comfortable, rather than being educated?

This bill is really designed to keep white folks comfortable, because it seems likely the only group that could possibly be upset by DEI training is a white majority because other minority groups here have plenty experience being excluded and treated differently. Whatever is taught in these courses will likely not be news to folks in the minority or on the margins.

Without meaning to, Trebas’ bill has unintentionally demonstrated how fragile and paranoid white egos can be.

During my career in corporate America, I have sat through some pretty awful HR training videos, including one that covered slips, trips and falls. In that series of videos, the company wanted to teach us how to get up properly after going ass-over-teakettle. Surely, if corporate America and risk-management attorneys can dictate training videos on tripping properly, we can carve out some time for more important concepts.

There can hardly be fewer things more un-American than the concept that teaching about different experiences or being welcoming is too upsetting for government employees to handle. How else can we live up to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, which many lawmakers hold dear? After all, they were the ones who urged Americans to form a more perfect union. That’s impossible to do without diversity, equity and inclusion.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.