Fumbling in relationships across difference: The potential spiraling effects of a single racial identity reference at work

By: Sandra A. Cha, Stephanie Creary, Laura Morgan Roberts

Cha, S.E., Creary, S.J. and Roberts, L.M. (2021), "Fumbling in relationships across difference: the potential spiraling effects of a single racial identity reference at work", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 40 No. 1, pp. 90-102. https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-08-2020-0227



Black people, as members of a historically underrepresented and marginalized racial identity group in the workplace, are often confronted with identity references – face-to-face encounters in which their race is referenced by a White colleague in a comment, question or joke. Identity references can be interpreted by a Black colleague in a variety of ways (e.g. as hostile and insulting or well-intentioned, even flattering). Identity references can derail the building of relationships across difference, but under certain conditions may open the door for deeper understanding and connection. The conceptual framework in this article delineates conditions under which an identity reference may elicit an initial negative reaction, yet, when engaged directly, may lead to generative experiences and promote higher connection and learning in relationships across difference.


This article builds theory on identity references by incorporating relevant research on race, identity, diversity, attribution and interpersonal relationships at work.


The framework identifies a common precursor to identity references and three factors that are likely to influence the attribution a Black person makes for a White colleague’s identity reference. It then describes how, based on that attribution, a Black person is likely to respond to the White referencer, and how that response is likely to affect their interpersonal relationship over time.


By explicating how a single identity reference can have significant implications for relationships across difference, the framework deepens understanding of how race affects the development of interpersonal relationships between Black and White colleagues at work. In doing so, this article advances research on race, diversity, workplace relationships and positive organizational scholarship.