Awkward race conversations have potential to strengthen relationships, CPO researchers write

February 21, 2021

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POISED (Positive Organizational Inclusion Scholarship for Equity and Diversity)
Research Spotlight

Sandra Cha

Sandra Cha, Stephanie Creary, and Laura Morgan Roberts recently co-authored a paper titled “Fumbling in relationships across difference: The potential spiraling effects of a single racial identity reference at work” in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion.

The paper explores the potential relationship impacts when a white employee makes a comment, question, or joke about a Black colleague’s race at work. These identity references, even when well-intentioned rather than malicious, can be upsetting for Black employees and have the potential to derail relationship building across difference. But, under certain conditions, they also have the potential to generate deeper understanding and connection, the researchers write.

The paper identifies structural closeness — defined as physical proximity with frequent and diverse interactions— as a common precursor to the occurrence of identify references. Co-workers who experience such structural closeness are more likely to feel familiar enough with each other to communicate openly about the subject of race, the researchers write.

When an identity reference is made, there are three factors that can influence how a Black person responds and, in turn, the co-workers’ relationship trajectory, according to the paper:

  • Whether the Black employee has a history of experiencing hurt as a result of their race through negative stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination
  • Whether the Black employee has experienced their race as a dominant identity in a different context, such as a Nigerian man who grew up in Nigeria and now works in the United States
  • Whether the Black employee feels psychological closeness with their White colleague

Stephanie Creary

“We chose to center the experiences of Black workers during identity references. We do so because Black employees, who are most often the targets rather than initiators of identity references, can respond to a White colleague’s identity reference in very different ways, and the way in which they respond strongly impacts the relationship,” the researchers write.

“This observation goes against dominant framing in the public discourse of Black people as disempowered in the workplace. Our critical perspective emphasizes greater agency for Black people,” the researchers write. “At the same, we acknowledge that Black employees can face an arduous choice in deciding how to respond to a White colleague’s identity reference. Responding in a way that meets the needs of both relational partners is delicate and effortful, and it imposes a disproportionate ‘relational tax’ on Black employees.”

The paper suggests there are three ways Black workers can respond to an identity reference: disaffirming, going along or mindful correcting.

Laura Morgan Roberts

“Of the three potential responses, we propose that mindful correcting is the most likely to spiral into increased relational closeness over time,” the authors write. “This article offers insight into how identity references, which may initially be experienced negatively by Black workers as a type of microaggression, can ultimately lead to generative experiences and promote higher levels of positivity in relationships across difference when viewed as a well-intended relational fumble. Mindful correcting can help to strengthen relationships through the deeper learning that occurs for both parties,” the researchers write.

The paper also offers practical tips for how white employees and organizational leaders can develop high-quality relationships across difference, a key skill as the U.S. workforce becomes more diverse.

Cha is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Brandeis International Business School. She also serves on the steering committee of POISED: Positive Organizational Inclusion Scholarship for Equity and Diversity.

Creary is a Center for Positive Organizations Research Advisory Board member and an Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania.

Roberts is a Center for Positive Organizations faculty affiliate and Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia.


POISED — Positive Organizational Inclusion Scholarship for Equity and Diversity — is a new microcommunity that investigates diversity, equity, and inclusion through the lens of Positive Organizational Scholarship — paying special attention to positive states, qualities, relationships, and processes (such as dynamics that contribute to human strength, resilience, and flourishing) in organizations to surface new insights.

POISED is tackling vital questions such as how underrepresented minorities develop the capacity to thrive in the workplace rather than being derailed by discrimination, how leaders and allies partner in DEI efforts to help underrepresented minorities thrive, and how organizations that have stumbled in their efforts to support DEI can learn, grow, and flourish from their experiences. All are invited to learn more and join.