Search bySearch By Algolia logo

Searching for answers to ‘race’ and ethnic discrimination in the workplace

17 June 2015

Dive into the challenge of 'us' and 'them' dynamics, explore strategies to break down stereotypes, address fault lines, and foster diversity for a brighter future

Dr. Stella Nkomo gave the second keynote address at the recent JVR ACP People Development in Africa Conference, on the challenge of race and ethnicity. The focus of her career has always been, in her words, on: "tough and difficult issues for people to engage with", and her current focus on race and ethnicity falls squarely into this category.

In South Africa we are constantly exposed to the challenges of race and ethnicity, but this issue of 'us' and 'them' is a common characteristic of all human beings. As South Africans we've seen how far this can escalate, with the recent Xenophobia attacks in 2008 and 2015, where people were hurt or killed simply because they were different. This, however is a worldwide issue. The form changes, from anti-immigration legislation, to simply feelings of negativity in many countries, but you will find it wherever you go. The pervasiveness of these tendencies shouldn't mean that we must simply accept them as unchanging facts of human nature. Dr. Nkomo makes the point that "Race and ethnicity are things that people do", as opposed to something that is innate - your race is not the essence of who you are. There are no fundamental differences between the races. Culture is learned. As a black woman, she states: "I can be Afrikaans if I wanted to be...". One can learn the language, the customs and make friends. There is no physical reason why you cannot. (Click here for a good example) Race and ethnicity are belief systems that result in particular behaviours. For many they are limiting beliefs that can get in the way of realising their potential, and the potential of others.

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." - W.E. Du Bois

This problem remains in the 21st century. Aspiring leaders realise very quickly that many of those they lead don't look, sound and think like them. We have to learn to see the human being behind the physical body. The sad thing is that despite of a lot of research from Psychology, Organisational Behaviour, and Human Resources, we still don't have a complete picture of how race and ethnicity can create divisions between people. We have all of these technological advances, but we don't seem to be able to "manage away" this problem of race and ethnicity. There are however some findings from the research that can make a difference...

"How might we enable others to learn how to deal with people who don’t look like them, sound like them, or have the same cultural beliefs?"

Race and ethnicity is a social construction

The first thing that the research teaches us is that we have created this phenomenon of race and ethnicity - it is a social construction. And so if we have created it, then we can undo it, but that means we have to bite the bullet to undo it. Right now the average person believes that there is such a thing as race - "This race is like this.", "Those people are born like that". Many believe that if you are born with a certain kind of phenotype, then you naturally fall within a certain category.

Be wary of stereotype threat

Stereotyping is a common human behaviour that assists us with information processing. It allows us to make judgements and predictions without having to process an overwhelming amount of information. It is very adaptive, but it can also become a problem! One can ask whether racial stereotypes are changing in South Africa? According to the research the language has changed, but stereotyping is still alive and well. The American psychologist Claude Steele is well known for the concept of stereotype threat. It comes into play if you belong to a group that is stereotyped according to a negative characteristic. In this situation you are likely to feel the threat of becoming labelled as having that particular characteristic, even if it might not be true of you. This has been shown to negatively affect performance. The question is, how can organisations mitigate this threat? The research suggests two primary strategies:

Improve the level of representation of the minority group

Reconsider the organisations' diversity philosophy, and how it is lived in day to day interactions.

Some organisations promote a 'colourblind' rhetoric: "We just do competence", "We do same-ness". Other organisations value diversity: "We are all different." The diversity philosophy needs to articulate into a positive diversity climate. It must be lived. We often underestimate how much people look to leaders for cues on what to do. Leaders themselves hold biased attitudes, giving others permission to do the same. It is interesting to note that companies who espouse a colourblind philosophy, that also have good representation of minorities, do provide some identity safety (the opposite of stereotype threat). However, the best scenario occurs when the company lives a diversity philosophy and does a good job of recruiting and maintaining ethnic minorities. One of the problems we face in South Africa is that we're only chasing numbers, "Improving the body count". We're not paying enough attention to creating organisational climates where people can say: "I feel like I can bring all of myself to this organisation - that I won't be excluded because of the way I look, or because of my cultural beliefs."

Be mindful of creating 'fault lines'.

Henri Tajfel demonstrated through minimal group experiments how easily you can get human beings to divide on the basis of anything. He postulated that our personal identity is influenced by the groups we belong to, and that we naturally categorise ourselves and others as part of in groups and out groups. This became known as Social Identity Theory. Due to this natural categorisation we tend to get 'fault lines' that arise within and between groups, based on any number of differences. Organisations need to be aware that through their hiring practices and what they do, they can create fault lines. For example, you create a team of three marketing people, all women, all 25 years and younger. Then you add more marketing people, but they are all over 50 and males. In this example the natural fault lines, or frictions that could erupt would likely be due to age and gender groupings.

What can we do about fault lines?

1st - Step away from the group and see the individual. Instead of saying: "Themba is African.", say: "Themba is Themba". We need to learn to decategorise, and get to the person. 2nd - Recategorise: Moving people from us and them to 'we'. We need to realise that this is not going to happen naturally. Only by providing people with a superordinate goal that everyone buys into can we hope to unite them. Apartheid enforced categories, and now we're reversing that. Mandela demonstrated this in a powerful way when he congratulated the 1995 rugby team for their victory. He made sure that it became a moment all South Africans could be proud of. Contrast that with the recent rhetoric around xenophobia. Saying: "They’re really illegal aliens.", which sends the message that it is okay to kill them and burn their houses. 3rd - Help people get a more complex understanding of their social identity. If I am a female lawyer, with a narrow understanding of my social identity, my in-group is other female lawyers. If I had a more expansive understanding, i.e., I am a female, and I am a lawyer, I allow myself to relate to all other females regardless of their profession, and can relate to lawyers that are male, or from other countries. Another common source of prejudice occurs when minority groups cannot empathise with other groups, which have also been discriminated against. An example might be an African American that is very homophobic. 4th - Thomas Pettigrew's work on Allport's contact hypothesis confirms that when people have more contact across races and ethnicity, it can affect their attitudes and beliefs about different groups. Intergroup contact generally reduces intergroup prejudice, because it gives people disconfirming information to their stereotype beliefs. This finding is robust across regions and settings, but, once again, it is not going to happen naturally, we have to create situations where people can interact more. This fact illustrates the importance of diversity training not just in our organisations, but also from pre-school up until university. 5th - We need to help leaders understand the critical role they play in reinforcing or counteracting fault lines in the organisation. Companies need to have a diversity champion.


"If you knew yourself and you knew me, you would not have killed me." Written on a church wall after 200 praying Rwandans were murdered there.

Everyday we unconsciously give those around us permission to behave in certain ways, and they do the same with us. Take a step back and look at the big picture. Does your company have a positive diversity climate? Do people experience stereotype threat? Are there fault lines in your organisation? Given the cultural diversity we have in South Africa, we need to produce more research into those theories and interventions that actually work. There can be a diversity science that helps people engage and make a contribution to realising the full potential of everyone. The research makes it clear that it is everyday people like you and I that end up committing atrocious acts of prejudice. During the Rwandan massacres there were university professors, who went from teaching their classes, to participating in the massacre. Afterward they simply resumed their teaching. Be very conscious that you could be pushed into a situation where you pick up a machete and hack a person to death. Most people think: "I could never do it.", but we need to acknowledge our weaknesses as human beings and at least think about these issues – they won't get solved naturally, we will have to create the change.


Get up-to-date industry news right in your inbox

Someone pointing to the left looking surprised

This site uses cookies to enhance your experience and to provide us with information on how to improve our website. To find out more, see our Terms of Business.