It is very useful for leaders to anticipate the racial attitudes they are likely to encounter among the whites in their workforce.  Knowing these attitudes enables leaders to be prepared to handle the ways these attitudes will manifest in behaviors among whites in their workforce.  Listed below are common white racial attitudes patterns that keep them at arms-length from colleagues of different racial or ethnic backgrounds include:

Whites who feel that racism is a thing of the past and is no longer a factor in their workplace. Since they do not experience race as a problem in their lives, they see no need to talk about it. They either don’t encounter, or fail to notice, situations where whites in their lives express overt prejudice against people of color. Many white-on-white discussions of race today occur in veiled ways, such as focusing on crime, drugs, a failure to take responsibility, or cultures of poverty. They implicitly assume that everyone has the same chance to succeed, if only they try hard enough. if issues of racism are raised for discussion, these whites usually feel defensive and will question the relevance of such discussions for themselves and the workplace.

Whites who adhere to the “melting pot theory.” Historically, this metaphor describes how white immigrant groups who arrived after 1776 have assimilated to an English speaking and predomi- nantly Anglo-Saxon culture in both public schools and settlement houses. Poles, Greeks, Albanians, and Hungarians all had to adopt the Anglo cultural norms. Within the context of the work place, the white European way of doing business still prevails.

Whites who say that they don’t “see color.” in spite of the claim that they don’t see race, data indicates that, to the contrary, young children “see race” well before age six. A study published in 2002 followed 100 white children and 100 black children from birth through age six.[1] When asked at age five or six to sort cards with pictures of people on them, 68 percent used race to sort the cards (only 16 percent used gender, which was equally obvious on the cards). Researchers Joe Feagin and Debra Van Ausdale found that by age three and four, children of all races knew their place in the racial hierarchy and the white children often tried to enforce that hierarchy on the children of color.

Regardless of whether or not they acknowledge seeing race, many whites are not accustomed to seeing themselves as part of a racial group. There is an interesting norm at work here. in her book, Learning to Be White: Money, Race and God in America, the race educator Reverend Thandeka challenges whites to play what she calls the “race game.”[2] She asks them to include the race of their spouse, child, or friend every time they mention them. The vast majority of whites decline this challenge. Those who do take the challenge stop within a day. The reaction they get from other whites is far too negative to endure further. Clearly, there is something in white culture that steers whites away from acknowledging race in the moment. This dynamic has a number of important consequences that show up in work settings.

Whites who do not notice broad patterns that demonstrate how people of color are still overlooked in terms of promotions, hiring, and opportunities for which they are fully qualified. These whites see only individual patterns, not group-level patterns (e.g., all the white-only tables in the company cafeteria). These whites tend to understand what happens to themselves and others as a function of interpersonal individual reactions. They are not likely to notice patterns of differential treatment among racial groups. Any steps toward establishing racial equity immediately raise concerns for some whites who believe that the playing field is level. They see these changes as forms of social engineering, the relinquishing of standards, or the establishment of some sort of quota system. Cries of reverse discrimination are likely to be heard.

* Ironically, corporate CEOs pressured President Johnson to institute Affirmative Action during insurrection in the cities in the mid-1960’s. Many civil rights leaders were not supportive of the idea. Once the violence subsided, the same CEOs worked to sabotage the very policy they had initiated.

Ignoring racial group patterns and focusing solely on the individual level leads whites to focus on the responsibility of the victims of discriminatory actions or practices. These whites may react to claims of racism by asking what kept the victim from taking action. There is often little or no understanding of the power imbalance structured into the organization, and how that power imbalance nullifies individual attempts to assert one’s rights.

This focus on the individual level also leads some whites to feel that people of color are too sensitive. Many whites come from poverty or have experienced some form of class or ethnic discrimination. They feel they worked hard to overcome those disadvantages, and wonder why people of color don’t do the same thing. They get insulted if they are told, “You are one who is too sensitive to handle a discussion about the racial patterns all around us.” This reaction speaks to the formidable amount of conditioning we have received. Those who have this mindset lack experiences that counter these beliefs and perceptions. Their experience has been consistent, and they continue to live in white-dominated settings for most of their lives, including, for example, where they live, the schools they and their children attend, the houses of worship they attend, the weddings they attend, the TV programs they watch, and the news anchors who interpret the world for them.

Even whites who attend schools with significant numbers of black, brown and Asian students do not often mix outside their race. For example, a study of 90,000 teenagers in 112 schools found that the more diverse the school’s student population, the more the students tended to self-segregate.3 Additionally, nationally, more than 80 percent of our public-school teachers are white. Even in schools with a diverse multi-racial student body, teachers and administrators generally avoid preparing their students to deal with a racially segregated society. This approach deprives the white students of the experience and skills needed to interact effectively across race and culture. in so doing, the school maintains the status quo by failing to prepare white students to function in a multi-racial society.

Leaders who are intent on transforming their organizations to be racially equitable must be prepared to encounter whites who either ignore or deny the reality of our racially segregated society. The socialization that so many whites have received makes it very unwieldy for them to deal with the subject of race. Their upbringing does not provide them with skills that are essential for working with those of another race. The emphasis on ignoring race means many whites will be uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the skill of noticing patterns of racial behavior. They will see no reason to do it, and will be uncomfortable if someone mentions patterns of inequity such as, “i notice that all of us in the room who are making this decision are white.” The very act of acknowledging which racial groups are present or absent can be very awkward for someone who has been raised to ignore race. if someone explicitly names behaviors exhibited by members of their race, many whites will experience this as something entirely new, and will likely code that act as hostile (far too public, or shaming).

All of these factors contribute to the situation where whites are likely to shy away from any investigation of the way race is playing out in their organization. This behavior creates a climate of denial – the experience that their colleagues of color are having is totally ignored. This, in turn, creates an oppressive atmosphere for the people of color in that organization. They know that if they bring up any- thing that concerns racial realities, they risk having the whites they work with move farther away from them emotionally. This is no small matter since the people of color need harmonious relationship with their white colleagues if they are to get work done and advance their careers. This no-win situation creates considerable stress for people of color who work in such organizations. The irony is that the vast majority of whites have no idea what is occurring, nor of their role in maintaining the culture of denial.

[1] Debra Van Ausdale, Joe R. Faegin, The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. Rowan & Littlefield, 2002.

[2] Thandeka, Learning to Be White: Money, Race and God in America. Continuum, 1999, pp. 3–4, 14–16, and 18–19.

[3] James Moody, Race, School integration, and Friendship Segregation in America,” American Journal of Sociology, 2001, vol 107, no 3, pp 679–716