There was once a time when it was perfectly unremarkable for employers to hang signs declaring “Whites Only Need Apply” when advertising for open positions. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made that illegal, but that doesn’t mean work has since become an equitable space. Today, work drives racial inequality through its cultural, social, and relational aspects—what I refer to as “the gray areas.” Gray areas exist apart from the specific expectations and duties that are required for a given job, and because of this, they are much more amorphous, ambiguous, and difficult (though absolutely possible) to change. They can inform how we gain employment, how those jobs are done, what norms and values are given priority in a workplace, or how we advance or leave a company.
Take for example an airline pilot, whose job is to fly passengers safely from one location to another. Pilots are expected to have the technical skills and know-how to do this job effectively, but no one simply lands in the cockpit out of nowhere. How do pilots learn that a particular airline is hiring? How do they gain information that helps them succeed in the job interview? How do they navigate an environment where they must fit in with copilots, flight attendants, and other crew members? How do they know when there are opportunities for advancement? How can they get the necessary support to move into supervisory roles?
These processes all exist apart from the basics of flying passengers from one location to another. Many commercial pilots, for instance, move into these jobs after stints in the armed services, meaning they can rely on the connections and networks they build in those spaces to learn about position openings and generate referrals. Cultural norms in the airline industry promote strict hierarchies that both reflect military structure and define clear relationships between pilots, copilots, and flight attendants. Additionally, the relationships that pilots build with others in the field can determine their opportunities for certain positions and with specific airlines. These aspects of work are distinct from the requirements of the job, yet they matter significantly because they constitute a core component of how we work today.
To some degree, gray areas have always been a part of how we work. Humans are social creatures, and our jobs entail more than just our basic responsibilities and assigned duties. During the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, personal ties likely gave some workers leverage over other job candidates when looking for factory work. In the post-Fordist workplace of the 1950s, managers created an environment that prized efficiency, speed, and productivity, and the focus on these criteria surely benefited employees who could adhere to these ideals. Work has always been about more than just the job, and gray areas have long functioned to shape and determine how work gets done, and to maintain some inequities.
Today, however, gray areas take on greater significance. For one thing, in the service-driven, highly specialized, tech-based economy in which we now live, relationships and networks matter more than ever. They determine how we learn about potential jobs, who gets serious consideration for them, how performance in those jobs is evaluated, and who has access to and information about other positions when it’s time to move on. Cultural dynamics matter more too, as organizations often prioritize teamwork and collaborative initiatives as key parts of how work is designed. No matter how technically skilled, the product engineer who doesn’t have connections to anyone in Silicon Valley and doesn’t work well with others will have a hard time landing a job at Facebook. Today, gray areas are nearly—or sometimes equally—as important as one’s capacity to perform the technical requirements of a job.
And even among organizations with cultures that vary from those that focus explicitly on diversity to those that are studiously colorblind, a common thread is the fact that many workplaces still build organizational cultures that are uncomfortable for Black workers—or even oblivious to the challenges they face.
Over the course of my career as a sociology professor, I’ve spoken to nearly 200 Black workers in a variety of fields. A common thread among many of them is their sense that organizational norms and cultures are rarely constructed with their experiences in mind.
Take, Constance, for instance. (Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.) Petite and caramel-skinned, with neatly braided hair and a quiet, serious demeanor, she has a bit of a protective shell to her that I suspect comes from many years as the lone Black woman in professional spaces. She works as a professor of chemical engineering at one of the top research universities in the country. Chemical engineers have access to enormous labs and complicated-looking stainless steel equipment that I find both confusing and intimidating. But these are far more comfortable spaces for Constance, who told me about some of her current projects in terms simple enough that I almost understood what she was talking about.
As a chemical engineer, Constance does not work in one of the departments where her colleagues are likely to engage in researching or teaching issues related to race. Most of her departmental colleagues are, like her, scientists who focus on the natural world of metals, particles, and chemicals. Yet departmental norms and politics encourage teamwork and collaboration, particularly between faculty and graduate student researchers and between faculty who can work together to produce results. In Constance’s experience, the department could be construed as a clan culture where employees are encouraged to foster ties and connections, make decisions by general consensus, and communicate effectively.
Despite this clan culture, Constance’s department does not engage in much discussion of matters of race or pay attention to the kind of challenges that Black students or faculty might encounter. This is not to say that departments in the natural sciences are necessarily able to develop a culture free from bias.
While colleagues prefer to focus on their scientific endeavors, publications, and attempts to secure external funding, Constance still encounters difficulties that seem directly related to her position as a Black woman in this setting. She has had undergraduate students openly speculate that she doesn’t understand her own research, colleagues who ignore her when she sees them off campus, and proposal reviews that reflect clear racial and gender bias. She told me about one of her most memorable cases of egregious behavior from a white male colleague: “I’ve had a man call me out of nowhere and tell me my stuff wouldn’t work and then publish a paper on the same thing. We hadn’t met—we’ve still never met.”
In a department where the norm is to avoid talking about race or racism, these issues go unnoticed. Constance remarked that most of her departmental colleagues refused even to acknowledge openly racist teaching evaluations she received or casual stereotyping from peers. They were oblivious to the stonewalling and general uninterest she faced when trying to establish the collaborative relationships that are necessary for scientists in her field. “You can’t go and complain about racism every time something happens that’s bad, because nobody’s going to believe you,” Constance noted with frustration. “They want proof. And then when you tell people what happens to you, they want to tell you how it wasn’t racist. They’re not going to experience your perspective, so there’s no point in going down that road.”
For Constance, this dynamic—knowing full well that racism impedes her while colleagues implacably refuse to recognize this fact—is disorienting and unsettling. She is positive that her department’s culture overlooks the racial biases that make it harder for her to thrive and succeed in her job. But having this experience doubted and ignored is infuriating. As a result, Constance often second-guesses herself. Other times, she struggles to identify when and where her own personality quirks—being somewhat shy, introverted, at times uncomfortable speaking up—are an issue, and when racial (and gender) bias is at fault. She doesn’t doubt her grasp of the science and the legitimacy of her ideas, but she does face an ongoing challenge of trying to fit into a workplace that, because of its gray areas, isn’t hospitable to Black women. And by being mired in colorblind discourse, the organizational culture at her university only aids in perpetuating this.
Given that Black workers often do this “identity work” of concealing their authentic selves to avoid evoking whites’ racial stereotypes, Constance’s desire to avoid being a curiosity or a standout because of her hair, music interests, or entertainment preferences is expected. She reflected that at another social event with colleagues, an old rock song from the 1980s came on, “and they were all like, ‘Wow, remember this song?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know this song, I’ve never heard it.’ But they were like, ‘You don’t know it?’ All surprised. And I was like, ‘Don’t you realize that when we came up it was Black radio or white radio and you listened to one or the other? No, I’ve never heard this song!’ But I didn’t say that. Because again, masquerade.”
I laughed a little bit as Constance recounted this story because I found it relatable. I recalled my own white fifth-grade classmates’ condescension in the cafeteria one day when the topic of our parents’ musical preferences came up and I told them that we did not own any Beatles records because my parents’ tastes ran more toward Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, and Billy Ocean—none of whom were artists they recognized. (My mother did once share that she appreciated that the Rolling Stones were at least honest about copying Black musicians like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but at the time it did not seem helpful for me to introduce this into the lunchroom discussion.) Feeling like a racial oddity isn’t fun at any age, so I could appreciate Constance’s annoyance at a similar event in her adulthood.
Her story also underscores how, for many Black workers, these cultural divides are deep and long-standing. It’s not just that Constance had different musical tastes in childhood and presumably now in the present day from many of her white co-workers; it’s that these tastes and preferences are built out of and reinforced by entertainment media, peer groups, sports, and other institutions such that activities, hobbies, and even music that are associated with whites are normalized and unremarkable, while cultural products and work by people of color are depicted as niche and unrepresentative.
When the organizational culture of a company purports to be a race-blind meritocracy, Black workers like Constance wear the mask as a result.
Adapted excerpt from Gray Areas. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2023 by Adia Harvey Wingfield.