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  • Writer's pictureSavania China

Is the Reported “DEI Backlash” a Result of Intentional Mischaracterisation or Misunderstanding?

Is there a widespread “pushback” against DEI or have some sections of the media decided to make this an issue and give voice to the few naysayers and doubters?

On January 11th, the BBC posted an article on their home page with a catchy headline: “ Is a DEI Backlash Brewing”. On clicking the headline, I was taken to an article by Elizabeth Bennett entitled: US Business Leaders Are Pushing Back against Years of Corporate Diversity Efforts.

As per the headline question – is a DEI backlash brewing? The answer is and should be a definitive NO. As for the title and premise of the article, I think it’s misleading to say that US business leaders are pushing back. Yes, some business leaders have expressed their dislike of DEI. The article cites leaders like Bill Ackman and Elon Musk as examples. It also names Lululemon's founder as another DEI sceptic. That’s only three business leaders. I think it’s not unreasonable to question a subject line that claims that US business leaders are pushing back while citing only three and completely ignoring a lot more who support and have spoken publicly about the importance of DEI. For example, billionaire Mark Cuban responded directly to Elon Musk’s ill-informed or intentionally sinister claim that DEI is “just another word for racism”.

So, what’s going on here? Is there a widespread “pushback” against DEI or have some sections of the media decided to make this an issue and give voice to the few naysayers and doubters? It brings into question the editorial choices of institutions like the BBC. Also, it’s interesting to note who writes these anti-DEI articles and which business leaders are anti-DEI.  Is there a similarity? Your guess is as good as mine. However, it appears a few business leaders and some media outlets have decided to discredit DEI. In America, the Republican Party and their right-wing media mouthpieces like FOX News have weaponised and declared war on DEI, labelling it another wokeism infliction. 

It also appears that these supposed free speech and discrimination defenders who are championing the pushback on DEI (like Musk, Ikman, and those who write articles in the mainstream media pushing a narrative of backlash against DEI) almost always seem to take issue with some specific DEI approaches like quotas and most importantly, with one specific aspect of DEI: race. But quotas are just one out of hundreds of approaches to DEI. And race is just one aspect of DEI. DEI is concerned with much more than race. It is concerned with many other causes of bias or discrimination like gender, sexuality, disabilities, neurodivergence, etc. Yet the supposed “pushback” seems to be squarely focused on race. From what I have observed so far, those behind the supposed “pushback” are mostly white males, and in some cases white females and a few successful black or brown people who no longer think DEI will help their personal causes. That makes me uneasy and makes me wonder if this sort of unprovoked dog-whistling is some form of racism or a desire to preserve a system that favours and privileges a few.

DEI is about levelling the playing field so everyone can have comparable access to resources and opportunities. It’s about making people feel valued, heard, and seen regardless of who they are, what they look like or what they believe or do.  So, if these so-called DEI opponents understand the true nature of DEI, what exactly do they oppose? Are they, in good faith, striving to deliberately derail efforts to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces? And who in their right mind thinks welcoming different people, giving them fair chances and opportunities and making everyone feel valued and included are bad things that should be campaigned against? I struggle to wrap my head around the sheer absurdity and downright meanness of opposing such well-intentioned and honourable objectives.

I believe it is important for caring leaders to speak up and continue to make a case for DEI and for practitioners and those who lead in this space to shout out loud and counter the negative voices. We must continually explain what DEI truly is about and dispel some of the mischaracterisation that DEI is somehow some form of reverse racism. Because DEI is not about race only. And it’s not about quotas.

The naysayers may have valid reasons for disliking approaches like quotas. It’s their prerogative. Their concerns should not be shut down. Instead, as long as we agree the principles and aims of DEI are good and honourable, we should have nuanced public debates about the approaches we take to drive DEI. We should openly and objectively discuss the merits and demerits of approaches like quotas.  If we don’t have open and nuanced dialogue, a few individuals with what I can only assume are sinister intentions will manipulate, misrepresent, and discredit DEI and spread distrust and confusion.

There shouldn’t be any debate about the value and importance of DEI in organisations, institutions, and society. We should only debate and explore the most effective approaches to achieving the objectives of DEI initiatives. The backlash appears to be a sinister mischaracterisation of DEI by those hellbent on preserving the long-prevailing status quo that favours some at the expense of others. Unlike the BBC article suggests, I believe the majority of business leaders are pro-DEI or at the very least, pro its objectives.

The backlash appears manufactured, another front in the culture wars that are perpetually peddled by some on the right of politics, those who want to conserve old systems and old ways of doing things regardless of the price and cost to others. However, I believe the naysayers are in the minority.  

All of us have a role to play in halting and stamping out this seemingly manufactured backlash against DEI. If the backlash is a result of misunderstanding we should help explain and clarify what DEI is and what it isn’t. It’s about levelling the playing field and not favouring or disadvantaging anyone. And if the supposed backlash is an intentionally sinister attempt to preserve a biased system that favours and privileges certain people over others, we should expose it for what it is.


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