Why Does Backlash to Racial Equity Initiatives Really Occur?

Naming the rationale behind backlash to racial equity initiatives to develop strategies that may promote true partnership for dismantling racism in workplaces

Reviewed by Artair Rogers


A byproduct of the global viewing of the ruthless killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin was the proliferation of new racial equity/anti-racism statements, plans, and initiatives by businesses and organizations. Witnessing the public recording of police brutality/police violence forced many individuals and corporations to confront the fact that systemic racism exists and negatively affects Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. As organizations seek to implement those racial equity plans, the new focus on racial equity within work settings has created discomfort amongst white employees. The authors study the etiology of this discomfort and find it stems from the difficulty white people have in accepting the benefits they receive from systemic racism, resulting in racial equity initiatives that have yielded backlash. The author’s research shows that white employee backlash reveals itself in three major response categories: (1) deny, (2) distance, and (3) distort. The authors also illustrate a more productive response to the backlash they describe as “dismantle.” 

Rosalind M. Chow is a tenured associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. L. Taylor Phillips is an assistant professor at the New York University (NYU) Stem School of Business. Brian S. Lowery is the Walter Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior and senior associate dean at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Finally, Miguel Unzueta is a professor of management and organizations at the University of California.

Methods and Findings

Utilizing 20 years’ worth of data, the authors conducted pattern analysis on a set of responses that systemic racism discussions elicited. The authors’ aim is to provide a rationale behind the responses while also providing potential strategies to tackle or counter the defensiveness that often comes from discussions of addressing systemic racism. The aforementioned predictable patterns are: (1) deny, (2) distance, and (3) distort. 

Deny, which the authors denote as one of the most common forms of white backlash to racial diversity programs and systemic racism, is categorized as individuals denying that systemic racism is a significant problem. This response pattern was associated with individuals most opposed to racial equity. Examples of denial responses included:  

  • Endorsing colorblindness 
  • Race does not matter 
  • Race should not be acknowledged 
  • Discussion of race is, in and of itself, is racist
  • Race should not be a focus of discussion or public policy 
  • Opposing the collection of racial data gathering

Distance, which the authors define as responses that focus on white employees distancing themselves from their white identity as a result of difficulty processing and accepting that white employees benefit from their racial identity. Distancing also involves employees taking an individualistic view of racism—instead of seeing racism as being systemic, as well. Typical distance responses included: 

  • Not all white people are alike.
  • I am not like other white people. 
  • Individuals identified as a subcategory of whiteness, like Italian-American or Irish-American. 
  • Focusing on a non-racial identity that is subject to discrimination. For example, a white woman focuses on her gender identity without her racial identity. 
  • Focusing on personal hardships instead of race, like emphasizing being a child of divorce, having financial difficulties, or experiencing addiction. 

Distort, which the authors categorize as responses that acknowledge racism while also providing a rationale that distances individuals from the fact that the social system still advantages white people for being white. Respondents typically view racism as an individual behavior issue, enabling respondents to avoid the systematic implications of racism. Examples of responses included: 

  • White people perceive being discriminated against based on race. 
  • White people believe being Black is advantageous to get ahead in the United States, particularly regarding employment.  
  • Focusing on implicit bias training solely despite evidence showing neutral or negative effects on people’s attitudes toward Black, Indigenous, People of Color colleagues.  

To respond to the detraction and deterrence of racial equity initiatives that address systemic racism, the authors propose tackling racial equity with an approach of dismantling unjust systems. However, the authors note that this approach is more likely to succeed with individuals who acknowledge systemic racism and are willing to partner with others to promote justice. Tactical approaches include: 

  • Counter denial and distortion with data. An example of this approach would include disclosing demographic data regarding recruitment, hiring, promotion, leadership, and retention. 
  • Counter distance and distortion through collaboration. An example of this approach is explicitly inviting white people to participate in equity initiatives. However, it is imperative for these equity initiatives to go beyond listening tours and conversations focused on race.
  • Counter distortion with a vision grounded in justice. An example of this approach is to move beyond an organizational performance/return on investment (ROI) case for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Instead, “prioritize long-term equity and organization justice over the psychological discomfort of some employees and the possibility of short-term losses.”


The authors provide framing to understand the backlash to racial equity initiatives and give readers insight on methods to counter the backlash. Denial, distance, and distortion were the author’s research’s most prominent patterns of backlash responses. Denial is a type of response that denies systemic racism as a significant issue; distance involves white individuals separating themselves from their racial identity. Lastly, the distortion response acknowledges racism as an issue but denies that the white racial identity yields a societal advantage. To counter the backlash responses, the authors propose utilizing an approach to dismantling racism that tactically involves data transparency, collaboration with white people in DEI initiatives, and DEI efforts that are focused on justice instead of organization performance.


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