Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Color of Money: How White Becomes Green in the Workplace

It's a jungle out there for white professionals.

Allow me to engage in a little bit of self-disclosure.

I'm a full time graduate student who happens to be working a human resources internship for a small, relatively wealthy community just outside of Dallas. I have to say that I LOVE working in HR. One of the main reasons for this is that it satisfies my meddlesome desire to know what exactly it is that people earn. Since everyone thinks it's "tacky" to discuss personal compensation, being employed in a human resources capacity is the only way for me to scratch that itch - AND, miracle of miracles, I'm actually being paid to do it. Also, as you may already know, I am, or would like to think of myself as, what folks from my grandfather's generation used to refer to as a "Race Man." So, it is, therefore, understandable that I would be most enthusiastic about a project that was recently assigned to me that allowed me to research and compile income, race, gender and job category data for the entire organization and report my findings to the EEOC.

Here's what I found: Whites, in particular white men, occupy job categories that are most likely to be the highest paying and/or most responsible in the organization. Women of all races are heavily concentrated in administrative support roles. Latinos (or Hispanics, whichever you prefer) and African-American men are predominately employed in a service/maintenance capacity. For every African-American woman who is an administrator or a professional there are three who are among the lowest paid in the entire organization. Asians, especially Asian men are virtually invisible (except when they appear here and there to snap up a high-end position) and Native Americans don't exist at all. There are, of course, exceptions to this but, by and large, it is what it is.

Now, here's the thing: I defy you to take more than a cursory look at your own organization and come up with vastly different results than I have. God bless you if you can because, the more I think about it, the more I'm forced to conclude that EVERY SINGLE medium to large company for which I've worked can be summed up identically to my current place of employment.

Having said all that, there exists a wealth of information that examines race and gender disparities in the workplace and how they are maintained. Recently, I read a fantastic article about emotional labor and sex segregation entitled, "Women's Job, Men's Jobs." The authors of the piece, Mary Guy and Meridith Newman, examine what exactly it is about women's jobs that causes them to pay less. They conclude that a large part of women's work has to do with the application of emotional labor - labor based on those attributes that women are socialized to develop and administer that allow the work place to function more smoothly but are rarely, if ever, monetarily compensated. Guy and Newman argue that emotional labor helps explain both job segregation based on gender and the gender wage gap. Similarly, in his fantastic book, Gender and Racial Inequality at Work, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey provides empirical evidence about workplace segregation and describes how jobs are "sorted" out based on race.

My own experiences certainly bear these research conclusions out, and I know I'm not alone. Time and again I've seen managers eagerly promote undeserving whites based simply on the fact that they're more "comfortable" with them. In a few cases, I was the one who was passed over for the promotion. Most times, despite the fact that I knew what was happening, I said nothing and chalked it up to things being what they are (Aside to white people: I hear some of you complaining about the idea, of all things, that black people complain too much. If you had any conception of how many times during our work-a-day lives that we have to bite our tongues when we are being subjected to some sort of racially-motivated affront, you would conclude otherwise). One time, it was particularly difficult for me to do this because it was confirmed for me that I was, indeed, the most qualified candidate. After one interview, the supervisor stupidly let it slip that I was "by far" the best candidate among those who had applied for the job. Of course, that didn't stop him from passing me over and hiring a woman to whom he was physically attracted (it ended badly). Fortunately, this kind of thing hasn't happened to me very often. Generally, once I'm offered an interview, I'm a shoo in - I've been told it's because I'm likable and "articulate" (Aside to Bill O'Reilly: This is, at the very least a loaded compliment because it implies that whatever white person gave it assumes that black folks can't speak and is surprised that I can). At any rate, I can't imagine how it must be for people who've worked hard their entire lives, crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is and positioned themselves for a promotion only to be repeatedly denied simply because their supervisors are more comfortable with a Sharon than they are a Shaniqua.

In addition to this, many times, I've seen a white worker plucked from vocational obscurity and simply handed the reins to his or her own promotional future. It's almost as if white supervisors want to rescue their similarly-complexioned comrades from having to do the same work as Negroes. I once worked in a call center with a white guy named Andy. As those of you who've worked in a call center before well know, the work environment is generally set up like a plantation. You've got a room full of little cubicles all within monitoring distance of a few big cubicles. The little cubicles are usually occupied by entry level phone jockeys. The big ones are manned by their overseers, um, supervisors. Now, at this call center, the small cubicles were filled overwhelmingly with minorities. The big ones were attended mostly (they had to allow a few of us to slip through the cracks) by white floor managers. At any rate, Andy was NOT a hard worker. Andy was often late to work (usually only by a few minutes) and just as often late coming back from his breaks. Yet, for some reason, Andy was a favorite of those individuals in the big cubes. So much so that they gave him special projects that allowed him to spend most of his day off of the phones - anyone who's done this kind of work knows how much of a big deal that is. Eventually, when a non call-taker position opened up and Andy applied for it, (he was "encouraged" to do so by management) he got it. After Andy was promoted, those sweet little projects dried up. Those of us who were left in his wake could only shake our heads as his "replacement," another white guy named Brian, was allowed to spend a good portion of his work day sitting in the big cubicles, fraternizing with his higher-ups. Membership, I came to learn, has its privileges.



At 6:20 PM , Blogger Breez said...

WOW. I honestly couldn't agree more. I have worked in a call center and long ago learned how that game was played. I did get several promotions, but after a bout with illness, they did not hesitate to replace me with the new model negro.

Now I work for a law firm, and each time I see a brother being interviewed, I ask myself, "I wonder what they're going to have him hauling around the office." Because when there is a new brother, you can bet dollars to donuts they will not be doing anything that allows them to sit.

At 2:05 AM , Blogger Another Conflict Theorist said...

"...each time I see a brother being interviewed, I ask myself, "I wonder what they're going to have him hauling around the office." Because when there is a new brother, you can bet dollars to donuts they will not be doing anything that allows them to sit."

True, indeed. I used to teach at a vocational school and whenever admin. would set-up for an event, the assumption was that I would get my Kunta Kinte on and start lifting and hauling. It got so bad that eventually I started walking directly past all the action, jumping into my car and driving off.

At 8:55 PM , Blogger Professor Zero said...

*Great* post.

At 12:43 AM , Blogger John said...

Tremendous post first of all.

This blog entry really has hit home for me. The scenario you painted fits my office's dynamics to the tee! Two white men are the highest ranking in my office. And both of them leave a lot to be desired in their respective roles. A woman is our office manager, and the minorities are stuck in middle management positions and continually told that we don't have what it takes to make it into the upper ranks. We are highly criticized far more than our white counterparts. It is extremely evident.

I haven't had a white counterpart be promoted over me. However, I am constantly looking over my shoulder and I know that I must work twice as hard as as my white coworkers to maintain my position and status. We typically do not have as long a rope as our white counterparts. Saddening, but true.

I have also observed that what applies to my white coworkers doesn't translate when the same scenario reaches the minorities. For instance. Sometimes my job requires weekend work to complete reports. Recently, a coworker did not complete his reports on time and they were due on Monday. When he turned them in late he emailed me and the boss that he was unable to get to the reports over the weekend due to family obligations. My boss remarked "Ruben (Latino)just isn't ambitious enough, he doesn't do what it takes to get the job done..." A white coworker did the exact same thing two weeks later. He turned in reports late on Wednesday instead of Monday and his excuse was that he took his kids to Seaworld and gave his wife a day off while he kept the kids all weekend. The same boss filled my ears with praises about how "James is a good family man...." This is but a small sample. Where is the equality?


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