When White Workers Perceive Discrimination

Research finds that white employees have a stronger reaction to race-based stress than minorities
By: 
Brenda Bouw
Broken white eggshell on pink table.

The phrase “white fragility” was coined by racial and social justice educator Robin DiAngelo in 2011. The term describes a defensive state experienced by white people in the face of challenges to their racial understandings, or what’s known as “racial stress.”

“Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar,” wrote DiAngelo, who went on to author the 2018 bestseller White Fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. These interruptions can take many forms and can trigger reactions of anger, fear, argumentation, silence and avoidance.

Eddy Ng, professor of equity and inclusion at Smith School of Business, has witnessed white fragility in action in the communities and classrooms across North America where he’s worked. For instance, some white people, he says, consider affirmative action as discrimination and develop racial anxiety from a fear of being displaced.

For example, Ng recalls the story of white students at a U.S. university who complained that there were African-American and Latino student days on campus but no special days for them. “I thought to myself, ‘Do you know how you sound?” says Ng.

Some white people have also experienced racial stress from movements such as Black Lives Matter. That’s because they perceive that they are “under attack” by minority groups. “Equality feels like oppression when you’re accustomed to privilege,” Ng notes. 

What impact does this perceived discrimination have on workplaces?

Building on the notion of white fragility, Ng and colleagues Greg Sears and Muge Bakkaloglu from Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, set out to explore white and minority employees’ reactions to perceived discrimination at work. They also wanted to learn how these reactions impact work outcomes and employees’ sense of well-being.

Drawing from a survey of 752 working professionals (92 per cent of them white) across multiple organizations in the U.S., results from Ng’s co-authored research found that white employees reported significantly higher work stress and lower job satisfaction than minority employees when they perceived discrimination in the workplace, despite perceiving it less frequently than minority employees in the first place.

Ng points to diversity and inclusion initiatives—such as the hiring of more racialized employees, which some white employees perceive as unfair and disadvantageous—as a potential source of this perceived discrimination. Questions such as “I have been denied a promotion because of my race” and “I have been denied a job for which I was qualified for because of my race,” were among those in the survey.

In response to instances of this perceived discrimination, the research also found white employees were more inclined than minority employees to express their intentions of leaving their organization. “For minority employees, it doesn’t matter where they go. They will still experience discrimination,” Ng says.

These results appear to line up with DiAngelo’s conceptualization of white fragility and suggest that because of their privileged position and lower exposure to race-based stress, white employees may report more negative work outcomes from perceived discrimination and be more inclined to neutralize the negative effects of it by looking for a new job at a different company.

“Even though racialized employees experience discrimination daily, and at a larger magnitude, they have built up the stamina to cope with it, whereas white employees have not,” Ng says. This lack of “racial stamina” can serve to reinforce racial inequality. 

Ng says employers can use the findings to help foster a climate of inclusion for all workers, including white employees. Part of that includes ensuring that diversity and inclusion policies don’t trigger a backlash from white employees and assisting white employees in understanding the significance of their own identities, which is often taken for granted and assumed to be the norm.

One way to minimize backlash and promote inclusion, Ng says, is through racial literacy. This involves helping white employees understand the damaging and lasting effects of discrimination on racialized people, including access to education and economic opportunities.

“White employees may not understand that hard work alone is not sufficient for success in life. They need to recognize that privilege opens doors that are not available to others,” Ng says. Understanding the past and developing racial humility, he explains, can help white employees be allies and accomplices rather than react defensively to diversity and inclusion efforts.

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