Adia Harvey Wingfield is the Professor of Sociology, the Vice Dean of Faculty Development and Diversity, and the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. She gained her PhD at Johns Hopkins University.
Below, Adia shares 5 key insights from her new book, Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It. Listen to the audio version—read by Adia herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The social network has its limits.
Apologies to David Fincher, but The Social Network isn’t just the name of his movie about the origins of Facebook. It’s also a concept that references the web of connections and relationships between people; today, most people find jobs through these connections. However, our social networks are heavily shaped by race: a 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that approximately 75 percent of white respondents had no Black people in their friend groups. This means that when looking for work, Black candidates are less likely to be able to count on referrals from friends and associates. So even in the process of getting a job, Black people start out with a disadvantage.
Let’s look at Kevin. He attended a historically Black college for his undergraduate degree and a predominantly white university for his MBA. However, he was rarely able to build lasting connections with fellow students from the latter, or at his previous places of employment. As a result, he stated, “I have a decent network that is more based on my HBCU and high school and people I’ve known in my social circle than people I’ve known in a professional capacity. No one from another professional setting has helped. Let me put it like this: I’ve never had a white person help me out getting a job. Ever.”
His experience is substantiated by the data. A 2019 study in the American Sociological Review found that while Black and white job seekers both try to activate their networks to find employment, Black workers see fewer returns to their efforts. Making social networks such a central part of how we find work means that Black employees inadvertently lose out from the jump.
2. The gig isn’t always great.
If you haven’t worked in the gig economy yourself, chances are you’ve used one of the many platforms out there—Uber, Doordash, Airbnb—they’ve become as much a part of our modern lifestyle as smartphones or social media. For many people looking for work, these platforms can be a source of extra income or the way that they maintain their lifestyle. Best of all, there are few to no hoops to jump through to start working; in many cases, contractors can just download the app and get to work.
Because of this, it might seem like gig work presents an easy solution to the problem of finding work through social networks. You don’t need referrals, just your smartphone and a willingness to work hard. Alex was a driver for Uber Eats, and she described a lifestyle where she could set her own hours and didn’t experience racial or gender discrimination. That’s noteworthy: to put this finding in context, a 2023 Pew Research Study found that about four in 10 Black workers reported experiencing workplace discrimination or unfair treatment from an employer because of their race. So, the fact that Alex didn’t observe racial or gender discrimination in this line of work is interesting.
“Gig work allows for flexible schedules and minimized comparisons to co-workers, but the patterns that perpetuate racial inequalities are often baked into the platforms.”
However, there are some racial dynamics to gig work that aren’t so obvious. For one thing, in 2021, researchers from George Washington University found that Uber algorithms used to calculate fare pricing in Chicago and set rates higher when passengers were going to or coming from neighborhoods with higher populations of people of color. Another study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that passengers with “Black men’s” names had longer wait times and were more likely to have rides canceled. Other studies have shown that on Airbnb, Black renters are more likely to be denied accommodations, Black hosts earned less for their listings, and homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods netted lower rates. In other words, gig work allows for flexible schedules and minimized comparisons to co-workers, but the patterns that perpetuate racial inequalities are often baked into the platforms. The gig economy has definitely changed how we work, but it hasn’t erased racial discrimination, it’s just digitized it.
3. Diversity training doesn’t work.
This one might shock you, because diversity training at this point has become almost ubiquitous. Even the TV show The Office satirized it back in 2005 when regional manager Michael Scott’s cringeworthy recitation of a certain Chris Rock routine leads to corporate bringing in a diversity consultant, presumably to enlighten the office about racial differences. But what you might not remember from the episode is that ultimately the consultant really wants workers to sign a waiver indicating attendance. His day-long seminar isn’t designed to address any systemic issues, it occurs primarily so that the company can say they took action.
Thankfully, Dunder Mifflin is a fictitious company, but there are some real parallels here to why and how mandated diversity training fails in the real world. Studies have shown that mandated diversity training can make white workers less supportive of, and interested in, understanding the patterns that maintain racial inequality in the workplace. They feel as if they’re being forced to attend, blamed for the lack of diversity, and that the company is wasting their time. Not only that, Black workers describe these sessions as ineffective. This is because these training sessions aren’t designed or intended to focus on the very real challenges Black employees encounter at work—things like finding mentors, getting support from managers, or having their work respected and taken seriously.
Brian worked at a company that enthusiastically hired a diversity manager, but didn’t equip him to help him address the opaque performance evaluations or the inconsistent mentorship that derailed his path to promotion. Describing an annual review that included cryptic notes that he “needed improvement” alongside favorable feedback from his manager, Brian stated, “As the only executive on the team who had advocated for and been part of the acquisitions team on two different Academy Award-nominated movies, and the only executive at this level who had sourced two different movies that had gone into production. I did not know that my work was not worth promotion.” It turned out his managers didn’t either, because he was unable to get clear, direct answers about what he needed to change. Ambiguity about advancement and fuzzy feedback from managers are a key hurdle Black workers face when trying to move ahead. However, when these issues get papered over, diversity training just becomes window dressing, rather than a mechanism for change.
4. Being the only is lonely.
Research on race in the workplace shows that successful Black workers seem to present such a paradox. You have these individuals who, by most accounts, have “made it.” They are often highly educated, work in prestigious jobs, and earn enviable salaries. Their success seems to reinforce some core tenets of the American Dream: anyone can succeed if they just work hard and follow the rules.
“Despite the status and prestige that comes with being a physician, he’s still not exempt from the regular reminders that he’s a Black doctor.”
However, research into the gray areas shows that it’s not that simple. Max, an emergency medicine doctor, provides an instructive account: his story is certainly an inspirational one of achievement, effort, and eventual success. Max grew up with working-class parents in an urban area in the northeast, was the first in his family to finish college, and after earning degrees from some of the top schools in the country, attained a job as an emergency medicine doctor. He was forthright that his professional and financial success has allowed him to do things he never thought about previously: traveling internationally and raising his family with a level of economic security that just wasn’t there when he was growing up. However, he was also very candid that despite the status and prestige that comes with being a physician, he’s still not exempt from the regular reminders that he’s a Black doctor.
Max explained, “I’ve encountered, and I know a couple of my other Black male colleagues have too, blatant racism from patients…I’ve taken care of patients with swastikas, rebel flag ties, KKK tattoos, things like that all over them, and they’ve made it very clear, ‘I’ll sue you if you don’t get me a white doctor.’” When asked how he responded to those claims, he stated, “It’s funny because usually at night there’s one of us here for three hours. So, a lot of the time I’ll be like, ‘You can have a white doctor if you want to wait three hours to get seen by somebody,’ and I’ve had patients say, ‘That’s fine, I’ll go back out in the waiting room and wait till they come back at seven in the morning.’”
Situations like these underscore one of the reasons why a critical mass of Black workers at all levels is so important. For many Black employees, achieving a high ranking, prestigious position means they are the only one in that role. Being an “only” has lots of adverse consequences: alienation, isolation, and disengagement, to name a few. Getting to the top doesn’t guarantee that Black workers have really made it, especially if being there comes with these kinds of costs.
5. Color blindness is counterproductive.
In many workplaces, explicit discussion of race and racism is heavily frowned upon. A 2020 study from the Society of Human Resources Management found that nearly 40 percent of Black and white workers faced some discomfort discussing racial matters at work. When companies do make an effort, the results aren’t always what they hope. Evidence of this can be found in the 2015 Starbucks Race Together campaign, which encouraged baristas to initiate discussions about race with customers. They then abandoned this effort a short while later amidst widespread backlash. Given that race and racism is a highly charged topic in the U.S., it can seem easier for companies to discourage giving attention to it, opting instead for what they think of as race-neutrality. In this kind of environment, companies avoid a controversial, seemingly divisive topic, and employees focus on their work. However, there’s some evidence to show that some programming that does focus explicitly on reducing racial disparities can be successful.
“Black workers are less likely to have mentors, sponsors, and managerial support that is critical for advancement.”
Darren, a financial executive, offered an example of this. He explained that one of the key initiatives that aided his rise to a senior leadership role with a major company was a mentoring program for Black workers. In this program, Black workers were assigned to a senior mentor who would host them for group meetings to form relationships with them and address any questions or concerns they had. The mentor/mentee assignment was originally structured to last a year, but even after it ended, Darren and his mentor remained in regular communication, setting up monthly meetings for Darren to check in and get feedback.
Today, when the Supreme Court has prohibited consideration of race in college admissions, and some companies are pre-emptively paring down their efforts to create racial diversity, mentoring programs like these might seem risky. However, there’s a wealth of evidence that shows that Black workers are less likely to have mentors, sponsors, and managerial support that is critical for advancement. Mentoring programs that are invitation-only can reflect bias about who belongs in leadership roles, and data suggests that Black workers are more likely than workers of other racial groups to have distant relationships with their managers. Creating opportunities specifically to ensure that Black workers are included in and connected to company leadership can go further than pretending these differences that don’t exist for the sake of a supposedly colorblind workplace.
To listen to the audio version read by author Adia Harvey Wingfield, download the Next Big Idea App today: