Employees of color have to navigate through white-run organizations, and they can ill afford to alienate white co-workers. After all, whites hold the most powerful positions in the organization and any one white person may have connections with those power holders. People of color also need amicable relations with their white co-workers in order to perform their jobs. Actions have to be coordinated and information has to be exchanged. Any tension between a person of color and white colleagues makes it that much harder to obtain and exchange valid information (e.g., who needs what when, what are the standards that must be met, early notice of problems that will require adjustments in how to complete the task, etc.
I assert that every white co-worker represents a challenge to our co-workers of color. The issue we pose for our co-workers of color is how much additional energy will they have to expend in order to work alongside us as a white person? The more we support the institutional racism, the more energy our co-workers of color have to expend.
In essence, the more a white co-worker refuses to acknowledge the racial hierarchy, the more careful attention it requires from a co-worker of color. If they are to maintain good working relationships, they need to make white people comfortable. In this case, it requires them to avoid confronting white denial or racism. This expenditure of energy constitutes energy that is not available to do the many tasks that comprise one’s job. We can calibrate the level of white denial and defensiveness along a spectrum. All of us whites fall somewhere along a spectrum. Below, I describe six points along this spectrum.
- Advocates of Continued White Dominance. These whites feel that people of color are inferior to whites. They are committed to whites continuing to hold our place at the top of the racial hierarchy. Whites who hold this stance may or may not be open about their point of view, but their sentiment is obvious by their strong avoidance of the topic of race and racism. They also often manifest symbols and emblems that announce their support of the status quo. There is a discernable tenseness or tentativeness in them when they are around people of color. I have seldom found this group to be the largest in most organizations.
- The Meritocracy Believer. These whites maintain that everything is fair in the workplace and they proclaim that institutional racism is a fiction. They may acknowledge that individual acts of discrimination occur, but they view most claims of discrimination as excuses for losing out in a fair competition, excuses for poor performance, or excuses for not working hard enough. Because they think everything is fair, this variety of whites tend to get very annoyed at discussions about racial differences.
- Prejudiced People Commit Racist Acts and I Am Not Prejudiced. These whites ignore the systemic racism that exists in the workplace, in segregated neighborhoods, in substandard schools, in law enforcement, in higher education, in media and in the sports industry. Instead they only focus on interpersonal acts of bigotry and disrespect. In their own interactions with people of color, they focus only on their intention to treat everyone fairly. Since they perceive themselves as treating everyone fairly, they see no reason to pay attention to larger patterns of exclusion in their organization. They operate as though they were horses with blinders on that allow them to see only directly in one direction. Because they do not personally observe acts of individual prejudice, they believe that such acts are not common if they even exist. It does not occur to them that what they don’t see does exist. They avoid looking for patterns of racial difference in wealth, education, incarceration, mortgage rates, employment, etc. If the issue of racism comes up, they usually act very defensively. They are also quick to change the subject to the issue of class or gender – issues where they perceive themselves as the oppressed group.
- The NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) Adherent. These whites differ from the previous variety in that they acknowledge theoretically that racism exists and that institutional racism exists in society at large. However, they steadfastly ignore any evidence that it takes place in their organization or their organizational unit. They pay no attention to racial patterns in their organization where (a) whites get better opportunities for development, (b) whites get promoted faster, (c) whites are mentored and co-workers of color are not, (d) more whites reach upper management in proportion to their numbers in the organization than co-workers of color do. Because they are so invested in not acknowledging racism, this variety of white usually becomes very defensive if there’s any discussion of racial differences or differences in treatment by race in their organization.
- Yes, There Is Institutional Racism Here, But There Is Nothing I Can Do. These whites acknowledge to themselves that institutional racism affects their organization, but they avoid any discussion of it because they do not want to confront the requirement that they need to speak up about it or take action that may alienate other whites. They may initiate conversation with co-workers of color, and establish what they think are congenial relations with them, but they take pains to avoid discussing anything that might lead to a discussion of the ways whites in the organization are advantaged.
- Dedicated Anti-racist. These whites are quite rare. They usually have personal connections in communities of color (family members, long-term friends). They are willing to speak up to defend a co-worker of color. They use their position to support and develop co-workers of color. The most skilled among them network with other whites in the organization to keep pushing the organization to change its culture so that people of color have the same career outcomes as whites.
With the exception of the last group, each of these varieties of whites exact a toll on co-workers of color. The White Dominance variety of whites maintain distant and non-contactful relationships. Their behavior may also send a message that they view the organization as belonging to them (whites). At best, they formally tolerate co-workers who are not white. They tend to socialize only with the whites who share their attitude. It is obvious from their behavior that they neither see nor value any co-worker of color, with the exception of those few who try to curry favor from the whites by denying that racism is real.
The Meritocracy variety of whites also keep a distance from co-workers of color because they perceive them as a potential threat. They are concerned that a co-worker of color might take advantage of them by claiming they did or said something that was racist. Therefore, they take pains to avoid being in any one-on-one situation with a co-worker of color.
The I’m Not Prejudiced variety of whites often do things that cost co-workers of color time and energy. They may try hard to be friendly without realizing that they are being condescending. Whether they realize it or not, their only intent is to show that they are not prejudiced, so the relationship is not real – it is a demonstration, not a true relationship. There are too many “undiscussables” that must be avoided. Time spent with these white co-workers is time poorly spent. The energy that is expended is energy and time that could have better been spent accomplishing other tasks. The co-worker of color also knows that these whites are only interested in proving to themselves that they are not “prejudiced.” These relationships lack the grounding of true reciprocity and an interest in knowing who the other really is.
The NIMBY variety of whites tends to act similar to the I’m Not Prejudiced. Time spent in their company is also time wasted because any discussion is limited. On one hand, these whites do acknowledge the existence of racism in the larger world, but they steadfastly refuse to see what is occurring in their own organization. A co-worker of color who has to listen to these whites knows that there is no real relationship being formed with them, because they know that these whites are determined to not see anything that negatively impacts a person of color in that same organization.
The Nothing I Can Do variety of white will engage in a discussion with co-workers of color, but they too project the same message that the relationship is being defined by the white co-worker’s unwillingness to act as a true colleague. Discussions with them are also stillborn. A relationship with them requires co-workers of color to give up any expectation that they will act as a true friend. At best, these whites can be congenial acquaintances. They may even take a genuine interest in their co-workers of color. They may want to know about their families and may even socialize in certain settings. However, their silence about the institutional racism around them constitutes acceptance and legitimation of it. This means that they are obstacles to dismantling that racism. While they may act pleasant, they are too invested in their privileged status to risk it by speaking up or supporting their co-workers of color.
The Dedicated Anti-racist co-workers are rare. Even when they exist, each varies in the level of skill that they have acquired. Less skillful Anti-racists can cause fruitless conflict with other whites, and this can have negative consequences for co-workers of color who are often less risky targets for reprisal than whites. Even the most experienced Anti-racist whites say or do things that negatively impact their co-workers of color. However, because the relationship can be real, these whites can learn and grow in their self-awareness, if they are willing to own up and acknowledge the negative outcomes they created with their co-workers of color. These whites can also provide very valuable information that the other varieties of whites will not share with people of color (e.g., which white managers are more fair, which units have whites who are less toxic, which managers will mentor people of color, etc.)
With the exception of the Anti-Racist whites, relationships with the other varieties of whites are non-productive in several important ways. They all have strict limits on what can be discussed or what can be expected from the white person. The resulting relationships are not organic relationships that grow as each party learns more about the other party. This has another consequence for the co-worker of color. Research shows that those who reach the top of organizations have wide social networks. People of color whose co-workers consist of all but one of these varieties of whites will have an exceedingly difficult time creating broad social networks. Whatever networks they do create will be less broad than their white co-workers. This means that their chances of getting a mentor are less than that of the white co-workers.
Lastly, of these six varieties of whites, five take energy away from co-workers of color. At the far extreme, a person of color has to be alert and prepared any time they encounter a co-worker who is a White Dominionist. The other four varieties usually comprise the dominant majority of white co-workers. It is actually they who are the largest barrier to dismantling institutional racism.
The continued refusal of whites to acknowledge institutional racism means that people of color work in environments that are far more taxing on their energy than the environments in which whites work. They face an environment that is hostile to their existence in it and is hostile to talking about their experience in that organization. One of the highest predictors of illness in the workplace is knowing that you are going to face conflict at work. The denial of racism is a form of conflict that negatively affects people of color in their workplace.
For those whites who are wondering about how reparations ought to take place, there is one avenue that is quite accessible to all of us. If we are willing to acknowledge the full scope of the institutional racism, and if we are willing to use whatever discretionary power we have to undermine that racist structure, we become one less white person who is keeping that racist structure intact.