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date: 02 December 2021

Whiteness in Organizations: From White Supremacy to Allyshipfree

Whiteness in Organizations: From White Supremacy to Allyshipfree

  • Donna Chrobot-Mason, Donna Chrobot-MasonDepartment of Psychology, University of Cincinnati
  • Kristen CampbellKristen CampbellDepartment of Psychology, University of Cincinnati
  •  and Tyra VasonTyra VasonDepartment of Psychology, University of Cincinnati


Many whites do not identify with a racial group. They think very little about their own race and the consequences of being born into the dominant racial group. They do not think much about race because they do not have to. As a member of the dominant group, whites view their race as the norm. Furthermore, whites consciously or unconsciously typically view their experiences as race-less. In actuality whites’ experiences are far from race-less.

Many whites also fail to acknowledge the privileges their racial group provides. As long as whites continue to dominate leadership roles and positions of power in organizations, there will continue to be strong in-group bias providing unearned advantages to whites in the workplace, such as greater hiring and advancement opportunities. Additionally, as long as whites fail to acknowledge privilege, they will likely adopt a color-blind perspective, which in turn leads to a lack of recognition of microaggressions and other forms of discrimination as well as a lack of support for organizational initiatives to improve opportunities for employees of color.

In order to create a more inclusive workplace, it is imperative that both whites and white dominated organizations promote and foster white allies. For whites who wish to become allies, acknowledging white privilege is a necessary but insufficient step. Becoming a white ally also requires questioning meritocracy as well as working in collaboration with employees to implement lasting change.


  • Organizational Behavior
  • Social Issues

Research on what it means to be white in the workplace, how dominant group members define whiteness, and workplace consequences for both is relatively sparse. Compared to the vast literature that has examined the types of workplace discrimination and bias non-dominant racial groups experience in the workplace, scholars know much less about whiteness in the context of work. One possible explanation for this is that many whites do not think much about what it means to be white. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that whites perceive themselves to be “race-less” (Knowles, Lowery, Chow, & Unzueta, 2014; Lewis, 2004). Macalpine and Marsh (2005) refer to this as the silence on whiteness in organizations. In their research, they found that whites find it difficult to talk about being white without reference to the other (most often blacks) and that there is a great deal of resistance, fear, and embarrassment in attempting to discuss and acknowledge whiteness. This is likely because as members of the dominant group, their racial identity is considered the norm, typical, expected, and not something that prevents them from getting hired, promoted, or treated fairly in the workplace.

The focus of this article is to present a review of the literature on whiteness as it pertains to organizations and with that a goal to promote additional research, dialogue, and critical analysis of the important role whiteness plays in organizational practices and policies. This endeavor is not an easy task as a complete review of scholarship on whiteness must inherently cover an extensive historical summary and draw from a variety of disciplines, including education, law, sociology, psychology, and political science, among others. Additionally, the construct of whiteness has developed and is defined differently in different cultural contexts. As such, the review presented here cannot be comprehensive due to space limitations. That being said, the intent is to draw on foundational theoretical and empirical scholarly contributions from a variety of disciplines as they apply to organizational contexts. In the sections that follow we begin with a discussion about the definition and meaning of whiteness. We then summarize research on constructs critical to understanding whiteness, including privilege and color-blindness, and consider the consequences and implications of each in the workplace. We then examine the process of and development of a healthier white identity and alternatives to color-blindness. This is followed by a discussion of how and why whiteness may be evolving over time as organizations attempt to create a more inclusive workplace and what whites and organizations can do to promote allyship. Finally, we conclude by asserting both theoretical and practical implications of our review.

The Social Construction of Whiteness

To understand and define whiteness, it is important to first acknowledge that race is socially constructed. In other words, race is not genetically or biologically determined but rather is constructed within a society, by members of that society. Furthermore, the construct of race serves a societal purpose. Typically, that purpose is to obtain and maintain power and status. Scholars have argued that the existence of racial groups was invented to create differences among humans, which could then be used as the basis for differential treatment and status within society. For instance, Smedley and Smedley (2005) consider the history of race and in doing so point out that genetically, humans are far more alike than different. In fact, scientists reveal that all humans are 99.9% genetically alike. The authors therefore argue that although biological racial differences are essentially a myth, racial differences in socioeconomic status, political power, education, housing, and health care opportunities are profound and persistent (Smedley & Smedley, 2005). Consequently, in the remainder of this article, whiteness and the racial category “white” will be viewed as socially constructed by whites with the purpose of creating a social hierarchy in which whites are favored. Furthermore, this ideology, which has both historical and sociological significance, will subsequently be referred to as white supremacy. The notion of whiteness, white supremacy, and racial inequality was essentially created beginning in the 17th century by Europeans as a way to justify power and status differences (Smedley & Smedley, 2005).

Structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) serves to illuminate the process of socially constructing racial differences. Giddens suggests that people are both producers and products of society and its structurations. Humans construct, order, and routinize social relations. Giddens (1984) goes on to explain three dimensions that are critical to the process of structuration. The first, signification, suggests that language and discourse identify and clarify what is significant in a society. Domination involves the allocation of resources in a social system and manifests in political and economic institutions. And finally, legitimation refers to society’s creation of norms that are reflected in legal institutions. In other words, what is important, who has resources, and what is acceptable within a society is determined by both individuals and the institutions that individuals collectively create.

While there is no universal definition or manifestation of whiteness, common themes are found across countries and geographic regions. For example, certain regions have been classified as white possessions, signifying that whiteness reigns superior within their political and social contexts to maintain white ownership and to create a lack of belongingness for the countries’ “others” (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). In Australia, whiteness is explained as hypervisible “white possession,” meaning that the presence of whiteness, as a result of colonization, is apparent and clearly showcased within Australia’s political and social realms of interaction (Moreton-Roberson, 2006; Moreton-Robinson, 2015). In turn, such outward representations of white superiority and dominance cast a negative view of Australia’s indigenous people and pressure them into fitting the mold of Western culture, beliefs, and values. For instance, Moreton-Robinson (2015) argues that indigenous people of Australia have their own way of interacting with one another but that it is common for organizational cultures to require more “white normative responses” and forms of engagement (p. 224).

Another place of “white possession” is the United Kingdom. U.K. scholars have defined whiteness as a social and institutional construct of life that is overt and almost impenetrable as a result of an “ongoing and unfinished history of colonization” (Ahmed, 2007, p. 154; see also Mirza, 2006; Tate, 2016). Ahmed (2007) argues that whiteness in the United Kingdom shapes the direction in which bodies “take up” space and interact within the world that is molded as “white” by way of colonization. The presence of a white world has produced feelings of discomfort, heightened visibility of difference, and perceptions of being exposed to the masses when non-white people take up space or enter settings that are dominated by the white majority (Ahmed, 2007). Much of U.K. white literature discusses this component of standing out as the “burden of visibility” (Mirza, 2006). Visibility by way of race creates clear individualization and apparent difference because non-whites will easily stand out among the white majority, which may result in feelings of not belonging, self-exclusion, or learning to fade into the background to eliminate the potential for continued discomfort (Ahmed, 2007; Tate, 2016). In the United Kingdom, being non-white calls for actively working to be recognized outside negative stereotypes (e.g., inherently criminal, unpredictable, unreliable, violent) that are embedded in society (Hall, 1992; Mirza, 2006; Tate, 2016), whereas, being white is often associated with perceived threats by the presence of non-whites. For instance, Tate (2016) argues that white communities perceive the presence of blacks as a threat to many aspects of life, including employment, education, housing, etc. (Tate, 2016).

A third country of white dominance is the United States. Similar to the United Kingdom, whiteness is defined in the United States as an ongoing process of history to reproduce local, national, and geopolitical relations as a result of colonization (Hunter, Swan, & Grimes, 2010). In the United States, the dominance of white norms is a result of the country’s history of gaining power by way of colonization and enslavement (Hunter et al., 2010). Whiteness has persisted in the United States largely due to its invisibility, where whiteness is ignored by presumably ignoring the differences of others (i.e., color-blindness) and empowering the assumptions, actions, and beliefs of white people (Grimes, 2002). Thus, white norms are silently reinforced and deemed as an acceptable means of expression and interaction. As white is the norm in the United States, whites receive the privilege of being the majority, which allows their opinions to matter in most cases (Parker, Jiang, McCluney, & Rabelo, 2017). Conversely, non-white Americans are more likely to experience identity-specific discrimination and mistreatment as a result of their heightened visibility and potential “threat” to the white normative (Parker et al., 2017).

Although the definition of whiteness is not the same across every colonized country, the experiences faced by non-whites and the reinforcement of white norms appear to persist across various demographic regions, as do the consequences of white supremacy beliefs. Even though race is an invented social category, Bonilla-Silva (2015) argues that it is meaningful because it has produced very real consequences for people in racial categories. For those in the white category, the consequence is an ideology that supports domination over other racial groups. Over time, white supremacy and domination become so embedded in a society’s structures and institutions that white becomes the norm against which all others are judged. Indeed, over time, whiteness can become “invisible” to the dominant group. Critical race theory (CRT) argues that one of the reasons racism has been so difficult to address is that large segments of society fail to acknowledge racism and have little incentive to change (Delgado & Stefancic, 2017).

Sue (2004) describes the problem as being trapped in a Euro-American worldview. He argues that the worldview held by most whites is only partially accurate, but when this worldview is challenged as false, illusive, or unjust, the alternative is often frightening and thus avoided. DiAngelo (2012) asserts that most white people are racially illiterate, meaning that they can only articulate a superficial, predictable, and distorted understanding of race. In other words, most whites have not been educated or socialized to understand the complexities of race or the implications of whiteness and thus lack the ability to understand the role of race in their own lives. CRT attempts to not just understand the social construction of race but to actively change it. However, in order to do so, it is critically important that whites begin to acknowledge their whiteness and, with that, the power and privileges associated with being white. As a result, a subfield of CRT known as critical white studies has emerged, with the goal being to destabilize whiteness by exposing, examining, and challenging it (Andersen, 2003). The objective is to challenge dominant group ideas such as objectivity, color-blindness, and meritocracy and thereby expose how these worldviews disadvantage people of color and advantage whites by reinforcing white supremacy (Earick, 2018). Overall, the intent of CRT is to make the invisible visible. In the next section, white privilege is defined and highlighted as a significant impediment to challenging white supremacy in organizations.

White Privilege

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh wrote a powerful paper that provided a list of 46 examples of white privilege, which she describes as invisible unearned assets. Some of the items McIntosh listed include “I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time,” “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford in which I would want to live,” and “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” While examples of white privilege may look different today, the privileges that McIntosh unveiled 30 years ago are still relevant. Today, white privilege is commonly described simply as “the unearned benefits white people experience because of their race” (Conway, Lipset, Pogge, & Ratliff, 2017).

White privilege in America can be traced to the colonization of the country, during which time Europeans viewed nearly anyone other than themselves to be “wild savages” (Nkomo & Ariss, 2014). White privilege can be more explicitly seen in the workplace beginning with the industrialization era. Immigration was on the rise during this time, and many immigrants identified as “white” because anything else was viewed negatively and perceived to be less productive (Nkomo & Ariss, 2014). Wage differences also influenced immigrants’ decision to “highlight” their whiteness. Whites were generally paid higher wages than blacks and experienced other benefits inside and outside of work (e.g., less dangerous job opportunities, greater educational opportunities, free admittance to parks). Prior to the Civil War, slave labor was preferred in southern mills and factories because it was cheaper than white labor. After the war, however, the preference was reversed, and segregation and discrimination did not allow blacks to hold jobs that poorer white men could occupy. At that time, blacks and other ethnic minorities were forced to work menial, dangerous, and less desirable jobs (Nkomo & Ariss, 2014).

By definition, white privilege is often invisible to those who benefit from it (McIntosh, 1989). In individualistic countries such as the United States, meritocracy (a belief that one’s success is determined by hard work, ability, and talent) is a prevailing ideology. Research supports the fact that white Americans are generally less aware of the privileges tied to their race compared to individuals from racial minority groups. For example, in a study using data from the American Mosaic Project survey (N = 2,081), Hartmann, Gerteis, and Croll (2009) investigated awareness of whiteness and white privilege among Americans. Participants were asked questions about the importance of their racial identity as well as whether they thought whites had better jobs, incomes, and housing than other groups. Findings identified that only 37% of white respondents reported that their racial identity was “very important,” whereas 72% of respondents of color reported that their identity was “very important,” supporting the notion that “whites attach less importance to race than do racial minorities” (Hartmann et al., 2009, p. 413). Results also support the notion that whites lack an awareness and/or understanding of the privilege associated with their whiteness and are more likely to attribute their advantage to differences in family upbringing, effort, and hard work (Hartmann et al., 2009).

For many whites, the only time they may face direct challenges and awareness of their privilege is during a multicultural course at a university or the first time they are employed in a diverse workplace setting (DiAngelo, 2011). However, if placed in a situation that directly challenges racism and racial differences and white privilege, whites often respond negatively (e.g., via anger, withdrawal, guilt, argumentative behavior). This negative response reflects “white fragility.” White fragility has been defined as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 54). White fragility may hinder whites’ understanding of racial differences and awareness of their white privilege and potentially perpetuate the cycle that holds racism in place today. Tate and Page (2018) argue that white fragility impacts the development and delivery of diversity training initiatives. They argue that the institutionalization of unconscious bias is essentially used as an alibi for white supremacy and serves to make diversity training more palatable for the dominant group. In other words, by labeling bias as unconscious in nature, whites feel less responsibility for their beliefs and thus do not have to feel guilty about their actions.

“White guilt” may be a driving factor of white fragility. White guilt is a deep feeling of guilt about “what we have done and continue to do; the unbearable knowledge of our complicity with the profound torture of black people from past to present” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 93). Applebaum (2010) proposes that white guilt is similar to the guilt held by Germans after World War II, even among those not involved in the war. Common responses by Germans include “we didn’t know” or “we could not have done anything anyway” (Applebaum, 2010, p. 1). This response prompted research to investigate and discover two forms of guilt: moral and metaphysical guilt. Moral guilt is “contingent on what one does or does not do,” while metaphysical guilt is “based on who one is” (Applebaum, 2010, p. 2). These types of guilt can either enhance white fragility and privilege or serve as a motivator for whites to work toward racial equity and equality. Sullivan (2014) argues that in many cases, shame and guilt lock whites into negative affective cycles that only serve to perpetuate color-blindness and apathy toward racial justice. Applebaum (2017) describes a possibly all-too-common situation that involves comforting whites experiencing white guilt, which then serves to further reinforce white fragility. For example, during a lecture about whiteness and racism, there was a heated discussion among students that led one student in particular to express feelings of guilt and ultimately cry. Seeing this strong reaction, the professor and other students comforted the white student who expressed guilty feelings. Applebaum noticed this response toward the student experiencing and expressing white guilt, but there was no one comforting the minority students who had also expressed negative and difficult emotions. By addressing and comforting the student experiencing white guilt, white fragility was reinforced and perhaps enhanced in this particular classroom situation.

Other research shows that not only are whites unaware of the privileges their race affords them, but many whites feel they have no race at all. Lewis (2004) suggests that “whites do not share a common conscious identity” (p. 626). Frankenberg (1993) argues that whites are not consciously aware of their own race because their dominant status affords them the opportunity to not have to think much about race. As the dominant racial group, white is the norm or standard against which other racial groups are measured (McDermott, 2015), allowing whites to take their race for granted and not think about the implications of their racial identity. While a great deal of research has shown that many whites do not identify with any racial group and do not see themselves as white, there is also a large body of research supporting the fact that many whites hold beliefs in a color-blind perspective. Color-blindness may be considered an implication or consequence of a lack of awareness of white privilege


Traditionally, whites are socialized, often implicitly, to maneuver through the world without awareness of the privileges that accompany their whiteness (Boatright-Horowitz, Frazier, Harps-Logan, & Crockett, 2013). Many whites are not aware of how the associated privileges and power influence their lives and present opportunities, because they take a “color-blind approach” and “think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, average, and also ideal” (McIntosh, 1989, p. 10; see also Hartmann et al., 2009; McIntosh, 2015). Color-blind attitudes have been conceptualized as an unawareness of blatant racial issues, denial of white privilege, and denial of institutional racism and the need to correct it (Neville, Lilly, Duran, Lee, & Browne, 2000). A person who holds these attitudes essentially adopts the perspective “that race should not and does not matter” (Neville et al., 2000, p. 60). As such, color-blindness is not only an important implication of lacking awareness of white privilege, but it is also perceived by many whites as a morally superior approach to race relations (Sullivan, 2014). That is, many whites may strive to adopt a color-blind approach under the auspices of two false assumptions, the first being that it is actually possible to not see race and the second being that not noticing racial differences is a behavior that leads to positive outcomes.

At the core of this framework, people that express having a color-blind paradigm believe that racism has become a mindset of the past and no longer has any importance within today’s society (Bonilla-Silva, 2001, 2003; Carr, 1997; Neville, Coleman, Falconer, & Holmes, 2005). This paradigm allows people the opportunity to minimize, ignore, and/or distort racial categories (Neville et al., 2005; Plaut, Thomas, & Goren, 2009) and interracial differences that aid in racial prejudice in an attempt to identify each person solely as an individual (Neville, Awad, Brooks, Flores, & Bluemel, 2013; Richeson & Nussbaum, 2003). Presenting a color-blind attitude allows people to express the fact that they “do not see” race or color as a factor of how they perceive another individual, and overall racial categories do not matter. Instead, such individuals argue that they choose to see another person as an equal individual, citizen, coworker, etc., rather than a member of any racial group (Neville et al., 2013).

Counter to this notion is the fact that researchers have argued that the formation of one’s implicit biases take place well beyond conscious thought and that human brains are not designed to treat all people equally (Self, Mitchell, Mellers, Tetlock, & Hildreth, 2015). Due to the undeniable fact that people do “see color” and notice race “in less than one-seventh of a second” (Appelbaum, Norton, & Sommers, 2012, p. 201), it thus seems that we as humans are unable to be color-blind. Even if we are genuine in wanting to see individuals through a race-free lens, the evidence is clear that this is largely an impossibility. Why then does color-blindness persist?

Plaut, Thomas, Hurd, and Romano (2018) argue that whites may adopt a color-blind perspective in an attempt to show support for a more equitable society. In other words, they may believe that the morally correct thing to do is to not see race. Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, envisioned of a time when people would judge others not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That being said, color-blindness may also be a way for whites to maintain the status quo and/or justify racial inequality (Plaut et al., 2018). Color-blindness serves as a way for whites to legitimize racism while maintaining their racial privileges and dominance, fosters a victim-blame mentality against the position of minorities in comparison to whites, creates and maintains a racial status quo for division (Neville et al., 2005), and fosters the removal of public discussions and the need for social race-related programs for progress (Gallagher, 2003).

Ryan and colleagues (2007) conducted two studies to examine the tendency of blacks and whites to exhibit a color-blind mentality and discriminatory outcomes. They found that whites were more likely to adopt a color-blind mindset than their black counterparts and that this mindset in whites significantly predicted stronger stereotypes in relation to blacks (Ryan, Hunt, Weible, Peterson, & Casas, 2007). In essence, the ideology of color-blindness perpetuates the cycle of racism and divide (e.g., economic, educational, political gaps) between racial minority groups and whites in America. Additionally, there seems to be a cyclical relationship between color-blindness and white privilege (Nkomo & Ariss, 2014).

Consequences of White Power in the Workplace

One of the significant consequences of a workplace in which whites have significantly more power, and with that color-blind attitudes and a lack of awareness of privilege, is reduced sensitivity to racism. Offerman et al. (2014) found that whites who had adopted a color-blind perspective were less sensitive to microaggressions, defined as chronic put-downs and slights that devalue racial minorities (Sue et al., 2007). This lack of sensitivity then contributes to what has become known as “modern racism.” Whitley and Kite (2006) suggest that norms have changed since the civil rights era such that most Americans wish to be perceived as non-racist and try to act in ways that will not be viewed by others as prejudiced. Thus, blatant racism is no longer prevalent and is considered by most to be socially unacceptable. What has replaced blatant forms of racism experienced during the Jim Crow laws era is a much more subtle form of behavior that has been called modern racism, new racism, and/or benevolent racism (Brief, Dietz, Cohen, Pugh, & Vaslow, 2000; Esposito & Romano, 2014; McConahay, 1986).

The basic tenets of modern racism include the beliefs that blacks do not deserve economic growth opportunities, that they are forcing their way into realms where whites do not want them, and that the enforcement of practices and laws to uplift the racial minority communities is unfair in comparison to the hard work and dedication of whites (Brief et al., 2000; McConahay, 1986; Poteat & Spanierman, 2012). Modern racism has been shown to serve as justification for prejudicial behaviors as a result of these underlying principles and attitudes. Modern racism theory assumes that negative attitudes and implicit associations are learned during early experiences of socialization and modeling, which continue into adulthood and contribute to neglecting current political and social issues that are in favor of minority groups (Dovidio, Gaertner, & Pearson, 2016). Examples of social and political issues that those with modern racist views fail to support include policies to assist blacks and other minorities such as affirmative action, fair housing and equal opportunity, and school integration programs. Another example is a lack of support for political candidates who are black or part of a racial minority group. Some research has demonstrated that political candidates who simply express sympathy for blacks have been found to cause white Americans to vote in favor of the opposition (Dovidio et al., 2016).

New racism is different from modern racism in that new racism supports the denial of race (and gender) (Hill Collins, 2004). Duffield (1984, p. 29) argues that new racism is not necessarily intentional and does not generate a hierarchy of races, but is based on the notion of group solidarity, which binds similar people together (e.g., people are attracted to similar people) and creates a sense of belonging, “collective purpose and shared volition.” New racism enters when there are differences and challenges to opposing groups, as groups and cultures naturally want to remain distinct. Benevolent racism, on the other hand, “ostensibly acknowledges and often condemns a system of white privilege” and does not promote the idea of neutrality or color-blindness (Esposito & Romano, 2014, p. 70). Benevolent racism aims to empower black and other minority groups. An example of benevolent racism can be seen in the affirmative action policy in the United States. Through the benevolent racism lens, the affirmative action policy is based on the “idea that black individuals are inferior and incapable of competing with whites as equals” (Esposito & Romano, 2014, p. 75). Thus, although benevolent racism beliefs may on the surface appear to support efforts that promote racial equality, the underlying ideology is still one of white supremacy.

Research by Brief, as well as Cortina, illustrates how such beliefs may result in discrimination and bias in the workplace. Brief and colleagues (2000) developed two experiments to investigate how prejudice and business justifications impact discrimination of minorities during hiring situations. They found that subordinates with high modern racist attitudes selected half as many black applicants compared to those scoring low on a measure of modern racism, and they were more likely to discriminate against black applicants when their superiors gave them a business justification to hire the “right type of person” (i.e., white applicants) (Brief et al., 2000, p. 78). Business justifications for choosing the best-fitting candidate can unconsciously elicit prejudice or discriminatory attitudes and behavior, thus perpetuating the cycle of white men employing and promoting white men (Cortina, Kabat-Farr, Leskinen, Huerta, & Magley, 2013). In a series of three studies, Cortina et al. (2013) found evidence to support a link between race and gender and vulnerability to uncivil treatment on the job. They found that women and people of color were more likely to experience incivility such as exclusion, harassment, bullying, etc. in the workplace. Furthermore, women of color may be at increased risk for mistreatment and incivility in the workplace because of the intersectionality of their race and gender. Intersectionality, and theories of double jeopardy, suggest that the negative effects of race and gender are combined for individuals belonging to two or more minority groups (e.g., black women). Cortina and colleagues (2013) found support for this in their research; black women described more incivility than did black men, white women, or white men (p. 1597). The authors argue that incivility in the workplace disproportionately experienced by women and people of color is a modern form of racism and sexism.

Overall, research suggests that individuals who consciously endorse egalitarian views will express disfavor to racism or prejudice of any kind publicly but may “implicitly harbor negative emotions and cognitions toward women or minorities” (Cortina et al., 2013, p. 1580), which may then serve as rationalization for discriminatory attitudes in the workplace (Brief et al., 2000; McConahay, 1986). It may also serve as the basis for a lack of awareness or receptivity to reports of discrimination in the workplace. For example, Chrobot-Mason, Ragins, and Linnehan (2012) found support for a racial divide in awareness of racial harassment at work. Their data show that white employees were less likely than black employees to report that people of color had experienced racial harassment at work. Branscombe and colleagues suggest that whites may fail to recognize racial discrimination and harassment in the workplace because it threatens their privileged status (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999; Branscombe, Schmitt, & Schiffhauer, 2007).

Another consequence of white power in organizations is a failure to recognize that organizational leadership roles are still predominantly filled by white men because of the implicit bias in favor of white men in positions of power and influence. As social beings, humans create a prototype or ideal schema for nearly every construct, including leadership. Given the history of leaders in positions of power in organizations, the traditional prototype of a leader is that of a white male (Eagly, 1987). According to the implicit leadership theory proposed by Robert Lord (1985), we compare individuals, including ourselves, to our implicit ideas about a typical leader. We compare our schema of the characteristics and attributes we deem to be illustrative of an effective leader and compare this to actual leaders. If our view of the actual leader and our leader prototype align, we are more likely to have positive evaluations and perceptions about the individual’s leadership ability and style. If our view of the individual does not match our prototype, we are less likely to hire them or view them positively as a leader (Gundemir, Homan, de Dreu, & van Vugt, 2014).

Research using the Implicit Association Test provides evidence for an implicit pro-white leadership bias (Gundemir et al., 2014). Gundemir and colleagues conducted a series of three studies involving university student participants. Results showed that white majority and ethnic minority participants responded faster when ethnically white names and leadership traits or roles were paired. Recently, Offermann and Coats (2018) investigated the stability of implicit leadership theories by examining whether conceptualizations of the prototypical leader have changed during the last 20 years. In 1994, characteristics such as sensitivity, dedication, tyranny, charisma, strength, masculinity, and intelligence were determined to be widely accepted as key leadership traits. Despite the number of societal changes that have occurred in the past 20 years, the researchers found that the results remained virtually the same with the exception of one additional factor, namely creativity. The authors conclude that little has changed over time and thus our collective leadership prototype remains that of a white male. This is important because if white males continue to be overly represented in positions of power and fail to recognize their privilege and the implications of this privilege, then racial disparities in the workplace will no doubt remain prevalent.

In summary, there is ample evidence to suggest that there are negative consequences when whites fail to acknowledge the advantages they receive as members of the dominant racial group and adopt a color-blind approach to race relations. The next section describes research regarding the process by which whites acknowledge privilege and begin to better understand the implications of race both for themselves and others.

White Racial Identity Development

While sociology considers whiteness to be a socially constructed variable, the field of psychology often views race as an identity trait. For example, social identity theory (SIT) suggests that members identify with a particular social group as a way to fulfill the basic psychological need to belong while at the same time fulfilling the need to be distinct from others (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Meeting both the need for belonging and uniqueness contributes positively to an individual’s self-concept and self-esteem as is described by the optimal distinctiveness theory (Brewer, 2012). In 1984, researcher Janet Helms proposed a theory of white racial identity development. She describes six statuses that together illustrate how whites come to recognize racism and then begin to develop a more positive white identity by rejecting racism and exploring one’s responsibility in addressing it (Helms, 2017):


Contact: A state of denial of the significance and meaning of race


Disintegration: The beginnings of a conscious acknowledgement of whiteness and associated privileges, which is often in conflict with one’s belief in a meritocracy


Reintegration: An idealization of whites and white culture as a means of maintaining white privilege resolving the cognitive dissonance resulting from an earlier state


Pseudo-independence: Well-intentioned white allies begin to question white superiority and search for information about others, but still fail to recognize racism in themselves


Immersion-Emersion: A state in which there is acknowledgment of whiteness as a source of racism and examination of one’s own and other whites’ roles in perpetrating and maintaining it


Autonomy: An ongoing process to actively learn from other groups and the development of a new white identity in which racism is abandoned.

Helms (2014, 2017) argues that developing a healthier white identity involves a focus first on changing oneself, then changing other whites, with the goal being to reject all forms of racism (Thompson & Carter, 1997) and the ideology of white supremacy itself. This is in contrast to racial identity development models involving people of color, in which the development of a healthy racial identity involves a process in which one begins to view one’s race as a positive attribute (e.g., Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991). The process of developing a healthy racial identity for people of color often begins with denial of the importance of race, followed by greater realization of racial discrimination and immersion in one’s own racial culture, concluding with the development of a positive racial identity and broader concern for activism.

Helms (2014, 2017) and Frankenberg (1993) describe a process in which whites who explore what it means to be white and develop a sense of their racial identity must confront their privileged position of power, status, and opportunity. Frankenberg’s (1993) research on white women sought to illuminate the role of race in their development and the process of constructing a narrative about race. She went on to regard whiteness as encompassing a set of three linked dimensions. She described these dimensions as a location of advantage; a place from which whites look at themselves, others, and society; and a set of cultural practices that are unmarked and unnamed. Her data showed that white women construct a racial narrative that essentially seeks to ignore race. She found that women in her sample insisted that race should not make a difference and emphasized their belief in common humanity. Frankenberg notes that power imbalance and class differences were virtually ignored. Frankenberg (1993) suggests that developing an alternative narrative of whiteness involves altering the meaning of other and working toward a redistribution of power. It also inherently must involve awareness of one’s privilege and alternatives to a color-blind paradigm. Sullivan (2014) argues that the only way whites can become advocates for racial justice and break the negative cycle in which feelings of shame and guilt perpetuate color-blindness is to truly understand and develop an intimate relationship with one’s whiteness.

Alternative Approaches to Color-Blindness

An alternative approach has been presented as an ideological replacement for color-blindness. This pluralistic ideology is known as multiculturalism, which espouses that group membership matters and should be recognized, celebrated, and respected (Plaut et al., 2009, 2018). It is an identity-conscious approach to difference rather than an identity-blind approach. While we know that whites are more likely to endorse color-blind attitudes than people of color, research has also found that whites who endorse multiculturalism report less racial bias (Neville et al., 2000; Ryan et al., 2007). Plaut et al. (2009) conducted a field study involving employees of color and their white peers. The researchers found that employees of color who worked with white peers who endorsed more multicultural attitudes reported feeling less at risk of experiencing bias and more psychologically engaged. Similarly, Meeussen, Otten, and Phalet (2014) found that racial or ethnic minorities who worked with leaders who endorsed multiculturalism reported greater feelings of acceptance.

It is a myth that we as humans can be color-blind when it comes to physical differences, and evidence suggests a multicultural perspective is more predictive of positive workplace outcomes, therefore many diversity scholars have called for an identity-conscious approach in organizations. Identity-conscious policies provide equal consideration for minority individuals throughout the hiring process as a result of fostering a work environment where personnel responsible for hiring are encouraged to increase representation of these historically excluded groups (Konrad & Linnehan, 1995a; Self et al., 2015). The idea of identity-consciousness involves acknowledging any biases that may be present and diligently working as a professional to employ equal and adequate opportunities for marginalized employees who are qualified for the job (Self et al., 2015). Researchers Konrad and Linnehan (1995a) found that organizations with active identity-conscious practices had significantly more people of color within managerial and supervisory positions. Identity-conscious practices ensure the inclusion and consideration of women and minorities within all realms of the organization (e.g., during training programs, management vacancies, company-sponsored social activities) to create a more inclusive workplace (Konrad & Linnehan, 2003).

Overall, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that there are numerous negative consequences when whites choose to adopt a color-blind perspective in the workplace. Most notably is the fact that color-blindness is counter to most organizations’ stated goal of increasing diversity to create a competitive advantage through diversity of thought, experience, and background (Chrobot-Mason & Aramovich, 2013). Yet when a color-blind approach is adopted, diversity is minimized and the potential benefits that can emerge from divergent thinking employees are minimized as well. Alternatively, acknowledging and encouraging differences creates the opportunity for open dialogue and communication that otherwise may go unnoticed if the differences that make people unique are ignored or devalued.

In the next sections we examine how organizations have evolved over time in their approach to dealing with the structural aspects of whiteness and white dominance. We explore how such efforts have evolved from an emphasis on affirmative action to inclusion as well as more recent emphasis on the important role of white allies in organizations.

Evolution of Diversity and Whiteness in Organizations

As mentioned earlier, diversity initiatives such as affirmative action and equal employment opportunity (EEO) practices and policies were implemented in the United States in an effort to combat racial discrimination and bias in the workplace. Although these initiatives were intended to create an equal playing field for all American citizens, data suggest this outcome has yet to be realized. For example, Zschirnt and Ruedin (2016) found that minority applicants are 50% less likely to be invited for a job interview in relation to their equivalent white competitors.

Perhaps one of the reasons these initiatives have not been as successful as hoped is that many whites saw themselves as disengaged from this work since it had no direct impact on them. Research has demonstrated significant differences in support of EEO and affirmative action, with white men being the group least likely to support such efforts (Konrad & Linehan, 1995b). Over time, however, a noticeable shift occurred in organizations in which the emphasis became less on eliminating discrimination and more on diversifying the workforce in order to achieve a competitive advantage (Strachan & Pringle, 2015). This shift from achieving social justice to capitalizing on a diverse workforce emphasized the business case for diversity and came to be known as diversity management.

Diversity management practices were established as a means of promoting cordial and productive working relationships among all employees within an organization as a way to reduce forms of workplace discrimination and to generate positive organizational deliverables (financial effectiveness, product development, etc.) to demonstrate financial gains (Jonsen, Maznevski, & Schneider, 2011; Kossek & Pichler, 2006; Yang & Konrad, 2011). To successfully implement such practices, it became critical to convince organizational decision makers and stakeholders (predominantly white men) that diversifying their workforce would be good for business (Nkomo & Hoobler, 2014). Effective diversity management not only involved hiring minority employees, it required the creation of a work environment in which differences became a source of learning for everyone in the organization (Thomas & Ely, 1996). It was at this time that inclusion became linked with diversity as diversity scholars and practitioners alike argued the importance of creating an inclusive environment if such learning was to take place.

Ferdman and Deane (2014) define inclusion as “how well organizations and their members fully connect with, engage, and utilize people across all types of differences (p. 4). They go on to say that inclusion is how organizations manage diversity such that differences are valued and employees are appreciated because of and not in spite of their differences and similarities. Ferdman and Deane (2014) argue that creating an inclusive workplace requires everyone to engage in inclusive practices. The terms diversity and inclusion now go hand in hand, with the former used to describe the composition of the workforce and the latter used to describe practices and policies to create a desirable work environment.

Historically, then, the role of whites in diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts has transformed from that of passive, disengaged, and resistant to more active, engaged, and committed. Rather than viewing diversity as for everyone except whites, current conceptualizations of diversity now often include a wide range of differences including personality, functional expertise, and organizational hierarchy (Jonsen et al., 2011). Though some have valid concerns that this expanded definition of diversity may simply be a way to appease whites and assuage white fragility, foster a color-blind perspective, and/or take much needed focus away from the discrimination and bias experienced by historically marginalized groups (Konrad & Linnehan, 1995a), an expanded definition of diversity does include everyone, which may ultimately be positive for all identity groups. Ferdman and Deane (2014) suggest that because inclusion is scalable and involves everyone, it may be seen as less political, garner more excitement, and thus be more successful than previous initiatives to promote fairness in the workplace such as affirmative action and EEO. While this still remains to be seen, it does bring with it the hope that whites may become more actively involved in D&I efforts. Recently, scholars have begun to examine the role of whites as allies and thus playing an increasingly important role in organizational change.

White Allyship

A white ally is “a person who consciously commits, attitudinally and behaviorally, to an ongoing, purposeful engagement with and active challenging of white privilege, overt and subtle racism, and systemic racial inequalities for the purpose of becoming an agent of change in collaboration with, not for, people of color” (Ford & Orlandella, 2015, p. 288). Similar to models of white racial identity development, becoming a white ally has been described by some as a lifelong process (Boucher, 2016; Bridges & Mather, 2015; Edwards, 2006) involving continual self-reflexivity and education (Spanierman & Smith, 2017).

Edwards (2006) developed a model of white ally development, which he described as a series of progressive stages in which whites initially engage in behaviors with the intent to protect those they care about. The focus is on identifying and stopping individuals who may be hurting important people in the ally’s life. Edwards refers to this initial stage as “allies for self-interest.” The second stage, “aspiring allies for altruism,” often involves feelings of shame and guilt. While the focus remains on seeking to bring about social justice for others, the ally begins to consider not just those they know personally but others more broadly. That being said, the ally still fails to recognize the need to speak with oppressed groups rather than for oppressed groups. Edwards contrasts this with the final stage, allies for social justice, in which the ally begins to work with those who experience oppression. White allies no longer focus on being allies of individuals they know and who are within their relationship network but rather begin to see themselves as allies in the fight for justice more globally.

Using grounded theory methodology, Bridges and Mather (2015) attempted to test Edwards’ theory by gathering qualitative data from 10 white men attending college. Their results supported the model of ally development and highlighted a process that included recognizing oppression and experiencing tension, acting as an ally, wrestling with privilege, constructing an ally identity, claiming a shared identity, and managing ongoing tension. Part of the ongoing tension involved the desire to act as an ally and remain committed to the work of social justice while at the same time struggling to have an equal relationship with members of less privileged groups and sustain that commitment despite the feeling that the challenges are daunting.

Recently, Sue (2017) reviewed the current literature on white allies and identified four themes of note. The first theme is that becoming a white ally is a “monumental task that presents many internal (personal) and external challenges. It is a constant, lifelong journey” (Sue, 2017, p. 709). The second is that becoming a white ally means becoming aware of one’s whiteness and white privilege. The third is that white allies are “not only nonracist, but also take on an antiracist identity that ‘walks the talk’ ” (Sue, 2017, p. 711), meaning they actively engage in antiracist activities. Finally, the fourth theme is that becoming a white ally does not happen simply by attending courses or workshops. It is more than a cognitive or intellectual exercise. Sue argues that it is really only through lived experiences that whites are able to transform as a result of some “racial awakening” (2017, p. 712). Such experiences may come in the form of familial influences, work with diverse colleagues or clients, dealing with powerful emotions, or intergroup conflict.

Ford and Orlandella (2015) identified two approaches to becoming white allies. The first approach assumes the form of “helping” people of color. Although some may see this as admirable, it is problematic in that it tends to reinforce the power structure. It also implicitly suggests that people of color need whites to save or rescue them and glorifies the role of whites as savior. These assumptions can be patronizing and paternalistic. The second approach varies in that it suggests the white ally is working “with” and not “for” people of color. Students in their research study who demonstrated this second approach understood that systematic racism affects everyone, and they acknowledged that challenging inequitable racial structures would help liberate all racial groups (Ford & Orlandella, 2015).

Very little work to date has been conducted to examine white allies in an organizational or corporate context. Sabat, Martinez, and Wessel wrote in 2013 of the need to conduct research about the development and impact of white allies in the workplace. In their review of the current literature, they suggest that allies often engage in advocacy behaviors such as confronting instances of prejudice and discrimination and that this behavior has been shown to be effective in changing attitudes. Another advocacy behavior they identify as having been shown to be effective is educating non-stigmatized individuals about issues facing stigmatized groups. Thus, white allies may serve as liaisons or boundary spanners (Chrobot-Mason, Ruderman, & Nishii, 2013) to promote awareness and respect across different groups.

Looking Ahead

Based on our review of the literature, several key themes emerge that characterize what we currently know about whiteness in the workplace. First, many whites do not identify with a racial group. They think very little about their own race and the consequences of being born into the dominant racial group. They do not think much about race because they do not have to. As a member of the dominant group, whites view their race as the norm. Furthermore, whites are not likely to experience discrimination in the workplace due to their race, which affords them the opportunity to consciously or unconsciously view their experiences as race-less. In actuality, whites’ experiences are far from race-less. The second theme in the literature is that many whites fail to acknowledge the privileges their racial group provides. As long as whites continue to dominate leadership roles and positions of power in organizations, we know there will be a strong in-group bias providing unearned advantages to whites in the workplace such as greater hiring and advancement opportunities (Brewer, 2007). And third, we know that as long as whites fail to acknowledge such privileges, they will likely adopt a color-blind perspective, which in turn leads to a lack of recognition of micoraggressions and other forms of discrimination against employees of color as well as a lack of support for organizational initiatives to improve opportunities for employees of color.

Because the workforce will continue to diversify and because there is now ample evidence to support the fact that diversity has the potential to be either a competitive advantage or a significant cost as a result of high turnover, litigation, conflict, and a lack of collaboration (Chrobot-Mason & Aramovich, 2013; Cox, 1991; Robinson & Dechant, 1997), it is important to consider what organizational changes should occur in the future to maximize the potential benefits of a diverse workforce. Changes are needed at both the individual and the organizational levels. Therefore, in this final section we consider what whites can do to become allies in the workplace and what organizations can do to support and encourage white allyship.

For individuals who wish to become allies, recognizing one’s privilege is a critical first step. Although different authors have described the process of white identity or white allyship development a bit differently, there seems to be consensus that acknowledging white privilege is a necessary but insufficient step in this process. How do whites begin to recognize their own privilege? Although we were not able to locate any research that had applied models of white allyship development to the workplace specifically, there is literature that has examined learning about white privilege in the classroom. Overall, research suggests that acknowledging one’s own privilege can be an emotion-laden process.

Learning about or observing white privilege for the first time is a very personal realization that may elicit negativity and anger (Bennett, 2012). These negative reactions may appear as a defensive mechanism as information about white privilege may be viewed as a threat against “white identity.” Research by Phillips and Lowery (2015) suggests that when exposed to evidence of white privilege, many whites claim increased hardships and deny that white privilege extends to themselves. However, recent research demonstrates that whites often feel guilt when learning about white privilege (Conway et al., 2017). This guilt upon learning about white privilege can increase one’s desire to change white privilege, but it can also drive avoidance behaviors and decrease the desire to change white privilege (Conway et al., 2017; Dovidio & Gaertner, 1999). In another study (Boatright-Horowitz, Marraccini, & Harps-Logan, 2012), researchers analyzed undergraduate student responses to antiracism teachings in a general psychology course. Students were required to complete an antiracism module, emphasizing white privilege and modern racism, as part of their course requirements. Findings revealed that white students felt uncomfortable learning about white privilege and felt like the “bad guys” in society (Boatright-Horowitz et al., 2012). The researchers also found that students who reported feeling as if they had lost faith in the American dream or that American society is not actually a meritocracy were more likely to understand white privilege.

If learning about white privilege and the negative consequences of color-blindness are critically important, then organizations must consider how such topics can be incorporated into current diversity and inclusion initiatives and how such difficult topics can properly be addressed given phenomena such as white fragility. Previous research on teaching privilege in the classroom or in a clinical setting may help guide such efforts. For example, it is important to hire skilled facilitators as diversity trainers who have both experience and knowledge dealing with the strong emotional responses that often follow learning about privilege (Chrobot-Mason, Hays-Thomas, & Wishik, 2008). Knowles et al. (2014) argue that denial and distancing are necessary precursors of engaging in dismantling, a white identity management strategy defined as embracing policies and behaviors aimed at reducing ingroup privilege. In other words, before whites actively seek to reduce discrimination and bias, they must go through the denial and distancing stages of identity development.

Knowles et al. (2014) go on to say that one of the greatest barriers to acknowledging white privilege is that doing so means individuals begin to question their meritocratic beliefs and as a result discount their role in their own successes. This subsequently results in a great deal of identity threat, particularly in an individualist culture like the United States. Knowles et al. (2014) argue that one way to overcome this hurdle is to encourage a different mindset such that being both white and successful does not necessarily equate to a lack of merit. Instead, it should be recognized that such individuals may not have been as successful if they were non-white but that being white alone is an insufficient explanation for a person’s accomplishments. Another implication of research in this area suggests the importance of designing opportunities for intergroup contact during diversity and inclusion training or initiatives. Boatright-Horowitz et al. (2012) report that cross-race interaction can be beneficial when learning about privilege because it allows for the exchange of personal stories and experiences with racism and discrimination. Likewise, Chrobot-Mason et al. (2008) recommend a combination of ingroup and cross-group discussion to create a more psychologically safe learning environment for trainees.

In essence, the literature seems to support the notion that anyone who seeks to become a white ally must first and foremost listen and learn from others. As Edwards (2006) and Helms (2014) point out in their work on white identity development, it is profoundly important that whites not make assumptions about what employees of color experience, need, or want. Instead, it is critical that whites seek to work in partnership with non-dominant group members. Such collaboration is only possible when whites approach the topic of racial discrimination in the workplace not from their own biased and privileged lens but from a place of respectful learning.

It is important to consider gaps in the existing literature and opportunities for future research examining whiteness in the workplace. Sabat et al. (2013) argue that there is much more that we need to know with respect to white allyship in organizations. For example, what motivates people to become white allies? What individual and contextual factors encourage or prevent people from becoming allies? Previous research in this area has predominantly examined white identity development among college students or clinicians. Yet there is very little research about how employees develop a white identity and the role that leaders and colleagues play in doing so. As such, this is an area in which a great deal of research will be needed in the future.

Looking toward that future, it seems clear that even our definition of whiteness is likely to be transformed as scholars examine this construct more closely. Indeed, there is a current movement to “challenge white studies to move away from essentialist notions of white racial identity and to instead focus on white identity as fluid, dependent of the socio-historical context, and complicated by various intersectional identities” (Ford & Orlandella, 2015, p. 289). Researchers are moving away from the idea that race is real, invariable, and immutable (Twine & Gallagher, 2008). Such a transformation seems long overdue as the creation of a truly inclusive workplace requires that whites begin to recognize their racial privilege and actively seek to eliminate racial discrimination in the workplace. As Lewis (2004) points out, even though dominant status enables whites to go through life without thinking about the racialization of their experiences, it does not imply that whites are outside of the system they have created and projected onto others. Indeed, race is not synonymous with racial minorities, and the implications of race and the existence of racial inequities can no longer be only of consequence for racial minorities if future workplaces are to be truly inclusive.


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