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The Surprising Inspiration Behind Diversity Day On The Office

Almost a decade after the finale, "The Office" remains an undeniable cultural phenomenon. Even casual viewers off the series — or, for that matter, the small number of non-viewers who are still out there — can recognize its iconic characters, moments, and of course, the memes. Much like "Seinfeld" in the nineties, many singular episodes of "The Office" have particularly stood out in the cultural lexicon. One such entry is "Diversity Day," the Season 1 episode that cemented the show's status as being the king of cringe comedy.  

The episode follows the staff at Dundler Mifflin participating in a corporate-mandated racial diversity training, instigated after Michael Scott (Steve Carell) does a controversial imitation of a Chris Rock comedy routine. Series writer Larry Wilmore stars as the racial sensitivity consultant hired to lead the training, but Michael insists he knows better. He assigns every staff member an index card with a race on it. He then instructs them to put the cards on their foreheads, and they have to guess what their own card says based on the stereotypes suggested by colleagues. When he mimics an Indian person to Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling), she rightfully slaps him, leading to the most awkward — yet hilarious — moment of the episode.

Such an obviously bad training exercise surely had to have been created just for the show, right? Unfortunately, no: it seems that this terrible idea was very much rooted in reality.

Diversity Day was inspired by an exercise a writer did in college

On an episode of the "Office Ladies" podcast, hosts and real-life friends Jenna Fischer (who played Pam) and Angela Kinsey (who played Angela) shared that the idea for the episode came, horrifyingly, from a real-life experience of a writers' assistant, who was named Tom. 

As Fischer explained in the podcast, "Tom told this story about how when he was in college, he took a class and in the class they did this exercise where they had to put notecards on their heads that said different ethnicities, and then they had to go around and regard one another as that ethnicity."

Tom, evidently, described this real-life event to his colleagues while they were pitching stories in the writer's room, and it's easy to see why they couldn't resist adapting it to TV. "Diversity Day" was only the second episode of "The Office" which ever aired, and it was the first written from scratch, as the pilot heavily leaned on the plot of the original British version of the show. While we're sorry that the writer in question actually had to endure such an uncomfortable class in college, we're glad it ultimately inspired one of the most memorably awkward episodes in TV history.