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How Florida’s Stop WOKE Act could impose a chilling effect on diversity efforts in the workplace

May 3, 2022, 1:06 PM UTC

Florida is the first state in the nation to officially restrict how workplaces can discuss racism and bias.

Republican governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, or Stop WOKE Act— a bill that regulates how schools and employers can talk about race and gender—on April 22. 

“We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies imposed upon you without your consent,” DeSantis said at the bill signing event at Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School in Hialeah Gardens last month. “Whether it be in the classroom or whether it be in the workplace, we decided to do something about it.” 

What is included in the Stop WOKE Act?

Effective July 1, the polarizing new law outlaws discriminating against certain people on the basis of race “to achieve diversity, equity, or inclusion,” which appears to be an indirect nod to affirmative action, which has been banned in Florida for over 20 years. The Stop WOKE Act also designates the idea that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin” as an unlawful employment practice. It also prohibits the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.”

DeSantis has previously called critical race theory “state-sanctioned racism” and claims that it creates hostile work environments, as reported by CNN. Critical race theory—an academic concept originating in the late 1970s that argues race is a social construct and that racism exceeds individual bias and leaks into longstanding systems such as the law—is not explicitly mentioned in the Stop WOKE Act.

However, under the new law, racial colorblindness is referred to as a “virtue,” and the concept being labeled as racist, sexist, or oppressive is now an unlawful employment practice. 

“The bill makes it an offense to suggest that colorblindness isn’t the path forward for America, but truthfully, we all need to see color, not from a discriminatory perspective, but to understand that the people’s lived experience and histories are different as a result of racial identity,” Durell Coleman, the founder and CEO of DC Design, a social impact design firm which partners with companies to address racial and social justice concerns, told Fortune. “I worry that this law will have a chilling effect on our ability to speak like adults about what really needs to be fixed in America.”  

Déjà vu from 2021: How does this legislation compare to similar bills?

Word for word, the Stop WOKE Act contains some of the same language as Oklahoma’s 2021 HB 1775 law, which bars public schools from teaching the idea that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Florida’s Stop WOKE Act also reiterates the same idea from the HB 1775 law that schools cannot teach that a person’s race or sex determines their “moral character,” or their inherent superiority or innate racism. 

Regarding Oklahoma’s legislature, Republican supporters said that statewide bans of specific types of teachings were meant to eliminate the shaming of white students as oppressors, according to The Washington Post. In actuality, the aftermath of Oklahoma’s HB 1775 law led to Oklahoma City Community College canceling a class on white privilege in fear of legal ramifications, which demonstrates that laws that suppress free speech can actually stifle racial education. 

Florida’s new Stop WOKE Act could have a similar effect on statewide schools and colleges, which would limit or stifle their racial education courses in order to be legally compliant with the new statute. 

In addition, in order to enforce the new law, companies could also avoid pertinent diversity trainings which model inclusivity and increased racial understanding for employees. 

Sara Margulis, CEO and cofounder of Honeyfund, a Florida-based wedding registry company, stresses that the Stop WOKE Act does not restrict training on diversity and inclusion, but cautioned that because employers and schools may be hesitant to expose themselves to legal risk, some may shy away from holding diversity trainings at all.

“When schools and employers shy away from inclusivity training for fear of violating the Stop WOKE Act, employees and children miss out on opportunities for important education that breeds kindness, compassion, and open dialogue,” Margulis told Fortune. “That hurts our progress toward a more inclusive society. While it might feel like we are protecting people from the natural feelings that come with learning about the atrocities of slavery and its ripple effects, no one benefits from covering up the truth.”

How will the Stop WOKE Act affect businesses?

In many cases, people of color are afraid to speak up in the workplace, and race is often seen as a taboo topic. Nearly half of Black workers—45%—believe their managers don’t support conversations about race and that their workplace discourages racial conversations, according to a 2020 report from Society for Human Resource Management. And nearly half of white workers—42%—think it’s inappropriate to discuss race at work, citing the same study. If 37% of Black workers and 37% of white workers don’t feel comfortable discussing race at work, and the Stop WOKE Act outlaws discomfort, or “any other form of psychological distress,” on account of race, where does that leave room for frank and open discussions about race and diversity?

Despite being based in Florida, Margulis says that Honeyfund will not make changes to the way it addresses diversity in the workplace as a result of the new bill. Instead the company will continue to educate staff on the benefits of inclusivity and diversity. Honeyfund is made of up 24 employees and contractors; 57% are women, 39% are nonwhite, and 4% are transgender. An inclusive workplace free of discrimination is what Margulis strives for in her company, where she actively seeks out diversity for varied perspectives.

According to Margulis, part of treating employees with respect and dignity is ensuring that everyone has a voice irrespective of their race, national origin, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation.

“As the CEO I speak openly about the benefits of diversity and thank team members with diverse backgrounds for their input,” Marglulis told Fortune. “I make a point to seek viewpoints from people of different backgrounds and model that behavior for my leadership team. In a meeting, for example, if someone has been quiet I will ask their thoughts. Another example is being aware of interruptions. If I see someone being interrupted I ask the group to allow the person to finish their thought. These everyday actions create a workplace culture of inclusivity.”

However, not all work environments foster the same level of inclusion as Honeyfund. Inclusivity in the workplace may be headed in the wrong direction following the passing of the Stop WOKE Act, according to Tenaya Taylor, chief diversity officer for Eisner Advisory Group, a business consulting firm. She predicts the Stop WOKE Act could cause a decline in inclusion training programs or censorship around specific topics that render the DEI-related exercises ineffective. 

“The Stop WOKE Act will have a frightening effect on various individuals, with people of color being the most disadvantaged,” Taylor told Fortune. “Organizations that foster a ‘speak up’ culture might notice a shift in sentiment and employee engagement as people of color and beyond start to feel an overwhelming sense of anguish and fear for speaking up when faced with exclusion, discrimination, aggression, et cetera. It does not help cultivate sensitivity to different perspectives, drive cultural awareness, or promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. The impact on mental health continues to be at risk as people look for ways to navigate the bias when inclusion and equity training have often been a way for people to be heard and seen positively.” 

Is there a better way forward?

“As the population’s racial composition shifts, racial attitudes and theories will continue to be a contributing factor that either perpetuates abhorrent gaps or decreases the root causes of inequities, bias and discrimination,” Taylor told Fortune. “To achieve equity, educators must have freedom of speech and solid principles to deliver educational programs that enrich people and drive positive impact and change.”

By encouraging colorblindness and restricting how race is taught in classrooms and discussed in the workplace, the Stop WOKE Act can potentially undermine both freedom of speech and the beauty of diverse perspectives. 

In the choice between embracing diverse racial perspectives or perpetuating erasure, Margulis recommends that as a country we reject fragility and dive headfirst into sensitive topics, in order to make the days ahead more equitable. 

“I understand why some folks would prefer to avoid [racial] topics and the associated feelings, especially when they weren’t even alive when slavery happened,” Margulis told Fortune. “But we are all alive now, and we play a role in cleaning up the mess slavery left us with. This obstacle offers us two choices—we can go backward or we can move forward toward a more inclusive future.”

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