When whites and people of color work alongside each other, they are not experiencing the same reality.  Their experience of the organization is quite different, even when they are present at the same event.  Later, if they happen to talk about what just occurred, they are likely to recount the event very differently.

The concept of in-groups and out-groups offers some explanation. In-groups are those that have
traditionally held the power:
men, whites, heterosexuals, the wealthy class, those with advanced educational degrees, fully abled people, etc. Those who have traditionally not held the power comprise the out-group: people of color, women, people who identify as LGBTQ, the poor, the disabled, etc. Most often, they have not been at the table when key decisions were made. Decision-makers do not consider their concerns and priorities to the same extent as they do those of the in-group.

In-group and out-group dynamics help explain three common dynamics of conflict:

  • how people respond to others whose description of reality is radically different than their own;
  • whose reality (perceptions, feelings, priorities) is treated as legitimate; and
  • which racial group or groups make the final decision?

Let’s begin with the third dynamic: decision-making. The difference between blacks and whites—or between baby boomers and generation Y—has a common element: power. in each pairing, one group (the whites, the baby boomers) either has more members, or more members in the upper decision-making roles of the organization. The group with more numbers or organizational power can easily ignore, dispute, or discount views of less powerful groups. ignoring or discounting often is unconscious—the more powerful group does not explicitly say to themselves “we will just ignore what the other groups says.” Instead, discounting occurs primarily through a clash of perceptions. The more powerful group simply does not experience the world in the same way the other group does. This includes values, beliefs, and experiences.

Here is an example of how all three dynamics played out in an incident in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts. Every year the public high school sponsors a musical put on by senior students. in 1999, more than 30 percent of the students were Chinese, Puerto Rican, Tibetan, Cambodian, African American, African, Caribbean American, or native American. Although the school system had committed itself to becoming a multicultural school system, the musicals chosen were consistently very Anglo-centered. The previous year’s production was Pirates of Penzance, a British musical. After getting feedback about this, the school chose a different production: West Side Story.

Latinx and Puerto Ricans in the community, including students, parents, and faculty, mobilized a strong outcry. They described the production as denigrating to Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rico. Two Puerto Rican professors, one a poet and the other an English professor, sent letters to school officials detailing the many slurs and misinformation about Puerto Ricans in the production. Most of the letters from people of color urged the school to either choose a different musical, or go ahead with West Side Story, but deconstruct it at the end, with cast members and others pointing out the racial slights and misinformation about Puerto Ricans.

The local paper carried more than forty letters to the editor, most written by whites. The theme expressed by the majority of white letter-writers was that West Side Story is not about race at all. From the white perspective, West Side Story is a love story along the lines of Romeo and Juliet, where a boy from one warring faction loves a girl from another warring faction. He dies tragically. (Of course, this depiction of two equal factions leaves out the power imbalance between whites and Puerto Ricans in the U.S.). Several local administrators and elected officials publicly framed the situation as one of free speech. The media, including NPR and other national media, picked up the story and portrayed it as an example of political correctness gone awry.

Because I personally know many of the whites who submitted letters to the paper, I know that they had no intention of discounting Puerto Ricans. From their perspective, the musical is a tragic love story about two people from different ethnicities. As they saw it, this is a tragedy that afflicts both groups as a result of hostilities that predate the romance. To the whites, race or ethnicity was not an is- sue. The whites saw no intent to demean or denigrate Puerto Ricans, and therefore concluded that there was no racism or racial animosity directed at Puerto Ricans in the musical. To them, the ethnic or racial differences impacted both groups equally.

However, the play contains several egregious pieces of erroneous information about Puerto Ricans, and depicts the leader of the Puerto Rican gang in a much more negative light than the leader of the white gang.

This is where the third dynamic, power, enters into relation- ship between whites and Latinx. Regardless of which group might be more “right” about the meaning of the play, there is a clear difference between the groups’ social power. In Amherst at that time, whites comprised 79 percent of the town’s population. However, if you looked at the town’s demographics, whites filled all key government positions, including on the Select Board, the School Committee and Town Meeting.

The power of whites to make a decision that deeply reflects their views impacts the relationship between white and Latinx members of the community. in corporations, similar power imbalances exist between men and women, native born and foreign born, whites and people of color, the fully-abled and the disabled, heterosexuals and gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

These power differentials govern how disputes between the in- group and the out-groups are resolved. The in-group always has the prerogative to enforce its views, since they control the decision-making process. Out-groups can only influence the in-group (or try to do so); they cannot make the decision. One group is the decision-maker and the other groups are petitioners or influencers. This holds true in any traditional organization where workers outnumber managers, but managers have the final say in any decision.

In the case of the West Side Story situation, the out-group, the Latinx citizens of my town, had a very difficult challenge. They had to convince whites to accept a viewpoint that does not conform to the white experience. imagine that you were a member of the white group. What would move you to incorporate the concerns of the Latinx group? it is all too easy to write off the Latinx views as illegitimate because they result from people being “too sensitive,” or “pushing some hidden agenda.” When views or concerns of the out- group just don’t make sense to the in-group, it is very hard to find a place for them in our thinking.

Here is another example: When women in an organization talk about routinely being discounted, if the men cannot recall instances in which they witnessed this, they have a dilemma. Do they take the word of the women? How do they know whether or not the women are magnifying a harmless situation into something that is out of proportion? How do they determine whether the women are acting “too sensitively” about things that men deal with all the time? After all, most men can recall times when they too, have had their views and suggestions ignored or discounted.

However, there is an uneven playing field. notice how men who exert their influence by being very forceful are likely considered to be assertive, while women who exhibit the same behavior are more often labeled as “a bitch.” As long as in-group members use their own experience as the standard of comparison, they are likely to discard what the  out-group is saying. If I don’t witness or experience my group being excluded, judged unfairly, ignored or discounted, I will be skeptical when individuals from another group claim they are being treated unfairly.