Researchers explore workplace impact of white gaze in Gender, Work, & Organization paper

March 30, 2021


Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) Faculty Affiliate Courtney McCluney recently co-authored the paper “‘Against a sharp white background’: How Black women experience the white gaze at work” in the journal Gender, Work, & Organization.

The paper, co-authored with Verónica Caridad Rabelo and Kathrina J. Robotham, focuses on Black women’s narratives to answer the question: “How is the white gaze enacted and experienced at work?”

In March 2017, activist Brittany Packnett created the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork after the bodies of two powerful Black women, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and White House Correspondent April Ryan, were scrutinized by white men on national television. The hashtag allowed Black women around the world to share similar workplace experiences. The hashtag generated more than 200,000 original posts within the first 48 hours.

McCluney and her fellow researchers analyzed 1,169 of the tweets that met their study criteria to examine how whiteness is imposed, presumed, venerated, and forced on Black women’s bodies within majority white organizations.

“These four mechanisms reflect and reinforce power dynamics in organizations—specifically, gendered racial hierarchies,” the researchers write. “The set of practices that comprise the white gaze ultimately build and preserve the power of whiteness in organizations and broader society. The end result is the regulation of Black women’s bodies at work, most often through coercion, control, and punishment. This punishment—whether perceived or anticipatory—takes its toll.”

For example, the sample tweets include firsthand accounts that express Black women’s frustration with ignorant questions about their hair, comments about their vocal tone, and even nonconsensual touching at work.

The paper includes recommendations for how leaders, managers, and co-workers can confront the white gaze, including:

  • Assess how policies and practices reinforce whiteness
  • Conduct training on how white standards are imposed throughout the organization
  • Engage in self-reflection
  • Refrain from imposing white beauty standards
  • Challenge how whiteness is idealized in the workplace
  • Intervene when witnessing Black women’s mistreatment

The recommendations focus on managing whiteness and injustice, rather than requiring Black women to adapt to white norms, the researchers note.

“Our aim in spotlighting the sharp white background against which non-White people are constantly compared is to better understand the ideologies and power relations in organizations that constrain Black women’s bodies and, by extension, their agency and dignity,” the authors write.

McCluney is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University’s ILR School and a member of the Steering Committee for the POISED (Positive Organizational Inclusion Scholarship for Equity and Diversity) research microcommunity.