A recent article investigates racial slurs in the workplace, an important issue that is under-researched. Across a series of studies, Ashley Rosette and colleagues presents data from US samples that show different quantities of racial slurs experienced by white and black people, how gender and race interact with producing them, and how these factors influence willingness to speak up when a slur is witnessed. Tying this all together is a theoretical model based around who benefits when a workplace denigrates a group.
The first study asked 471 participants recruited via online survey to detail their experience of being targeted by a racial slur. The researchers controlled for socio-economic status and household income - both markers of status that reduce the likelihood of suffering abuse - and also for the degree that the individual's work interactions are same-race versus other-race, as this may provide different opportunities for abuse. Holding these factors constant, black people were subjected to a larger quantity of slurs than whites were, and the most common situation was white-to-black slurs. When gender was considered, a richer picture emerged: black men were far more likely to be targeted by slurs than white men, but for women, the difference was much slighter and did not reach significance.
Rosette and her team understand these findings in terms of social dominance and gendered prejudice. Essentially, slurs function to sustain social inequality, keeping one group down so a dominant one will prosper. In this US context, those who have most to gain from this are whites, and specifically white men, as they are both the greatest material beneficiaries of hierarchy and the gender more socialised to seek and defend status. The team predicted that observers of slurs are also more likely to be white men, as previous research has indicated that people are more likely to be interpersonally aggressive when amongst like-minded individuals. Their second study looked at this by harnessed existing telephone survey data, accessing information on 2480 participants which included the question: "Did you hear one or more colleagues at work use a racial slur?". Far more white men answered affirmatively than black men, with no differences seen in the women respondents; in fact, the overall effect of race, collapsing across genders, did not reach significance.
The final study investigated the individual differences that prompt some people to act and others to remain silent when they witness a slur. Conventionally, the background reasoning around these situations (such as whistleblowing or the bystander effect) looks at risk and cost to individuals who act. Rosette's team flip this by considering who benefits from silence. They measured social dominance orientation (SDO), "the desire for generalized, hierarchical relationships between social groups, and ingroup dominance over out-groups", in their sample of 133 students. The study asked these students to observe an online chat meeting between two simulated co-workers discussing who to include in a task force.
After each candidate was discussed, participants were invited to record feedback on the decision-making process that would be sent on to the CEO. However, each candidate discussion included a racial slur derogating black people. Who was less likely to use the feedback to speak out? White people, who were twice as likely to remain silent. Moreover, a one-unit increase on the (7-point) SDO scale increased the odds of remaining silent 1.5 times. Finally, the race and gender interaction remained, but the black-white differences for men all but disappeared when comparing men who did have a strong component of race in how they saw their identity. In sum, those most likely to be silent were white men for whom whiteness was important to them, and who are comfortable with, if not eager for, ingroups to dominate out-groups.
Slurs matter. Quite aside from the substantial harm they can produce in their targets, their use within groups can shape attitudes and mobilise environments against those they denigrate. Their function of keeping hierarchy in place is a contradiction to the stated meritocratic aims of most organisations. But if we want people to speak out and unmask the aggressors, it may not be sufficient to encourage safe routes. Instead, as Rosette's team conclude, 'managers should be aware that the establishment of a climate that prevents discrimination and prejudice may need to begin within socially dominant groups' who may view slurs as in their interests, or at least not against them.
Graumann CF (1998) Verbal discrimination: A neglected chapter in the social psychology of aggression. J. Theory Soc. Behav. 28(1):42–61.