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Who benefits from racism in the workplace?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

racism_work_heroWhat an odd way to ask the question of why racism remains in today’s workplace! But it’s the way a group of researchers conceptualized their question. Researchers from the US, the UK and Canada looked at the question and found some interesting patterns. They examined who speaks up when racist statements are made and who stays quiet–as well as just what informs the behavioral choice when hearing racial slurs.

The researchers quote a 1992 court case: “Perhaps no single act can more quickly ‘alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment’…than the use of an [unambiguous] racial epithet”. They also describe the workplace research on interpersonal aggression as being more defined by behaviors ranging from “gossiping to physical abuse” and not on the use of racial slurs in the workplace.

These researchers define racial slurs as “a subset of interpersonal aggression” that is directed at specific racial groups or individuals belonging to those groups. The intent of the racial slur is to “inflict personal or psychological harm, such as damaging their character or injuring their reputation”. Finally, they say racial slurs have three “defining characteristics: they are serious, overt and discriminatory”.

The researchers looked at three types of “actors” in their study: the target of the slur, the aggressor (the person using the slur), and the observers (those indirectly involved). They conducted 3 separate studies on White/Black racial slurs and here is what they found:

Whites were targets of racial slurs less often than Blacks. Whites were more likely to target Blacks with racial slurs than the reverse. Indeed, Whites used more racial slurs than did Blacks.

White men were more likely to use racial slurs around other White men and be less likely to speak up in protest when they observed the use of racial slurs.

The problem is worse among men. Black men were more often targeted by White men with racial slurs than Black women were targeted by White women.

Whites observing racial slurs were twice as likely as Black observers to remain silent.

The researchers interpret these findings in the context of social dominance theory and theories on gendered prejudice. Essentially, what they say is that socially dominant groups (in this case Whites over Blacks, and men over women) are more likely to allow the perpetuation of racial slurs since it helps them to maintain power (i.e., the status quo). This tendency is going to be more likely among White men than among White women since women have less power than men in our society.

So, the researchers say, White men are going to more often use racial slurs in conversation with other White men (as well as at specific targets) and they are more likely to remain silent rather than protest when they observe the use of racial slurs at work. They highlight the usefulness of these findings in the workplace where, these researchers say, “blatant displays of bias have not vanished from the workplace, but instead are quite prevalent”.

They recommend managers be aware of the idea that those employees most likely to hear racial slurs being used (i.e., White men) are also the least likely to speak out against those who use them, “in part because they have a greater belief in inequality”. The researchers suggest developing workgroup cultures where the “borders of socially dominant groups are permeable” so that racially different employees move freely and can model challenging racial slurs. That way, say the researchers, “they [e.g., Whites] may be better able to understand that, although in the short run, racial slurs may be beneficial to socially dominant groups, in the long run racial slurs may be to the detriment of both socially dominant groups and socially subordinate groups”.

This research naturally has relevance to the law firm as a workplace but it also has relevance for the ethnically diverse jury. Last week, we wrote about how being a part of an ethnically diverse group results in increases in negative mood. The researchers in that study looked at enhancing a sense of purpose (by asking participants to write briefly about their purpose in life) and found that increased awareness of individual purpose (stemming from the writing assignment) resulted in less negative mood.

In the workplace, increasing employee’s sense of purpose could be stimulated with a shared goal (communicated at employee orientation and ongoing trainings) of developing a more positive, collaborative, and productive workplace.

Rosette, AS, Carton, AM, Bowes-Sperry, L, & Hewlin, PF (2013). Why do racial slurs remain prevalent in the workplace? Integrating theory on intergroup behavior. Organization Science DOI: 10.1287/orsc.1120.0809

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