Author: Cassie Myers
When we talk about racism, we often focus on the barriers and disadvantages it creates. However, racism is a system that disadvantages some and advantages others. When we say ‘we are anti-racist’ we are commiting to removing disadvantages and parting ways with the advantages afforded to us because of racism.
Racism is the manifestation of white supremacy, the belief that white people are superior to those of other races (Kelly J. Cross). As such, commonly white people benefit from racism, whether they intend to or not. We can generalize white supremacy into 4 categories to understand this. In the chart below we separated those categories from advantages – privilege and internalized superiority, and disadvantages – internalized inferiority and oppression (Dismantling Racism). This chart is helpful to highlight that in parting ways with the advantages of racism, we are not asking people to disadvantage themselves, but imagining a society that no longer privileges people at the expense of others. Privilege and internalized superiority, only exist because of oppression and internalized inferiority.
The relationship between the advantages and disadvantages of racism is not clear cut. People of all racial and ethnic backgrounds might experience both the privileges and disadvantages of racism. This relationship becomes evermore complex, when we think about the multitudes of advantages a single person holds. For myself, I am a cisgender, mixed-race Black woman. My racial identity alone affords me some privileges because of my proximity to whiteness (privilege) and disadvantages, because of my proximity to Blackness (oppression).
While some of our advantages we intentionally access, others are given to us in a way we are unable to deny. Some privileges are easier to deny, while others we might need to access for our day to day lives. These benefits can come in many forms; it can be an opportunity, the navigation of an institution, money, recognition, access to goods and more.
In this blog, we unpack how some benefit from racism in the workplace and posit why and how anti-racism will benefit everyone.
As racism is rooted in white supremacy, parts of people’s appearance that are aligned with European beauty standards are traditionally more accepted in the workplace than others. This standard can be informal, in which people interpersonally affirm features that are more European. This can also be formal, in which workplaces list braids, locks, head coverings and traditional clothing – all of which are commonly donned by BIPOC people over white people – as things that are not acceptable as part of a workplace dress code.
With this advantage, clothing and hairstyles you already would be donning, are those that are accepted in your workplace. You might be affirmed for your appearance as, ‘professional’, ‘put together’ or ‘sharp’. These affirmations survive on the critiques of others as, ‘unprofessional’ and ‘too casual’. Those typed as ‘unprofessional’ can find themselves remaining in introductory roles, despite skillset – an error that harms both people and profit.
Feelings of inclusion
The chart introduced earlier highlights that the advantages and disadvantages of racism can be very tangible and external, but they can also be internalized. Our interpersonal interactions, company policies, documents, and artifacts all contribute to a feeling of inclusion. For some, being affirmed in interactions, included and protected in company policies, reflected in documents, represented in artifacts, and having this reality largely reflected in our lives outside of work, can lead to an internalized sense of entitlement. Many of these aforementioned benefits should be a right in every workplace. When something is an entitlement, especially through racism, it can be difficult to notice when others are not receiving that same benefit. In this case, feeling included in a workplace might be your default, you might not have many clear experiences of being excluded. Your consistent inclusion survives on the exclusion of others as the workplace is designed for people of your identities. This does not mean that in the inclusion of others, that you will be excluded, but it might mean that default ways of operating that you might be accustomed to are changed. For example, artifacts at work might change to reflect a diverse range of people, and not just you.
The pay gap between white workers and BIPOC workers is not new. BIPOC workers have been paid less than white counterparts for centuries. Black men earn $0.87 for every dollar a white man earns. Hispanic or Latino workers have the next largest gap, they earn $0.91 for every dollar earned by a white man (Payscale). This pay gap does not begin and end in the paycheck one receives, but the advantages are clear throughout the job application process. For example, candidates with western names are more likely to be invited to interview for a job (Harvard Business School). A study by the University of Virginia found that when interviewers with racial bias perceived Black candidates to be negotiating their salary, they were offered an average of $300 less on the initial starting salary (Harvard Law School). When we speak to the wage gap, we are not suggesting that white people earn less, but positing that everyone deserves a fair wage, regardless of their identity. Many white people, white men in particular, hold the advantage of being offered a fair wage without negotiation or convincing. This privilege survives on the oppression of BIPOC people and white women, whose work is often undervalued.
We share just three of the ways that people might be benefiting from racism in the workplace. If you are in a position of power, you might have the opportunity to highlight some of the advantages you are being afforded, and suggest a more equitable way forward. White supremacy is engrained in many parts of our society, and these individual actions are powerful, but they are not going to erase the problem. As organizations evaluate and work to dismantle the oppressive systems that support them, it is critical that it is done with a lens that accounts for both advantages and disadvantages that racism affords.