One of the legacies of US culture is the fact that whites are over-represented in the top positions of organizations. This is the case across all industries and throughout academia and government. (See the current data on this in my blog of September 21, 2020: “Whites do see color, and they color they choose is white.”) In order for this to happen, whites at all levels of the organization have to fulfill a certain role. That role is one that supports the present and past status quo. Until a critical mass of whites recognize this dynamic and choose to act differently, we can expect to see no significant change.
The role that I am talking about is not one that is labeled, described, or even conceptualized. Instead, it is a set of behaviors that whites fall into as a result of (1) their upbringing or (2) following the behavior of other whites in the organization. If young whites are to avoid this role, they will need thorough preparation. In many ways they are perfectly conditioned to assume that role with no awareness of doing so.
The Misleading Focus on Prejudice and Prejudiced (Bigoted) Actions
Most white children grow up in families where the topic of race is not discussed in any way that helps children understand how racial preference is built into our history and our institutions. As a result, white children reach adulthood without any sophisticated understanding of racial dynamics. At most, white children learn about racial prejudice, but this is insufficient, and even misleading when it comes to understanding racial dynamics in organizational settings.
I say that because a focus on prejudice and prejudicial actions keeps attention at the level of one-on-one interactions. Prejudice plays out as discrete actions and words directed at BIPOC individuals. In the absence of clear-cut bigoted interactions toward BIPOC co-workers, it is all too easy for whites to conclude that there are no racial disparities in the organization. It is even easier to conclude this when whites do not hear BIPOC talking about racial disparities in the organization. The whites conclude that the silence about racial inequities means that their BIPOC co-workers experience no unequal treatment.
This is a naïve understanding of racial dynamics and racism. There are several potent reasons why BIPOC co-workers do not talk about racial inequities with their white co-workers. For one, BIPOC people have ample experience with whites discounting such statements when BIPOC individuals do speak up. The other important reason that BIPOC say nothing to their white co-workers is that the BIPOC employees can ill afford to alienate white co-workers. In order to do ones job, a person needs the support of co-workers in the form of (a) timely information about changes, (b) unwritten rules that drive the norms of the organization (e.g., never disagree with the boss, he always shuns anyone who disagrees with him), (c) delivering information or products on time as they are supposed to do.
Operating on The Assumption that Everyone Is an Individual
Growing up in white culture, most whites also subscribe to the notion that we are all individuals who make it on our own merits. This focus on the individual has several assumptions that do not stand the test of experience. A 2016 survey conducted by the Lou Adler Group with more than 3,000 survey respondents indicated that 85 percent found jobs via networking. These findings support the previous work of Professor Nancy DiTomaso reported in her 2012 book The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, that respondents found 70% of their jobs over their lifetime via networks. While not racist in its intent, this dynamic advantages whites because there are many times more whites in powerful job positions than there are BIPOC people in high job positions. This also means that it is likely that more white candidates will get an interview than BIPOC candidates. Therefore, before an individual enters the organization, racial identify has already had a large influence on who gets into the organization.
The focus on individuals also frames how whites view any one event. If whites do observe an act of prejudice, they tend to see it as an exception or a ‘one off.’ You can tell this is what they are doing because they will focus on the one event or the one person. What they fail to see is any pattern where whites as a group act in this way over time. BIPOC people will look to see if an event fits in with a larger pattern over time, while whites tend to focus solely on the one event or one person. This focus on an individual event precludes any examination of how that event is similar to other events that have been occurring over time. For example, it will be unlikely that, in the absence of someone pointing it out to them, whites will notice that it is whites who get promoted more quickly, or whites who get the assignments to jobs that provide high visibility. BIPOC are well aware of this pattern, so they are not surprised when they see it.
Another consequence of holding the view that everyone is an individual, is that whites adhere to the notion that the organization is a meritocracy – that those who rise to the top do so solely on their own achievement. This cannot be valid as long as white networks ensure that whites can build relationships more easily with fellow whites and can use white networks to get more access to jobs than BIPOC people. The emphasis on seeing only isolated events also means that whites will have a difficult time noticing patterns where BIPOC have different career experiences than whites have.
The Consequences of Having Few Personal Relationships with BIPOC People
Because of the high levels of residential segregation only 7.2% of non-Latinx whites live in a neighborhood where there is no majority race. This contrasts with Blacks and Latinx (20%) and Asians (31%).
“Only 22.9 percent of whites live in shared neighborhoods in which both whites and at least one other racial or ethnic group each account for at least 20 percent of the census tract population. By comparison, shared neighborhoods include 43.0 percent of blacks, 42.8 percent of Hispanics, 44.8 percent of Asians. “
The consequence of this segregation is that a huge proportion of white children grow up without interacting across racial lines. The only communication style they learn is the white cultural style. They have little or no experience with other cultural styles of socializing, handling conflict, or working on problems (Whites default to working as individuals rather than in a group, unlike many other racial/cultural groups.). This means that young whites are not prepared to engage with peers who are BIPOC in any manner but a white manner. This is a contrast with all BIPOC people are at least bi-cultural, because they have to navigate in a white context when working, shopping, or attending school (82% of teachers in public school are white).
As a result of this mono-cultural upbringing, whites tend to associate mainly with other whites, with whom they share an easy rapport. They shy away from relationships with BIPOC co-workers because they sense the cultural differences. They may engage with certain BIPOC individuals who have assimilated to the white norms, but this still means they are staying on the white cultural island. In addition, this behavior reinforces a norm that whites expect BIPOC co-workers to assimilate to white cultural styles of speech, relating and problem solving. This is a powerful driving force that reinforces the status quo of a white organizational culture, that all have to adopt.
Young whites, with little or no experience navigating in other cultures, have no conception of what it takes to assimilate to another culture. They have no idea of how much energy it takes to “code switch” and operate in a context that is not the one in which they grew up. They fail to recognize that there is an inherent advantage for them in being the only racial group in the organization who is able to operate in their native cultural style. Their BIPOC co-workers have to expend additional energy in order to perform their jobs while functioning in a culture that is not their own.
Whites sense the tension that is present as a result of the different races working in the same organization. As a result, they tend to default to staying in their comfort zone. Why risk engaging with someone who is so different? Why risk having an interaction that might go in a direction where they feel embarrassed or very uncomfortable? God forbid that a BIPOC coworker says that something they did was a micro-aggression or even discriminatory. All of this adds up to a pattern where whites avoid or circumscribe their interactions with BIPOC co-workers.
What Can Be Done?
The behavioral patterns described above constitute the designated role by which whites support and reinforce the status quo of unequal job opportunity. What can whites do to interrupt this pattern? I think the most impactful thing that white parents can do is prepare their children to recognize this system that they will enter. Parents can expose their children to the realities of institutional racism that has been part of this country since its inception as a colony of the Spanish, Dutch, French and English. Parents can teach their children about the federal policies that institutionalized housing segregation, inferior education, exceptions from social security, agricultural subsidies and veteran benefits after WW II. Parents can explain that racism is something that operates via the policies, practices and structures of organizations, whether they be realty organizations, banks, police departments or corporations. If children learn that the landscape they will enter is very different than the picture painted by mainstream culture, they will be much less likely to remain as passive supporters of the status quo.
White parents can also prepare their children to be change agents who work to undermine and change the structural racism embedded in so many organizations. Children are remarkably able to grasp issues of inequality. Their eyes are still unclouded enough to trust what they see. They can pick up on patterns of unequal treatment, and they can discern the difference between what is said and what is done.
Here is a quick outline of a curriculum that white parents can use to prepare their children to step outside the role that awaits them in the workplace;
Parents can break the bubble of ignorance that their community will weave around children. Parents can explain to their children that this land was always multi-cultural; before the European colonists arrived, there were many indigenous nations here, each with its own language and culture. Parents can make sure their children learn that the first European languages spoken on this continent were Spanish, then French and Dutch. English came last. Parents can teach their children about the actions of oppression directed by the federal government toward native peoples, enslaved Africans, “Mexicans,” Chinese and Japanese. Parents can explain how the federal government used policies and money to construct the housing segregation that we see today. Children need to know the role that banks, corporations, legal system and churches played in creating the two-tiered racial society that exists today.
Parents can teach their children how to “see” race. They can teach them how to notice which racial groups are present in any setting, and which are missing. They can teach their children to notice which roles different racial group occupy in stores, restaurants, schools, sports, media, business, and government.
Children can be led to find their voice. They can be given assignments that ask them to express their reaction to living in an unjust system, using essays, poetry, theater, songs, rap, film, etc. Their expressions can then be shared in a group setting with other children and with adults. This accustoms children to tune into what they are feeling in response to things occurring around them. It also supports them to give voice to how they feel about what they are seeing and experiencing. This is the essential first step in becoming someone who will follow their own values in spite of what others are doing.
Parents can describe to their children the role that they will be expected to play when they enter the workplace. They can educate their children to the fact that there is no neutral point on racial equity. Our actions either support the status quo (racial inequity), or they undermine and go against the status quo.
Parents can ensure that their children learn about the suppressed, but extensive, history of small numbers of whites who have refused to play their assigned role, and have worked to intentionally undermine the status quo of privilege for whites.
Parents can help their children explore concrete ways that they can undermine the structural racism that surrounds them in their community, and in the workplace they will be entering.
Parents can make sure that their children acquire skills in cross-cultural communication. They can make sure that their children spend time in the cultural settings of other racial groups.
If parents prepare their children to see the world that actually surrounds them, these young people have a chance to refuse the role that awaits them in the workplace. No matter how well they are treated, they will be noticing how well their co-workers who are BIPOC are treated. They will also have the skills and the will to form relationships with BIPOC co-workers, and with other whites who are also committed to changing the status quo. If young white people come into the workplace knowing they have the task of transforming it, they will be able to use their ingenuity to undermine the system and form alliances that create a counter force to the status quo.
To do that, they need to be prepared before they enter the workplace. If they are unaware of what awaits them, they are too likely to either remain oblivious to what surrounds them or be immobilized by the shock of what they see. I think it is helpful to think of courage as a muscle that needs to be toned. It is not an on/off button. People have to build up a tolerance for the stress that comes with speaking up and bringing up topics that others prefer to ignore. We have ample evidence that people need to be prepared to handle stressful situations if they are to perform well under stress. Those who work in the operating room, onboard ships, in cockpits and in the control rooms of nuclear reactors are drilled in how to respond to dangerous situations that may occur. We need to be no less prepared to encounter the designated role that awaits all whites when they enter the workplace.
 The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism,
 “Patterns and Trends of Residential Integration in the United States Since 2000”, Harvard joint Center for Housing Studies., https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/media/imp/09192017_spader-rieger_integration_brief.pdf
 Ibid, p.4