Recognizing Unseen Racism in the Workplace, and Doing Something About It


Racism in the workplace is more common and more pervasive than many people believe. It is easy to think of the highly charged word “racism” in a work setting and imagine occasional scenes of coworkers in the break room expressing their prejudices in banter, or perhaps in a heated exchange in which a racial epithet is let loose. Or, one may think of daily slights or derogatory behavior towards a target group, often referred to as microaggressions, such as a manager not giving serious consideration to the ideas proposed by Black women in staff meetings. While these individual acts of racist (intersecting with sexist, heterosexist, ableist, etc.) behavior are a part of the problem, racism is bigger and much more pervasive than interpersonal interactions.

Beneath the tip of the iceberg of acts of individual racist behavior is the body of policies and practices that collectively generate racially inequitable outcomes. To illustrate, in recruitment racially inequitable hiring outcomes may occur when so-called “colorblind,” or supposedly race-neutral, hiring practices involve recruitment efforts that fail to deliver effective outreach in diverse talent markets and result in racially homogenous candidate pools. Add to this, for example, candidate evaluation protocols that invite subjective scoring, among other unnecessarily bias-prone practices, and the outcomes are predictably disproportionately white male hiring trends. 

The term systemic racism is often used to describe this dynamic of disparate racial outcomes that systematically produce inequality as a result of racially inequitable policies, whether intentional or not.  In his book, How to be an Antiracist (2019), scholar, Ibram X. Kendi, defines racism as “a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.” This definition of racism allows us to bypass superficial debates about individual transgressions and intentions, and instead focus on what ultimately matters most: impact, as measured by racially equitable or inequitable outcomes. While human resources and organizational legal teams may regularly investigate discrimination incidents in a case-by-case approach and either find accused parties responsible or not, this emphasis on the individual cases accounts for trees while dismissing the forest. Ultimately, if the impact of commonplace organizational behavior is a racial inequity, such as persistently hiring and promoting a disproportionately white workforce, or higher turnover rates for professionals of color, it is necessary to recognize systemic failures and adjust policies and practices to establish equity needs as the focus of strategic planning.

Importantly, anyone regardless of their racial identification can contribute to the construction or maintenance of policies that contribute to racial inequities, and thereby serve as agents of racism, as Kendi also underscores. This stands in partial contrast to a popular definition of racism, which holds that racism is “prejudice plus power.” This definition can be useful to help people recognize the deeper structural racial inequities favoring white people beyond the individual prejudices that anyone may hold. However, the ‘prejudice plus power’ definition may also inadvertently and problematically suggest that people of color cannot also behave in ways that contribute to perpetuating racial inequities, the most pervasive and damaging result of racism. Just because the project manager, hr specialist, or even diversity program representative is a person of color doesn’t mean that they may not also use their positional power in support of policies that contribute to racially inequitable outcomes. Ultimately, the purpose of analyzing how we define racism is not about pointing the finger to label people as racists, but rather to better recognize the scope of racism in its various presentations embedded in policies that shape organizational systems.  Simultaneously, the call is to reflect in order to take personal accountability at different moments in which we may be contributing to the production of racial inequities in policy design. The opportunity is to consciously and actively work to dismantle policies that reproduce inequities when we have opportunities to exercise power and influence. But before policy redesign can take place effectively, mindful study of the systems in place is necessary to understand the particular dynamics of an organization that reproduces racial inequities.