Race in The Workplace: The "50% Brother/Sister"

Editor’s Note: I’m posting this hastily, so it still needs a cold proofread. You may notice a few little changes after I cold proofread it tonight. Ok, it should be fixed.

My partner and I were having a discussion the other day with a mutual friend of ours. Our friend is a middle to upper middle class professional black man, and he has recently experienced some trouble in his workplace, in particular being passed over by a coworker who failed a qualifying exam three times1 We were joking about racism, like we often do, and we got into a discussion of some of the more subtle ways that whites are advantaged in the workforce.

He made a joke that was funny, but unfortunately this joke is indicative of some serious problems in the labor force. in this conversation, we were discussing a Latino friend who is woefully underemployed. He was trained at a fairly good private university in a applied technology field, but in spite of having a degree from a good school, he’s struggled to get a good job in the 10 years he’s been out college. Given the rapid changes in his field since his graduation, his likelihood of getting a job in that area today are slim. The nature of his field, like many, is such that a person goes into a job with basic knowledge, but much of the training comes when the person actually gets the job. My partner said, “Yeah, you only know 50% of what you need to know for a job before you start it.” Our friend had a great come back in the form of a joke2 –“The problem is Carlos is the 50% brother. Nobody wants to hire the 50% brother.”3 The two black men (my partner and his friend) in the conversation were high fiving and laughing hysterically, “That’s minorities in the workforce.” I got in a few laughs myself, but the sad thing is that their joke reveals a truth that most people of color know–you need to be more than just a qualified person of color to get a job.

They were arguing that it is much harder for people of color (and white women) who have the 50% knowledge to get their foot in the door for jobs that require more on the job training. Moreover, they felt that even though it would be expected that a person would not know everything required for one of these jobs, lack of knowledge is often held against people of color as a sign that they are unqualified or less qualified, whereas whites without that knowledge are viewed as trainable. In fact, they both felt that an overqualified or very highly qualified person of color (or white woman) stood a better chance of getting a job than even their white counterparts, in part because employers would be surprised and would be more likely to see this as an opportunity to diversify.4 I’m not a sociologist in the field of work and occupations, so I don’t know much of the research emanating out of that field, but I have heard the 50% Brother/Sister Argument before from many people of color, and I tend to think it is true.

The first issue that many people of color (and white women) face in 50% jobs, is the fact that their lack of knowledge is held against them more than it is for whites. Part of this problem relates to camaraderie, which I discuss below, but the other issue is that there is a common stereotype that people of color are less qualified than whites in the first place. Some people of color worry about acknowledging that they do not have a particular skill, fearing that their lack of knowledge of this particular skill will be viewed as a sign of being unqualified. On the other hand, there is also a fear of saying that they know everything because it can come off as bragging.5 When a person feels close to an interviewee or a co-worker, their lack of knowledge fades more into the background and their trainability is more evident.

These 50% jobs require that the person hired work closely with the others around him or her, so the extent to which potential coworkers feel a degree of camaraderie with this person will make a much greater difference in evaluations during a job interview. Carlos has spent most of his life in NYC, and he’s spent very little of his time in predominantly white environments. He doesn’t necessarily know the insider jokes and norms that middle income whites have, and most middle incomes whites are probably unfamiliar with the same insider norms and jokes the he grew up with in his predominantly black and Latino neighborhood. My partner and his friend were arguing that this was one of the key problems Carlos was having.

One of the biggest barriers, when it comes to race, is the level of interactional comfort and camaraderie that people feel when they are in the presence of people of other races. I think this is one of the primary manifestations of contemporary racism. Many people have a discomfort that is conscious or unconscious, and this hurts people of color in the job market because it profoundly affects how they are evaluated by higher ups and co-workers6 I think this is really hurting Carlos and many other people of color like him, who don’t have extensive interpersonal interactions with the middle class whites who will be hiring them.

I think camaraderie is always going to be a factor in job hiring and promotions, but we can work on the two other problems. We can make sure that race doesn’t affect people’s perceptions of qualifications.7 This may mean making parts of the hiring process more race blind and other parts more race conscious. We also need to address the issue of comfort and camaraderie. Until the discomfort many people feel in the presence of people of other races subsides, people of color are routinely going to be passed over for hires and promotion when they are definitely qualified. I understand that racial discomfort is often a two way street with both whites and people of color feeling discomfort at times, but if we are talking about this in relation to institutional power, people of color are significantly more likely to be negatively impacted by whites discomfort than the reverse. There is no way in a short blog post I can detail all of the ways we can work to stop the interactional uneasiness created by racism and racial prejudice, but the workplace and most other social institutions will never be equal until this problem is addressed.

  1. If I remember correctly this coworker is Latino, and race is likely one of the factors in the background of our friend being passed over, but he thinks the greater problem is cronyism. []
  2. Yeah, it doesn’t read like a joke, but he was laughing and talking goofy when he said it. []
  3. I’m changing his name here. []
  4. I don’t think they are right about this, and I’m not sure what exact comparison they were using. I’m not sure if they meant to compare the overqualified black candidate to overqualified whites, qualified whites, or whites at all levels of qualifications, but it was interesting argument. I have seem a few cases where this has happened, but I’m quite reluctant to say it’s a trend unless I see some data. []
  5. I’m going to do a second post on race and bragging in the workplace because this was the second part of the conversation we had that day. []
  6. Here is an example of a study that found whites experience increased stress when they are around people of color. This finding does not appear to be an anomaly. []
  7. I’m reminded here of a recent discussion we had at Alas about Barack Obama’s qualifications. In that discussion Amp, linked to a post by Dave Schraub, where he notes that Obama has more experience in elected office than Clinton, Giulinani, Romney, Thompson, and Edwards. But somehow, Obama is viewed as inexperienced and less qualified. []
This entry posted in Affirmative Action, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

20 Responses to Race in The Workplace: The "50% Brother/Sister"

  1. 1
    Sailorman says:

    I’m reminded here of a recent discussion we had over at Alas about Barack Obama’s qualifications. In that discussion Amp, linked to a post by Dave Schraub, where he notes that Obama has more experience in elected office than Clinton, Giulinani, Romney, Thompson, and Edwards. But somehow, Obama is viewed as inexperienced and less qualified.

    That was a weird comment then and it is now.

    People who think Obama has less experience in “elected office” mean to add the qualifier “….which is actually relevant to being president.”

    E.g. Hillary has six years in the U.S. senate.; Obama has two in the U.S. and seven in the state senate. I’d say Hillary is more experienced, because I don’t consider the Illinois state senate and the U.S. senate to be the same thing, at all.

    I mean, really: state senate? It’s not as if they’re all yahoos, but puhleeease. Just because the word “senate” in there don’t make it great experience. It’s sure as heck a lot simpler to be a state senator than a governor of a state, or a mayor of, say, New York (not that I’m going to vote for him, but still.)

  2. 2
    Sailorman says:

    Two addenda:
    1) this is a really awesome post, which I meant to have here (and I did write it at first, but i accidentally deleted it while editing and didn’t notice until now.)

    2) In retrospect, my above post is quite OT and I regret the side track. Feel free to delete it; I won’t mind a bit.

  3. 3
    Robert says:

    Your link in number 6 has an extra period appended.

  4. 5
    joe says:

    This makes sense. It seems to be another example of
    We want people with experience
    No one will give me a chance because I don’t have experience.

    with the added twist that hiring managers are more likely to take a chance on people like them.

    I can think of no profession where school prepares you to actually do the work.

    Great post by the way.

  5. 6
    Rachel S. says:

    I think it is very rare to be fully prepared, but many jobs require significant amounts of training. Personally, I’d say my job actually requires very little post hire training relative to most other jobs.

  6. 7
    joe says:

    My comment would have been better had I said “school alone”.

    You’re a college prof right? Isn’t the process of getting a PhD sort of a long apprenticeship program?
    Doctors have to intern, so do nurses.
    Teachers have to student teach.
    Engineers have to work for 3 years and pass a test before they’re licensed.

    all of those typically require a some college degree but the degree alone isn’t enough.
    That’s all I meant.

  7. 8
    Rachel S. says:

    Oh, I wasn’t challenging what you said. I think you are right.

    Yeah a PHD program is like a long apprenticeship, but it’s also education.

    I didn’t want to put the actual occupation of the guy in the post because he may feel bad if he knew about it, but I’m hoping he won’t read the comments. He was in a computer related field that my husband claims requires large amounts of on the job training.

    My husband is also in that area, and he has a BA in accounting, which is completely unrelated. My husband has basically no formal education in computer programming and internet technology, but he got a few good breaks at a previous job (which was for a brand new on-line advertising department for a newspaper), and he spent tons of time building his own websites, so he’s one of those overqualified black people.

    In fact, that’s part of what prompted the discussion because most of the people they hire at his job are trained to do the job. Right now they have 4 positions in his department (which is like a internet/marketing/sales/advertising department), and the least qualified person is the only white person, who claimed to be an expert in one area that she wasn’t . Moreover, they had touted her as the expert and the new trainee, and she doesn’t even know how to adjust the dimensions of a photo in html. He happens to be the only person who came in with business skills and technical skills, and unfortunately, his boss (an Asian woman) has about zero technical skills but good sales experience. The other worker is a black woman, who was trained to do most of her job. She was by far the most trainable, and my husband is by far the most qualified. Anyways, that was another part of the discussion.

  8. 9
    Petar says:

    Guys, I am a department head in a manufacturing company with corporate
    headquarters in California, and facilities in 32 states, Canada, Mexico, and
    Puerto Rico. Anyone who claims that being a Hispanic male is always a
    disadvantage has very, very little experience in the real world.

    Every single shift supervisor in every single of our three major manufacturing
    facilities is Hispanic. One of the casting superintendents, two of the machine
    floor managers, one of the maintenance heads… in my department (IT) the
    Hispanics are almost 50%, and all but one of the women. That one is half
    Native American.

    I am not Hispanic myself, but I cannot imagine that I would hold being Hispanic
    against a candidate. It’s shameful to admit it, but when I hired the only black
    candidate that ever applied for a job in my department, I did it knowing that he
    may have problems working with some of the morons on the floor. He did quit
    after a few months, and I was just as sorry to lose him as I’ve been with
    everyone else that I did not fire… but being black can work against you. Being
    Hispanic – not in my world. I’m sure can be different elsewhere, but I’ve worked
    in software companies in Boston and San Fransisco, and in manufacturing in
    California and South Carolina. Being Hispanic is not a drawback there.

  9. 10
    mythago says:

    Petar, did anybody claim “being a Hispanic male is always a disadvantage”? No.

    By the way, if you hired somebody knowing he was going to be harassed, and your response to that harassment is “wow, that sucked, sorry he quit,” you might want to have a long talk with your HR and legal departments.

  10. 11
    acm says:

    I think Petar missed the point, which is that some fields (e.g., computer programming) are inherently based in a middle-class-white cultural milieu, while others (and most manual and manufacturing jobs) aren’t at all, and thus are more open to anybody who shares a good work ethic and proves themself on the job.

    I think that we are much more likely to be made uncomfortable by cultural differences than by skin tone. I.e., a very dark-skinned black who went to prestigous colleges and knows the same drinking songs is going to feel more “like me” to a potential boss in the professional fields than is a light-skinned black or hispanic (or even inner-city white) who gives off a vibe of “the hood” in either dialect, dress, or other signifiers. I’ve often wondered whether community colleges and vocational schools put their students at an inherent disadvantage for just this reason — they may end up with the same or even *more* specialized training, but they haven’t had the exposure to upper class culture and norms, meaning that they stand out like a sore thumb on interview day. maybe the reputation of the school gets them an in and then they can work their way up, but that’s quite different than being “given a chance” by a better firm that recognizes something that gives it confidence in your future.

    anyway, interesting essay, and good (if depressing) issues to raise.

  11. 12
    joe says:

    Mythago, peter said that he thought the new hire MAY have had a problem with the morons on the floor. I didn’t get the read that he was knowingly throwing someone to the wolves. Based on what’s written he obviously didn’t go to great lengths to help. My interpretation (he wasn’t explicit) is that he was hiring a supervisor for hourly employees.

    It’s VERY common in manufacturing for new supervisors to be hazed by (often more senior)hourly ‘subordinates’. How it’s handled is a gauge for how much respect the supervisor will get from the ‘subordinates’ from than on. If you handle it well they’ll respect you, if not they won’t. They get to define what ‘well handled is’. From what I’ve seen you’re not allowed to get upset or react. It’s bullying, plain and simple but if you don’t handle it in a way they (the hourly staff) accept they’ll hold it against you. If this is a shop with a strong union there might be very little that management can do without VERY clear transgression by the employees. Past practice can be a bear. If there hasn’t been clearly enforced policy and if the hourly didn’t cross clear lines, in a provable way, there could be little to NO chance of official discipline. Also, if you can’t earn the respect of the people you manage you’re going to be less effective. It’s a double bind. If you don’t officially complain to your boss there’s nothing they can do. It’s possible they won’t know it’s a problem. After all, they’re YOUR subordinates. If you DO complain, they may not be that able to help and even so than you’re a wimp that can’t handle a little friendly kidding without running to the boss to tattle. After all, you should have seen the crap jenny got when she first hired on! She didn’t go crying to upper management. blah blah blah

    If you have good prospects it might not look worthwhile to endure half a year of crap just for the opportunity to effectively manage obnoxious morons. Especially when (depending on the union) you’ll have little to no real power. I’m not blaming the union. Well maybe I am. It’s just that the same system that protects Abe from being targeted unfairly will just as vigorously protect Bob when he’s in the wrong. It’s a tradeoff. I just think you were being to hard on peter.

  12. 13
    Sailorman says:

    I’ve been thinking about this article and it’s really unusually accurate.

    If I hired a new typist, for example, i wouldn’t care what they were like so long as they already knew how to do the job. i can interact professionally with almost anyone. That’s because “professional” interaction is pretty darn limited.

    However, what if they DIDN’T already know things? Or if I was hiring them for a more interactive position, like a personal assistant, or a new associate? Then I’d have to train them–and interact to a much greater degree, on a more frequent level.

    And while I don’t care if a service provider lives their life in a way diametrically opposite to my own, if I’m going to be spending hours with them in close proximity, having conversations about tactics, etc… then I confess that I would probably lean towards someone who I felt PERSONALLY comfortable with.

    Until I read this, I had not really thought about that effect, nor considered the fairly obvious implication w/r/t hiring of minorities.

  13. 14
    Silenced is foo. says:

    I’m a software developer and my boss is a Ukranian woman, so I’m getting a kick out of these replies.

  14. 15
    mythago says:

    Sailorman, at least in my profession (and probably in others) it’s called the 2 a.m. rule: will you feel comfortable working with this person when you’re stuck finishing a project together at 2 a.m.?

    And of course, when the vast majority of hiring and managing personnel are of a particular class or group–oh, hypothetically, say white men–they’re going to be more comfortable hiring those just like them. The old boys’ network isn’t just made up of men who are openly and intellectually sexist or racist.

    Mythago, peter said that he thought the new hire MAY have had a problem with the morons on the floor.

    Yes, and he said that after he hired this guy, sure enough the guy quit a few months later. In other words, Petar apparently did nothing to try to prevent problems in the first place, did nothing to stop them while they were happening, and hasn’t tried to prevent them from happening again. Petar and managers like him ensure that my colleagues on the plaintiffs’ side of employment litigation will never go hungry.

  15. 16
    joe says:

    Mythago, I’m not going to argue with you about peter’s story. I don’t have enough information. I think we’re both assuming a lot based on our own experiences.

    In my experience companies can do all the right things and still have problems. I don’t know if peter’s company did any of these things. Based on the size he described I suspect it did. Most large companies do. Maybe he sincerely counted on these systems to work. Maybe he was as caviler as you suspect.

    Again in my experience in a manufacturing environment the line supervisor’s power can range from almost none to almost absolute. In the almost none situation if they don’t handle the hazing the way their subordinates want they’re screwed. Management might prefer that they come forward with a well documented claim so that they can take action. But good luck trying to run a group if it doesn’t stick. Not much better of a chance running a group when you got their fried since elementary school fired.

  16. 17
    Sailorman says:

    mythago, aren’t we in the same profession? ;) I’m a lawyer as well. Though I don’t do employment, and I admit I’ve set my practice up to avoid the 2AM rule entirely (though making far, far, less money doing so)

    Anyway, let me ask a followup question: How do we define that?

    I am more comfortable with people who share some of my common interests and experiences. That statement by itself is, I’m guessing, fairly universal; and isn’t something I’m embarrassed to say.

    But what about the result?
    My family background (on both sides) is European and white. Anyone who shares my common ancestry is very likely to be white.

    My education level (law school) means that most people who share it are likely to be white or Asian. This is also a factor of my profession (when I worked in the scientists, there were many more nonwhites than working in law.)

    I went to school in a fairly wealthy town with a relatively large white population. Most people who I would have grown up with (few of who I know any more in any case, but still..) would be likely to be white.

    So that’s my background. But the things I do in my free time are also indicators. The music I listen to; the books I read; the sports I play and watch; the food I like to cook; the people who I admire and try to emulate…. these things, in combination, are also much more likely to be shared by other people who are white and middle class.

    I note that race isn’t in there anywhere, in a LITERAL sense. And it’s really not, in practice: my past experience in science and my current experience in law has shown me that I’m quite capable of enjoying shared interests with anyone, of any color. Many of my scientist friends were Asian or Indian; it so happens that two of the attorneys who I respect most, one of whom I might seek a partnership with, are black.

    But of course race IS in there, EFFECTIVELY. Because after all, a lot of my personal interactions include things which, statistically speaking, are mostly white things. Shit: even if I limited myself (so to speak) to “lawyers or people who sail” or “people who enjoy cooking Indian food, sourdough French bread, and Thai curries” then most of the resulting people are white.

    In other words, I’m basing my comfort level on the end result of people’s lives–and in that limited sense I’m being fair, not racist or unfair. But of course the rest of their lives actually exist; the fact that my levels “just so happen” to match mostly whites is the result of a lot of stuff that I know exists.

    So what’s the ethical thing to do? Do I ignore my own comfort level? That would work–but it doesn’t seem very fun. And there’s a cost to me, because I won’t work as well with someone I’m not comfortable with.

    But the status quo isn’t good either. Even though the process of selection is “facially neutral” (shades of legal issues here as well), it has a non-neutral effect. And it just perpetuates the strata that already exist.

  17. 18
    mythago says:

    In other words, I’m basing my comfort level on the end result of people’s lives–and in that limited sense I’m being fair, not racist or unfair. But of course the rest of their lives actually exist; the fact that my levels “just so happen” to match mostly whites is the result of a lot of stuff that I know exists.

    Exactly. It’s not easy to solve. But there does seem to be a pervasive belief that if sexism or racism isn’t blatant, conscious or specific, then it doesn’t exist. (I’m thinking of the saying about Northern racism: Yankees don’t care how high blacks get as long as they don’t get too close.) There’s no way to get people past their comfort level as long as they believe it’s OK if the result is racist as long as they don’t mean to be.

    The only real solution is for there to be enough diversity in the upper ranks that people are past their discomfort levels. When you spent 14 hours a day with the same people doing the same work in close proximity, you tend to bond over that and not over sailing.

    joe, I’m only going by what Petar said in his post.

  18. 19
    Rachel S. says:

    BTW–Sailorman, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  19. 20
    Al Thani says:

    I agree with the writer in general. I have known a dear friend who was discriminated by her boss, just because she was a woman and expecting. He fired her saying she was being too lazy at work, knowing that it was beyond her control. She fought for her right and things were resolved in her interest. What i mean to say is that discrimination resides in the mind set of an individual. It is not just against the people of color but white women too. Being a man or a woman does not really matter who is being more productive in his or her work. Similarly, being black or white has nothing to do with a person’s performance. I think we all must try to eliminate this difference, from our mind in order to make our work environment tension free and minimize the level of discomfort for our fellow workers.