Uneasy about Diversity Initiatives? You Aren’t Alone (or Racist….)

Uneasy about diversity initiatives? You aren’t alone (or racist…)  

There are many justifiable reasons that an individual may object to their employer’s implementation of policies or training programmes that claim to combat racism. But the initial reaction to this objection can sometimes be one of judgement, confusion or perhaps even hostility.

‘How can you be against anti-racism? Doesn’t that make you racist?’

This type of response might prevent you from wanting to speak out. You may fear being branded as racist or bigoted, or indeed, you might fear that you actually are racist or bigoted. These anxieties can be multiplied if you have difficulty articulating your precise concerns to yourself and others.

So, to help you and your organisation see that there are many legitimate reasons a person might object to certain diversity initiatives, we interviewed a few members of the online Counterweight community, some of whom wished to remain anonymous. These individuals spoke with us about their experiences with Critical Social Justice in the workplace and their reasons for pushing back against it.

During these interviews, four key trends of workplace wokeness emerged: demands for conformity, intolerant tolerance, divisiveness and disempowering rhetoric/ideas, and racist anti-racism. Below, our interviewees explain why they found these features of Critical Social Justice to be so objectionable.

1)    Demands for conformity

Many employees find that their business’ CSJ initiatives are repressive and demand conformity to a particular ideology.

One employee who spoke up said:

Typically, work is a neutral environment where people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together for a common goal, and you leave politics, religion, and other contentious issues aside. Employers’ dictates are limited to how to do your work. I don’t believe it’s the place of an employer to tell employees how to think or force them to conform to an ideology.

Another employee, Jennifer Friend, who similarly spoke out, had this to say:

The next problem I noticed was the chilling effect CSJ was having on free speech. I repeatedly encountered stories of people who had lost their jobs simply for making a statement or even a casual remark that contradicted CSJ.

We all have differing views over what constitutes, and what means are best used to achieve, a fairer society. Approaches to Social Justice that disregard the staggering variance of viewpoint diversity often feel the need to shame, bully, or censor employees in their pursuit of the ‘common good’. At Counterweight, we feel that this approach can insulate policy from feedback, which prevents the best methods from being utilised to rectify social wrongs. Further, we believe that everyone has the right to their own personal beliefs, including support of Critical Theory, but we do not believe that these viewpoints ought to be forced on people.

2)    Intolerant tolerance

The stated goal of diversity initiatives is often to make the work environment more inclusive, welcoming, or tolerant. However, one employee’s experience with Critical Social Justice at work found that the opposite was true. Her organisation had been strictly policing the words and views of their employees, so that – regardless of context – using  terms like ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’ on an online platform immediately resulted in a public reprimand:

My employer argued that they were doing this in order to make the workplace “welcoming” for employees and clients of diverse backgrounds. However, I have worked in many different environments where people of very diverse backgrounds have gotten along just fine without any such policies. In fact, the workplace became completely unwelcoming to anyone who didn’t agree with CSJ, or wasn’t comfortable with having their speech policed. I pointed out the way to make everyone feel welcome is precisely not to force issues that have nothing to do with work or privilege certain viewpoints. By doing so, you automatically exclude those who think differently. Keeping things neutral is the way to truly include everyone and allow them to come together around their shared goals.

As well as ostracising those who think differently, anti-racism initiatives often claim to speak for certain groups, but ignore the fact that many people within the identity groups they aim to protect do not actually share their world view or want to be protected:

It flattens people into stereotyped identity groups. By claiming to speak for all people in certain groups, CSJ indulges in stereotyping of the worst sort. There’s no possible way to determine that “all” people in the groups it was claimed the forbidden words offended, would actually find them offensive. I am a woman who has suffered mental health issues, and it would never have occurred to me to find “guys” or “crazy” offensive.

3)    Divisiveness and disempowering rhetoric/ideas

Usually, when we imagine a better world, we imagine unity and empowerment. We imagine a world where superficial differences cannot divide us, where we are each strong and capable of facing adversity. There is concern among many who have faced CSJ in their workplace that this ideology is taking us away from those ideals:

CSJ encourages constantly analysing everything for potentially “problematic” connotations, making the worst interpretation of any situation, and taking action on every supposed “problem”, no matter how minor. Its dictates are constantly changing, but it harshly punishes transgressors. It encourages people to be hyper-aware of their differences. It divides them into “victim” groups, who are empowered to be hyper-sensitive to any potential offense, even if unintended; and “oppressor” groups, who must humbly accept any claim of offense, no matter how unreasonable, and be hyper-careful about how they treat “victim” groups. It discourages forgiveness, empathy, grace, and giving the benefit of the doubt. It rejects tolerance, resilience, nuance, differing opinions and a sense of perspective. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of what makes for good relationships and mental health. It’s divisive, and I saw that first-hand.

Harriet Terrill, who refused to undergo unconscious bias training, found that the training materials encouraged her to:

Perceive every interaction through the lens of my group identity. If I am interrupted at work, it must be because I am a woman. If you don’t get on with someone of another race, it must be because of your racism. No room is left for the individual or human autonomy. If I saw the world the way they were suggesting, then evidence of my own oppression would abound. Not only do I not believe that I am oppressed, I do not believe that this is a healthy or empowering perspective to take on the world.

4)    Racist anti-racism

One of the more chilling features of some anti-racism training is that they push ideas that most people would find to be explicitly racist. Jennifer Friend, who encountered this in her workplace, said:

I have always believed that it is morally abhorrent to single out a group of people for criticism on the basis of immutable characteristics. CSJ in my workplace came to an intolerable point of crisis for me when we were instructed to view material on the Equity website. The material included blatantly racist statements against white people. I wrote an email to the superior and teams expressing my concerns and was instructed to report to HR the following week along with the manager and my supervisor to “discuss my communication around the very sensitive issues of race and equity.” Ultimately, I never made it to that meeting because prior to the meeting I read yet even more horribly racist materials on their webpage.  I felt morally compelled to voice my concerns to the entire agency which I did in an agency-wide email.

Since Critical Theory defines racism as power and prejudice, it doesn’t acknowledge the contradiction – or irony – of pursuing anti-racism whilst making racist and prejudiced assumptions about non-historically oppressed identity groups. If your organisation has implemented initiatives that tell you all white people are racist and oppressors then this is a genuine cause for concern. At Counterweight, we firmly believe that racism is racism and sexism is sexism, whoever it is being directed at.

So, if your organisation is making changes you aren’t comfortable with, remember, your concerns are shared by many. You have the right to object, to disagree, and to suggest new directions.

To be clear, we recognise that there are many diversity initiatives out there that are reasonable, legitimate, and necessary to ensure our progressive society keeps on progressing. To find out how to differentiate between approaches to Social Justice that are grounded in liberal humanism and those that stem from Critical Theory, you can watch our short video here.


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