What makes so many people violently opposed to the creation of more equitable and inclusive practices, which is the aim of many DEI approaches?

We are in a challenging moment for diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI) and anti-racist initiatives. On one hand, you have 🥚 supremacist politicians like Florida’s Ron DeSantis seeking to rouse up their base by attacking DEI programs. He recently signed legislation which defunds DEI programming in Florida public colleges. The DEI Tracker from the The Chronicle of Higher Education provides an overview of all the anti-DEI legislation being proposed across the country. It is evident that the backlash against DEI and anti-racism is now being institutionalized through racist, discriminatory legislation.

On the other hand, you have companies attempting to dilute the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs by focusing more on 🥚 comfort than on actual social justice. A recent New York Times article highlighted how some corporations have added “B” to the DEI acronym to focus on “belonging,” as the primary factor for DEIB training. In reality, if you are practicing true inclusion, then everyone will feel like they belong, so I never understood why companies felt the need to add the “B.” However, I now come to understand that many companies do not want to actually pursue genuine inclusion, and would rather practice performative “belonging” than work to actually improve conditions for ALL employees.

The reality is that for many leaders, they do not know what they want from DEI initiatives. And oftentimes, what they prefer (e.g. employees who feel a strong affinity to the company & will devote their lives to it) are not the same things that their employees want (e.g. equity as it pertains to pay & access to opportunities, a more diverse leadership team). So it makes sense that many employers do not want to grapple with the difficult issues that emerge when discussing inequities in the workplace, & would rather shift attention to an innocuous term such as belonging. But the questions I pose to those who now are primarily focused on belonging, rather than diversity, equity, and inclusion are:

  1. Will belonging help employees to eliminate their micro-aggressions, biases, and discrimination which make the workplace toxic to historically marginalized employees?
  2. Will belonging change the composition of your leadership team to reflect a more racially & gender diverse one?
  3. Will belonging address the inequities that result in women, especially Black women, being paid a great deal less than their White male peers and essentially neglected by biased managers?
  4. Will belonging transform the racist policies/practices which prevent BIPOC individuals & women from obtaining promotions at the same rate as their White male colleagues?
  5. Will belonging actually make the workplace more diverse, equitable, and inclusive for ALL?

So much of current DEI practice is centered on not making 🥚 people uncomfortable, especially when it concerns race and racism. While no DEI practitioner’s objective should ever be to single out one group, it is unreasonable to suggest that discussions of structural & interpersonal racism and historical & current inequities should not result in difficult feelings. People work out at the gym, even if it makes them uncomfortable. People go to the dentist, even if it makes them uncomfortable. They are able to tolerate the discomfort because they know it will ultimately benefit them. And that is the stance that true leaders should take. A person or persons’ discomfort should not dictate how an organization moves forward in creating an equitable and inclusive culture for all. Women and BIPOC people are uncomfortable every day in these toxic work environments, but we are told to just bear it, and when we seek some form of redress and a change in culture, we are often told it must not be at the expense of those who have historically held power being uncomfortable, and we are usually labeled as “divisive” and “not being a right fit for the organization.”

As a cisgender heterosexual male, I do not shut down or refuse to engage in discussions about structural sexism, misogyny, & homophobia in our society, just because it makes me uncomfortable or ashamed. Rather, I try to take accountability and work to ensure there is as much equity and inclusion as possible, despite those feelings of shame and guilt. Ultimately, however, it is not about changing hearts and minds, it is about transforming policies and practices which prevent improved diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes & a healthy workplace for all.

Since 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, the paradigm shift in organizations moving away from talking about racism & committing to anti-racist practices to now banning DEI programs and dismissing conversations about race as “divisive,” has been mind-boggling but unfortunately not surprising. Any time in this nation’s history that groups of marginalized individuals has moved to secure their deserved rights, a massive backlash emerges to negate this progress, and to institute even more regressive policies. It happened after Reconstruction, after the civil rights movement, after the women’s rights movement, and it is happening now. We must push back strongly and loudly against such institutional backlash. It is not enough to post about these intolerant, racist, transphobic, sexist, and other discriminatory policies, we must also:

  • Continue to call out and rally against anti-DEI policies in institutions and in state governments
  • Apply pressure to politicians, including President Biden, to respond forcefully to such racist policies in their states and across the country, by moving to rescind federal funding for states who have such legislation and to investigate possible civil rights violations
  • At every opportunity, seek to educate those may not understand DEI approaches, and were taught that they are “reverse racism in action,” but can be convinced otherwise
  • Build coalitions/alliances with other marginalized groups, who are discriminated against due to their religion, gender identity, ethnicity or sexual orientation to develop a base of power, which cannot be ignored by those who wish to maintain the status quo
  • Consider boycotts and other tactics to signal our intention to not let such policies pass without any resistance
  • Help others to discuss race and racism in this country to not make it taboo or unsafe to call it out, and to make it a dealbreaker in our workplaces & in our communities
  • Advocate for the creation of concrete DEI strategic plans in your institutions, with tangible goals (e.g. less biased recruitment strategies and performance review processes), and long term DEI coaching for managers who will be responsible for achieving them, rather than offering one-off training sessions (e.g. mandatory unconscious bias training) to just check a box.

Despite the attacks on DEI and anti-racist practice or the attempts to dilute its impact, there are still many skilled practitioners attempting to transform our communities and work environments into more equitable, inclusive, diverse places. We must continue to support them, and to know that “belonging” is not enough to make our society safe and healthy for all.