Fighting Backlash to Racial Equity Efforts
Understanding the real reasons why diversity initiatives provoke opposition can help you lead employees through cultural transformation.
After corporations committed to dramatically increasing their focus on racial equity in response to the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the hard work of making the changes needed to live up to those promises began. Unsurprisingly, those changes are meeting resistance, such as negative comments posted during virtual forums about race and a lawsuit filed by a White employee claiming that diversity training created a hostile work environment.1
These responses are predictable: If you’re benefiting from the current system, you’re likely to resist changing it. In the United States, the primary beneficiaries of the existing system are White people. And if anything threatens to thwart America’s progress toward open dialogue and racial equity, it is White people’s unwillingness to engage with the idea that if others are suffering from undeserved disadvantages, it is all but certain that they themselves benefit from undeserved advantages.2
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This critical understanding of systemic racism — that all of us, whether we want to or not, are participants within a system in which our racial membership has implications for important life outcomes — is antithetical to people’s desire or need to see themselves as decent, good, meritorious individuals. Our research shows that, because systemic racism suggests that White employees have benefited from a personal characteristic over which they have no control, systemic racism is difficult for many of them to acknowledge. As a result, calling out systemic racism provokes defensive behaviors that undermine efforts promoting change and make them more difficult and divisive.
Nevertheless, corporate leaders who genuinely support social change must see racism as systemic: a structural component that impacts every aspect of organizational life, from marketing to pricing, from supply chains to talent acquisition. And in order to make real progress toward racial equity within their organizations, leaders must also recognize that racial equity initiatives — just like all significant organizational changes, but with even greater emotional intensity — will face opposition and resistance. The ability to anticipate, recognize, and respond effectively to opposition will be critical to sustained success.
The key to effectively responding to resistance is leveraging that human need to think of ourselves as good, because it’s accompanied by our need to think of our systems as fair and just — and this desire to restore justice is powerful.
1. N. Grant and I. King, “Cisco Fires Workers for Racial Comments During Diversity Forum,” Bloomberg, July 17, 2020, www.bloomberg.com; M. Tani, “LinkedIn Staffers Go All-Lives-Matter During ‘Dumpster Fire’ Meeting on Racism,” The Daily Beast, June 4, 2020, www.thedailybeast.com; and K. Brown, “Smith College Defends Focus on Diversity After Employee Claims Bias Against White Staff,” New England Public Media, March 3, 2021, www.nepm.com.
2. L.T. Phillips and S. Jun, “Why Benefiting From Discrimination Is Not Recognized as Discrimination,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming.
3. B.S. Lowery, R.M. Chow, E.D. Knowles, et al., “Paying for Positive Group Esteem: How Inequity Frames Affect Whites’ Responses to Redistributive Policies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 2 (February 2012): 323-336.
4. E.P. Apfelbaum, S.R. Sommers, and M.I. Norton, “Seeing Race and Seeming Racist? Evaluating Strategic Colorblindness in Social Interaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. 4 (November 2008): 918-932.
5. R.M. Chow and E.D. Knowles, “Taking Race Off the Table: Agenda Setting and Support for Color-Blind Public Policy,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42, no. 1 (October 2015): 25-39.
6. E.D. Knowles, B.S. Lowery, C.M. Hogan, et al., “On the Malleability of Ideology: Motivated Construals of Color Blindness,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, no. 4 (May 2009): 857-869.
7. W.S. Jansen, M.W. Vos, S. Otten, et al., “Colorblind or Colorful? How Diversity Approaches Affect Cultural Majority and Minority Employees,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 46, no. 2 (February 2016): 81-93.
8. R.M. Chow, B.S. Lowery, and E.D. Knowles, “To Be Fair or to Be Dominant: The Effect of Inequality Frames on Dominant Group Members’ Responses to Inequity,” ch. 7 in “Fairness and Groups,” eds. E.A. Mannix, M.A. Neale, and E. Mullen (Bingley, England: Emerald Publishing, 2010).
9. L.T. Phillips and B.S. Lowery, “The Hard-Knock Life? Whites Claim Hardships in Response to Racial Inequity,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 61 (November 2015): 12-18.
10. M.M. Unzueta and B.S. Lowery, “Defining Racism Safely: The Role of Self-Image Maintenance on White Americans’ Conceptions of Racism,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, no. 6 (November 2008): 1491-1497.
11. F. Dobbin and A. Kalev, “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 7/8 (July-August 2016): 52-61.
12. J.M. Horowitz, A. Brown, and K. Cox, "Race in America 2019,” PDF file (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, updated April 9, 2019), www.pewresearch.org.
14. K.A. Whitler and D.A. Henretta, “Why the Influence of Women on Boards Still Lags,” MIT Sloan Management Review 59, no. 3 (spring 2018): 79-81.
15. E.N. Sherf, S. Tangirala, and K.C. Weber, “It Is Not My Place! Psychological Standing and Men’s Voice and Participation in Gender-Parity Initiatives,” Organization Science 28, no. 2 (March-April 2017): 193-210.
16. “Middle Managers: Engaging and Enrolling the Biggest Roadblock to Diversity and Inclusion,” PDF file (New York: The Conference Board, April 2007), www.conference-board.org.
17. C. Herring, “Does Diversity Pay? Race, Gender, and the Business Case for Diversity,” American Sociological Review 74, no. 2 (April 2009): 208-224.
18. L. Dickens, “Beyond the Business Case: A Three-Pronged Approach to Equality Action,” Human Resource Management Journal 9, no. 1 (January 1999): 9-19.
19. M. Kauff, K. Schmid, and O. Christ, “When Good for Business Is Not Good Enough: Effects of Pro-Diversity Beliefs and Instrumentality of Diversity on Intergroup Attitudes,” Plos One 15, no. 6 (June 2020): 1-29.
20. O.A.M. Georgeac and A. Rattan, “The Business Case for Diversity Undermines LGBT Individuals’ and Women’s Sense of Belonging and Interest in Joining Organizations,” Outstanding Research Award, Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 2020.
21. L.T. Phillips and B.S. Lowery, “Herd Invisibility: The Psychology of Racial Privilege,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 27, no. 3 (June 2018): 156-162; and L.T. Phillips and B.S. Lowery, “I Ain’t No Fortunate One: On the Motivated Denial of Class Privilege,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 119, no. 6 (December 2020): 1403-1422.
22. J. Maloney and L. Weber, “Coke’s Elusive Goal: Boosting Its Black Employees,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 16, 2020, www.wsj.com.
23. Grant and King, “Cisco Fires Workers.”