If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Racism in the Workplace

Amanda (fictional name), an African-American female, works for an advertising firm. Many of the employees feel her rise in the company was due to Affirmative Action or for simply being black. At a planning meeting Amanda offers an idea about how the firm might work at customer relations. Other members of the committee listen but quickly move on with other ideas. A few minutes later a white member of the committee offers the same idea that Jenny offered earlier, as if it were his own original idea. The idea is applauded and added to the firm’s strategies.

Racism is entrenched in institutions, even church institutions, often going without notice. At a recent meeting of an antiracism team working with a church institution I heard a number of personal stories of racism within Christian institutions from people of color that occurred without any acknowledgement by the white workers involved. It caused me to want to reflect on the need to educate employees in institutions about racism in the workplace.

I am aware of the promotion of diversity and multicultural training in the workplace. Multicultural training has its limits in addressing the dynamics of institutional racism. A focus on multiculturalism in the workplace tends to focus tolerance of diversity, respect for racial and ethnic differences, and creating harmonious relationships, but does not address the key issues of racism as a systemic abuse of power and the underlying white privileges within institutions.

Today racism is more subtle and cloaked than in the days of Jim Crow, but it is still alive and well nonetheless. And the workplace is a significant arena for racism to operate “openly undercover.” By this I mean, that racism is not blatant and is often indirect and excused as “unintentional,” “a misunderstanding in communication,” or “people of color being too racially sensitivity.”

Some questions might be helpful as a beginning place for reflecting on racism in the workplace:


1. Are job openings posted and advertised in places where people of color have access?
2. What is the racial composition within the institution and its departments?
3. Have a disproportionate number of people of color been laid off or resigned?
4. Are dismissals performed by the same criteria and process for whites and people of color?

Orientation and Training

1. Is antiracism training a part of the orientation of new staff?
2. Are current staff members required to take antiracism training as a necessary job skill?
3. Is there ongoing training and conversation about the dynamics of racism in the workplace?

Institutional culture and interpersonal relations

1. Does the office culture create expectations for people of color to fit into white, European ways of relating (e.g., “Around here we do not openly express our emotions or confront someone personally when it comes to differences of opinion).
2. Do white people take the initiative to bring to light racist comments, viewpoints, or actions?
3. Is there a fear that a negative evaluation of the incompetence of a person of color will be viewed as racist?
4. Do white employees expect people of color to represent or be the spokesperson for their race?
5. Is race openly and non-defensively discussed in the workplace?
6. Are racial grievances taken seriously?

Planning and Decisionmaking

1. Are people of color found in positions of decision making and power?
2. Are people of color in places of power and position actually allowed to use their power and position in planning and decisionmaking?
3. Are the skills and opinions of people of color valued as highly as those of whites?

This is simply a beginning list of reflection questions on racism in the workplace. The workplace takes up a significant proportion of our lives. More work needs to be done in training staff and employees of companies, corporations, and institutions on creating an environment of antiracism within the workplace.


Joseph Brandt, Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America. Augsburg, 1991.
Paul Kivel, Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. New Society Publishers, 1996.
Lena Williams, It’s the Little Things: The Everyday Interactions that Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites. Harcourt, Inc., 2000.
New Demographic blog site, www.raceintheworkplace.com

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