Black Men and Racial Microaggressions at Work.

Author:Pitcan, Mikaela

Experiences of racial microaggressions are associated with perceptions of workplace discrimination and linked with poor mental health outcomes. The authors examined the lived experiences of workplace racial microaggresssions among 12 early career professional Black men working in predominantly White organizations (PWOs). The phenomenological experience of racial microaggressions was separated into 4 domains: context, experience, costs, and coping. Subthemes included different worlds and different rules, assumption of inferiority, cognitive and affective reactions, psychological and career-related costs, and internal (e.g., compartmentalizing) and external (e.g., using social networks) mechanisms of coping. Career counselors may want to proactively assess how these types of experiences and other forms of racism may affect Black men's social and psychological outcomes as well as their career functioning and success. Further research is needed to examine whether age or career experience influences experiences of racial microaggressions in PWOs, as well as the effect of these experiences on psychological outcomes.

Keywords-, microaggressions, workplace discrimination, Black men, racial/ethnic minority career development, predominantly White organizations


Black men are laid off at rates disproportionate to those of White men (Couch & Fairlie, 2010; DeSilver, 2013) and earn 77.1% of their White male counterparts' salary. Considering racial disparities in occupational outcomes, researchers have explored barriers that challenge or limit Black men's success in the workplace. A barrier that Black men face, particularly in predominantly White organizations (PWOs), is racial microaggressions (Pierce, 1974). Racial microaggressions are "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group" (Sue et al., 2007, p. 273).

Black men working in PWOs may regularly confront microaggressions (Blume, Lovato, Thyken, & Denny, 2012; Wong, Derthick, David, Saw, & Okazaki, 2014). Microaggressions can be intentionally hurtful through avoidance, discrimination, and name-calling, or invalidating through the denial, exclusion, and invisibility of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of a person of color as they relate to ethnic heritage. Microaggressions can also be subtle and ambiguous, communicating a hidden insult that demeans a person's racial heritage. For example, although intended to be complimentary, a coworker's or employer's comment about a Black employee being "well spoken" implies that he or she is not expected to have well-developed oratory skills. Microaggressions can influence perceptions of workplace discrimination and feelings about work in general and, because of their ambiguity, are often more difficult to cope with, confront, and navigate (Offerman et al., 2014). Often, those subjected to microaggressions question the validity of their perception, making it difficult for the individual and organization to label and address incidents.

Relatively little is known about Black professionals' experiences of racial microaggressions at work. Sue et al. (2007) proposed a taxonomy and research program that laid the groundwork for racial microaggressions research. Decuir-Gunby and Gunby's (2016) study of Black educators demonstrated that racial microaggressions were associated with lowered job satisfaction. Holder, Jackson, and Ponterotto (2015) examined the experience of racial microaggressions of Black female managers, finding themes such as stereotypes about Black women, assumed universality of the Black experience, invisibility, and exclusion. Finally, a review of 64 papers on microaggressions noted gaps in the literature regarding potential mediators of the experience of racial microaggressions, including gender and coping mechanisms (Wong et al., 2014). In the present study, we addressed these gaps by examining how Black men experience microaggressions in PWOs, focusing on the intersectional social identities of being Black and a man within a cultural context that abides by White masculine standards of being.

Intersectionality Theory

Intersectionality theory, which posits that social positions are relational and determined by systems of power, is increasingly a focus in psychological research and provides a framework for understanding Black men's work experiences in PWOs (Grzanka, Santos, & Moradi, 2017; Nelson, Stahl, & Wallace, 2015). Black men's experiences are racialized and gendered, and therefore analysis must account for the ways in which masculinity and race intersect and relate to systems of power and privilege in the workplace. In their articulation of the psychology of working theory (PWT), Duffy, Blustein, Diemer, and Autin (2016) highlighted the utility of intersectionality theory (Cole, 2009) to illuminate how individual and systemic factors interact to marginalize and privilege people based on their social identities. Race/ethnicity, social class, gender, and other social identities are markers of societal power, privilege, and marginalization and represent factors that contribute to unequal access to work opportunities (Duffy et al., 2016).

Work Context

With respect to the work context, Black men working in PWOs may experience more severe or a higher frequency of microaggressions compared with Black men working in racially/ethnically diverse work settings because of differences in the cultural context. Although the privilege of Whiteness in PWOs has been described, analysis of the experience of racial microaggressions within a White masculine-normed work context remains underresearched (Wingfield & Alston, 2014). We argue that PWOs act as microcosms in which systems of racism and sexism of U.S. culture are reproduced and influence organizational practices and decision-making (Gregory, 2016). Within the sociocultural context of the United States, which is reflected in PWOs, a hierarchy of hegemonic and subordinated masculinities is inextricably linked with class, race, gender, and sexuality (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2013). Hegemonic masculinity consists of norms and practices associated with the most "honored way of being a man" (p. 832), whereas patterns of subordinated masculinity vary by class and race and are influenced by the social setting in which they are enacted (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2013). Thus, those whose identities do not align with the White masculine norm face barriers to success in these workplaces.

In PWOs, coping with racial microaggressions may be difficult for Black men because they have to navigate different rules for emotional display based on racial and gender identity. Studying racialized feeling rules in the workplace, Wingfield (2010) found that the mandate of an emotional display of congeniality and likability may be difficult to sustain in the face of racism. Furthermore, Black professionals in that study described a different set of rules governing their display of negative emotions. Although there were acceptable situations in which White coworkers could show frustration and anger, Black professionals felt that there were no acceptable situations where they could display anger.

Aligned with Roberts's (1993) description of censure of those of subordinated masculinity, differing standards for emotional expression at work discourage direct confrontation of ambiguous racial discrimination (e.g., microaggression). Censure prescribes behaviors to the subordinated group, whereas the dominant group is removed from censure. In response to emotionally restricting conditions, Black men engage in emotional and behavioral practices to cope with environments in which their behavior is prescribed by dominant group norms. John Henryism, a method of coping with race-based stress, is a high-effort behavioral response (e.g., working extreme hours and maintaining a laser-like focus on work) of persistent and prolonged attempts to cope with barriers to opportunity (Neighbors, Njai, & Jackson, 2007). Unfortunately, higher rates of hypertension in Black men can result from the prolonged stress from social exclusion and subsequent coping mechanisms used in PWOs (James, 1994).

Purpose of the Study

Our working assumption was that isolating social identity variables fails to reflect and honor the intersectional nature of social categorizations that result in differential access to power and opportunities and experiences of inclusion/exclusion. The primary aim of this study was to expand the intersectional understanding of the experience of racial microaggressions by highlighting and amplifying the voices of professional Black men working in PWOs. We expected that the interaction of race and gender within the context of PWOs would result in unique experiences of microaggressions for Black men in terms of the nature of their experiences as well as their reactions.



Twelve men who self-identified as Black or African American participated in the study. All were under 40 years old, had less than 10 years of professional experience, and reported working in a PWO. We chose these inclusion criteria because the experience of racial microaggressions has been posited to vary by context and factors of identity, including work experience and age (Wong et al., 2014). Therefore, inclusion of participants who varied widely in terms of age, professional experience, and workplace composition would limit our ability to reach saturation. Participants' ages ranged from 24 to 33 years (M= 28.16), all held bachelor's degrees, and one participant held a professional graduate degree in law. Participants worked in media (two as journalists for nationwide publications), law (one corporate lawyer), finance (five financial analysts or associate bankers in investment banking departments of nationwide financial institutions and one accountant at a start-up), health technology (one business intelligence developer and...

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