White Privilege and Office Culture

Yesterday I was struck by a profound thought. I realized that I have taken classes related to race, ethnicity, White privilege and institutional racism but haven’t given much thought as to how strongly White privilege features in office culture. In the ten plus years that I’ve worked in office environments I’ve certainly seen my share of overt and subtle racism; it’s been reflected in pay grades, promotions, firings, in a supervisor’s decision as to whether a person is a “good fit” for the organization etc. I asked myself, what about the day-to-day interaction in the office? How does White privilege operate and in what ways? As a person of color, how am I am at a disadvantage? What survival techniques must I employ/adopt in order to stay afloat in today’s office environment?

Though I haven’t given too much thought to White privilege and they way in which it functions in office culture, I have certainly been aware of the fact that I have to wear a mask while at work. It starts with me having to “put on my White voice.” Eventually my demeanor and to some degree- persona- is transformed once I step into the office. I tone down my Jamerican culture (as much as I can any way) and become someone else for 8 hours or more. You may say, all of us transform when we’re at work. All of us “play the game to some degree.” While that is certainly true, people of color who have not fully adopted mainstream White culture must go the extra mile. We must work hard to ensure that we are not perceived (by White co-workers or managers) as threatening, angry, loud, uncooperative, and (God forbid) uneducated or unqualified in any way. In a nutshell, we must work our asses off and at the same time make the White people around us feel comfortable.

Office culture is shaped by White America’s etiquettes, sense of humor, dress, language style and expression and overall perception of the world. Just as Whiteness has been normalized in the larger society, Whiteness has also been normalized in office environments. I’d go as far as saying that office culture is intrinsically White and as a result privileges White people. Some examples:

  • The struggle by some African-American women to wear natural hairstyles such braids, locs, afros, or twists in corporate America. See story here.
  • The unwritten rule that Black men- especially- should not have facial hair. (I am unaware that White men are also expected to have a clean-shaven face in office environments as well). I have heard that Black men with facial hair are perceived as more threatening than those without it. It doesn’t seem to matter that shaving causes some Black men to suffer from a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae which causes ingrown hairs and rashes to develop on their face. See story here.
  • As a Black woman, when I express any disagreement with a White colleague or supervisor, I am far more likely to be perceived as having an attitude or being negative than a White woman. In fact, I can be perceived that way even when I am not disagreeing with a colleague or supervisor but when I’m merely expressing myself. True story: At my previous job, I was told during a performance evaluation that my response to requests is often negative. When I asked for an example my supervisor mentioned a time when she asked me to attend a function that was on the other side of town. My husband at the time and I only had one car which he generally used because his job was further away than mine. (My supervisor knew this). Anyhow, when she asked me to attend the function I told her that I would not be able to because I did not have transportation. Apparently, I was supposed to lie and tell her that I would see if I could arrange a ride. Since I didn’t do that my response was considered to be negative. (After some time I noticed that my White co-workers, no matter what they were asked, no matter how difficult, or unrealistic the task was, would smile and say yes or would say they’d try- even if they knew they couldn’t.)
  • As person who has been in charge of hiring, I know, all too well the pressure that a person of color can come under when they try to hire another person of color- especially if that person is a friend, relative or acquaintance. (Even though White people do it all the frickin’ time!) Suddenly the person of color’s ability to be fair and impartial comes into question. Sometimes White supervisors interfere with the hiring process by making suggestions about who to hire. True story: There was a Black woman I interviewed who was very qualified for the position. Not only did she give a great interview but she was very confident and strong. I thought she’d be an asset to the program. When I took her around to meet the staff she made the “mistake” (*I’m rolling eyes right now*) of saying to my supervisor and co-workers, “Oh, you’re all girls! That’s wonderful.” When she left my supervisor told me point blank not to hire her. When I recovered from my shock I asked why and I was told (with my co-workers in agreement) that the woman offended them by calling them “girls.” They said it was obvious she didn’t understand the feminist leaning of the organization. I tried to explain that Black women call each other girl all the time and in our culture it is not seen as belittling or derogatory. It’s quite the opposite; it’s a term of endearment. Nonetheless my supervisor said not to hire her and flat out told me she favored having a Latina in the position anyway.

You may ask, why can’t people of color just blend in if that is what they have to do in order to survive? My answer is this: many people of color do exactly that. In fact, some people of color have taken it so far that they can no longer recognize themselves. They have adopted and embraced mainstream White culture to the point where it has become their lifestyle. As a result, they have become disconnected from the culture and community. However, for the rest of us who are either unwilling or unable to do so, it can be emotionally taxing and mentally draining. As mentioned above, not only must people of color work hard not to be perceived as threatening, angry, uncooperative, or unqualified, we must also learn the nuances of White mainstream culture. (Keep in mind when I say ‘learn’ it’s not as if there is a White person teaching us. We must learn White culture through observation, trial and error, and discernment. If the person of color is lucky, they may have a White ally or learn White culture while in college).

In the end, it makes me wonder what companies really mean when they talk about diversity initiatives. Is it a Black or Brown face who has adopted mainstream White culture? A person of color who can “fill the quota” and the same time make White people feel comfortable by never pushing the envelope and discussing issues of race, ethnicity, and cultural difference? It certainly isn’t a person of color who discusses White privilege and discrimination as it relates to the company or organization’s practices. I’ve learned, sometimes in the most painful ways, that so-called White liberals do not want to be reminded of their privilege. It’s enough that I, the person of color, have become employed by the company. They’ve done their job! Now let’s all pretend that we all operate, think and live in the same ways!

If I sound bitter or jaded it’s because I’m tired…

18 responses to “White Privilege and Office Culture

  1. Salam!
    Great post! As a WOC who’s worked in offices almost my whole life, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

  2. WHAT’S UP GURL? lol haha

    “As a Black woman, when I express any disagreement with a White colleague or supervisor, I am far more likely to be perceived as having an attitude or being negative than a White woman”

    I can relate to the aforementioned and how! I am tall 5ft11 and I do not talk softly. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. Therefore, I have to watch what I say. Last week, MS. WW supervisor asked me to do something for her that was not assigned to my section (1 paralegal: 13 attorneys = section), I did it, but I also informed her that there is a paralegal assigned to this case from section x,y,z and he will be taking care of all future tasks assigned to this case. MS. WW SUP proceeded to ask if I had a problem with her. While trying to figure out what I said wrong or what would make her feel threatened (she was), I informed her that I did not have a problem with her. I told her that she had a problem, if she thought I was going to do another section’s work. BUT, if she understood that I would not, than there was not a problem. Her ears were beet red. Alas, there was nothing she could do. I belong to a union and I will file a grievance against her in a minute.

    I filed grievance prior to this, because ww and wm sups. expected me to carry boxes to court, but used a courier service for my 5ft5 WHITE FEMALE COUNTERPART.
    P.S. This is why I do not work in the private sector, I would be unemployed.

  3. Salaams Sis:

    I can relate – but to the opposite. I work with 99.9% people of color. I have had to deal with most of what you wrote to the other extreme 🙂

    Like zeesMOM, I also do not work in the private sector.

    Perhaps it is different in the private sector?

    Great piece sis!

  4. Wsalaam. Thank you Fatemeh.

    zeesmom, Oh my gosh! How I can forget the numerous amount of times that I was expected to do manual labor when a White counterpart was not? There seems to tbe perception (which I dare say derives from slavery) that Black women are stronger and not as delicate as White women. Let the Black woman do it…I have a friend who is nearly six feet tall & dark-skinned. She talks all the time about how people perceive her as aggressive even when she’s just stating her opinion on a matter. (My little 5 foot 1 self is way more aggressive than her. She’s a sweetheart).

    Also, I think that culturally, Black women have a direct manner in which we speak to one another. We’re also very clear about what we can and cannot do. As evidenced by the performance evaluation I referenced in my post, such clarity and straight-forwardness is not valued in White office culture. (And I’m sorry to say, especially when dealing with White women as bosses). One thing I didn’t put in the post is how intimidated some White women are when working with Black women. The sad part is that I’ve worked with White feminists who proclaim to be supportive of strong women. Maybe not strong Black women though… I hate to say it but I hope I work for a man next time around. I’m tired of dealing with all the petty, catty, racist nonsense from so-called feminists.

    Safiyyah, I would be interested in hearing about the reverse scenario…

  5. As salaamu alaikum, If you haven’t done so already, read White Like Me by Tim Wise. He speaks in depth about white privilege in America.

  6. Salaam alaikum,
    Also, Allen Johnson’s “Privilege, Power, and Difference,” is a great book on white privilege. He gave a talk at my undergrad and it was the first time I ever heard my experiences confirmed.

    I have a whole bunch of anecdotes to add:
    * I used to work in a small auto parts company and the boss was a white man who dated a a Cambodian woman who also worked for a supplier. Now she had a thick accent that was almost unintelligible, but that was no problem. But me on the other hand, he told me to stop joking with clients because I sounded Black.
    * People making comments or becoming threatened when two or more Black co-workers get together. Actually having this come up in a company meeting and being denied a permanent position because I’m friendly and outgoing.
    * Inappropriate discussion about race in the office
    * Being forced to make my white co-workers feel comfortable by pretending to accept their myopic views on politics, race, and religion.
    * Having to go to awkward company parties and social gatherings

    I have more, but my sleep deprivation is getting to me.

    Can I link to this post by the way?

  7. Walaikum salaam, no need to ask Aziza, go right ahead. Oh and I hear you on the anecdotes…I have so many I could add. Like the time my White so-called feminist supervisor asked me to wash her coffee pot before a meeting she was having. Or when she asked me to come into her office and clean her dry erase board. She never asked my White co-workers to do such a thing. That’s the kind of shhh that makes me want to “go ghetto on them.”

  8. Salaam’Alaikum Jamerican,

    First off, I just wanted to say “thank you” for keeping it real on your blog. I really respect your truthfulness: tell it like it is “attitude” in all that you write. Many of the issues and challenges you write about are just not discussed openly in our faith community. I’m so happy that I finally have a place to share my experiences, thoughts, and feelings—even if it’s only in cyberspace.

    “Nonetheless my supervisor said not to hire her and flat out told me she favored having a Latina in the position anyway.”

    SS: Wow! Boss lady just let it all out hunh? I’m noticing this trend as well: hiring Hispanics over black Americans—even when we are overqualified. I have true story for you too. I’m a supervisor for the customer service area of my building. My manager is African American. She is the typical overqualified for her position as well but is out rank according to unwritten rules in our agency by whites who are her subordinates. At any rate, when it came time to hiring some one to work as my assistant other people who have no business in our agency part of customer service insisted on hiring a Hispanic. Well they got what they wanted and more: this man sexually harassed citizens seeking assistance, came in late and left early, took two hour lunches, and spent his time on the phone instead of completing his data base project. The last straw for me was the day he deliberately told a citizen that we didn’t have a health department! Now they have hired a new assistant for me who is African American, and qualified. Competition against immigrants and their children is a major challenge that black Americans are going to half to deal with. I must be honest and say that based on the anarchy occurring in our family systems we are going to loose unless radical changes occur.

    “However, for the rest of us who are either unwilling or unable to do so, it can be emotionally taxing and mentally draining.”

    SS: I highly recommend two books:

    1) Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones (Author), Kumea Shorter-gooden.
    2) Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity by Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell (Author), Stella M. Nkomo

    Any young lady in high school or college should read these books.

    “If I sound bitter or jaded it’s because I’m tired…”

    SS: When I was a SAHM, I belonged to Mocha Moms. I met several educated professionals who were married to: Hispanics, Indians, and Asians. One woman told me that after reading Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America she decided to not to marry a black man and help her children pass, after all “I’m light enough” were her exact words to me. I guess the hard ugly truth is that we all have our own ways of coping with the racism from the work place.

    “In the end, it makes me wonder what companies really mean when they talk about diversity initiatives.”

    SS: “It’s cheaper to work em than to payem for welfare.”

  9. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I’m white and male and live in the UK, where I suspect that racial politics are not as highly charged as they seem to be there, but I have noticed that workplaces have definite “in groups” which, in the case of offices, do seem to be white women. Anyone outside that group will have difficulties getting in, and might not enjoy it if they do.

    I’ve personally experienced what I interpreted as religious discrimination on a few occasions; some of this manifested itself when I made it known that I could not shake hands with female supervisors, and on another occasion a salesman told me that he could make a salesman of me if I only removed my beard, because apparently people don’t trust men with beards. (This is news to me, because my mum told me she only started finding my dad attractive when he grew his beard. Moustaches are associated with aggression as well, allegedly.) In one of these companies I noticed that these women wear what they like in the office, while men are stuck in shirts and ties like it was still the 1950s, which I can’t stand (shirts and ties remind me of school uniform, which was the cause of a lot of confrontations for me because I found them uncomfortable, and I still do). I have noticed that a lot of clerical jobs ask people to demonstrate their “interpersonal skills” and various other characteristics when really all you need to be able to do is talk and take instructions and push pens or keys; it seems like code for “this is a job for a chatty young woman because we really don’t want anyone else ruining our party”. I spent 18 months after leaving college in 1998 signed on to office agencies in Croydon and some in London, and the best I got was six weeks in a mail room (6 hours a day at that), even after I was told my skills were excellent, or three days of data entry here and there. In some cases these agencies never contacted me again after the first meeting. Someone in my family told me I’d have to “grow a pair of tits” to get these jobs.

    I’ve also been railroaded out of manual jobs by black men who, I suspect, wanted one of theirs in the job; the tactic was always one of running to the boss with exaggerated or half-true tales of things I’d done wrong (like saying I’d been gone an hour and did my shopping, when I was gone 20 minutes and bought a half-litre bottle of coke at the kiosk on the way back, or that I’d not got signatures for a delivery, when I’d offered to go back and get them but was told not to). In one of these places, the mainly Afro-Carribean male workforce had a ragga station playing, and there seemed to be only one non-Black worker, who really did look miserable.

    Oh and by the way, most white women really don’t take offence to being called girls, unless it’s obviously being done to belittle them or they have an ideological issue with any female who has started her periods being called other than a woman (or some misspelling intended to remove the “man” bit). They go out to lunch with the girls from work, my aunt never objects to me calling her daughters (both grown up, one older than me) “your girls”, and there’s The Golden Girls, the Indigo Girls, the Spice Girls (not a very good example I know), to think of a few names off the top of my head. Your supervisor was using that as an excuse.

  10. hmm, this reminds me of a time when a fellow African, American Muslimah told me that I,”as a Hispanic, American Muslimah wearing hijab”, she wasn’t,”should go hide in a dark room under a table”…Well I thank her for her directive, because I went in the opposite direction.

    It gave me strength.

    Know that even my own could be so “White” is extraordinary and heartbreaking (I have a few good white folk that I admire- my Boss for one- so don’t mistake it as a frontal attack).

    But I saw how easy it can be in an office setting for people to keep the pecking order in check regardless of color, race- (ethnicity to me -we are all part of the human race), religion or whathaveyou…

    We just have to be true to ourselves, easier said than done I know, but you gotta start somewhere…

  11. Salaam’Alaikum

    @ Inal

    You said: “hmm, this reminds me of a time when a fellow African, American Muslimah told me that I,” as a Hispanic, American Muslimah wearing hijab”, she wasn’t,” should go hide in a dark room under a table”…Well I thank her for her directive, because I went in the opposite direction.”

    SS: I’ve had the same experience with non- hijabis of ALL ethnicities who were insecure about their position to not hijab, felt guilty because they abdoned the prayer, or were just depressed. I’m glad to hear that you took the opposite position based off your faith, and convictions. I also wish that the Muslim community would get over the hijab issue period- as if, this is the only valid form of worship for women: prayer is the first priority, and than fasting. I firmly believe that Muslims who have issues with those who DO hijab, and those who Don’t hijab are egocentric individuals who need to get over themselves, and out of the confines of their minds and focus on what really matters.

    @ Yusuf Smith

    Brother, your post had me totally crackin up! But on a serious note, I personally believe the heart of the matter is the economic systems our governments have in place.


  12. Pingback: White Privilege, Office Culture, and Subversive Black Identities « Just Another Angry Black Muslim Woman?

  13. Asslamu Alaikum.

    this is an interesting post sister. I never really stopped to take the time to think WHY the office culture was as such, I’ve sort of accepted it and subconsciously always altered my behavior in my predominently white offices. But I agree with you 100% on all your points.

    Not only as people of color but also as muslims we have to work twice as hard to “fit in”. And for all the musliymah’s, its even that much more harder for you all. So inshallah allah gives all of you sisters the extra effort and patience needed.

    I’ve had this conversation about fitting in many of times with other muslim brothers. We all agreed, we’ve all had to become a watered-down version of ourselves while in the workplace. Everything you do or say must go through a filter in your brain so as to not upset or offend your white co-workers. Basically not to offend them by bringing up their own guilt and insecurities!,…isnt that something, subhanallah..lol

    Me and my muslim buddiess have jokingly even put together a little list of un-natural things we all copped to doing in the workplace, lol: “white-boy voice”, enunciating extra hard, excessive smiling (no blank stares or ice grills) , no discussion of music/poltics, using cheesy words/phrases (alrighty, you got it!, spectacular), lol… etc

    I also have many stories I could share but I do not want to type to much.. but the ones that always sticks out to me is when dealing with a co-worker I had never met before in a different department. He asked me my name and I told him, and he almost jumped out of his seat. he told me i didnt look like a “moose-lim”. I pretty much just told his ignorant ass muslim isnt an ethnicity or race and kept it moving. He tried to save face and say he was meanign to say “i didnt come across as muslim”.. when i asked him to clarify, he went on to give a detailed description of an osama bin laden look alike. It really wasnt hard to imagine how he came up with that, seeing as though he was your stereotypical wasp.

  14. Hey Jamerican, I was reading something on Crypto-Muslim and it reminded me of your views of White Privilege and Office Culture. It’s called “Are we privileged, or fetishized? White converts and white privilege”.


  15. Stanley H Carter

    Simtply said you nailed the conflct of the Black Face in the white office culture. I have experienced this through out my career. True story I was once told by a white female employeer.” The only reason we are hiring you for the Front Desk. is the fact that you are a light skinned Black. Most of white guest will not feel threaten by you. ”

    The Black and Whtie culture is alive and well even it is hidden to faces. But highly encouraged behind close doors. Your article is well written and shines the light on our Dark Struggle for our Black race to be just another person in the office.

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    at sun.reflect.NativeMethodAccessorImpl.invoke(Unknown Source)
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    told once by a white employer at a major hotel. The only reason I am hiring you for the Front Desk is because you are light skinned and may

  16. “True story I was once told by a white female employer.” The only reason we are hiring you for the Front Desk. is the fact that you are a light skinned Black. Most of white guest will not feel threaten by you”.
    ”Nothing shocking here; however I would’ve accepted the job; then I would’ve find a way to report this imbecile, and still keep my job. One thing I have learned is imbeciles such as her don’t know how to cover their tracks when confronted. I hope that didn’t make you feel “special” because as a not so dark African-American myself. I would’ve let this crab have it, but in a special way. What hurts my brothers and sisters also hurts me also. Wallahi, it’s so many ways to report these things secretly.

    The thing is if she has done this to you, be assured she has done it to others. I can also bet(not literally) that she will continue until she is put in her place. Man, I know I seem mean, but I would’ve recorded her and force the company to fire her and pay me. Large companies don’t want that kind of heat on them.
    I wonder why those opportunities don’t come my way? Allah(swt) knows me though, lol!

    People should learn their rights, they should read about laws about that. She is a criminals and criminals belong with other criminals. Do you know she has deny you your civil rights? C’mon now people, we shouldn’t let these things slip pass us. We have “anonymous” reporting on things like this.

  17. Thanks for sharing this. Im 32 and as an adult stuck in college for life I go to Antioch University and we take a required class called Privilege and Power. We’ve been reading a lot of stuff about white privilege and I, for one, am waking up. Being raised in white suburbia can make you very blind to some things. I feel ashamed of myself, but very willing to learn and change and educate others.
    Just to let you know that there are people out here who are learning how to non confrontationally and effectively discuss the racism we live with every day, and therefore, shifting our attitudes so we can fix it…I hope it is a bit encouraging.
    ~A Very Privileged White Girl
    (but more importantly my name is Hollan :>)

  18. Pingback: Inter-Racial Distrust and the White Muslim « Rolling Ruminations

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