Racial Emotion at Work: A Q & A With Author Tristin K. Green
We all have them.
But what are racial emotions and how do they impact you and your workplace?
In her new book, Racial Emotion at Work: Dismantling Discrimination and Building Racial Justice in the Workplace, Tristin K. Green unravels race and emotion in the workplace, exploring why racial emotion is often left out of equity conversations and why we must confront it.
Here are some insights into the book, why it is an important topic and what readers can expect to get out of it.
What is “racial emotion” and why is it important to address?
Racial emotion most broadly is the emotion related to race that people experience when they engage with the world. For this book, I focus on one slice: racial emotion in interracial interactions at work. There’s a vast body of social science research on racial emotion in interracial interactions, and one big part of the book is simply relaying that research to a broader audience.
The fact that racial emotion is part of all of our lives is one reason to talk about it, but there’s something else going on at the level of interactions and relations that makes racial emotion key for our thinking about any project of racial justice or equality. I start the book with a brief vignette of two women, one Black and one white, who have a difficult interaction at work. Once we realize that the story isn’t just about how each woman feels but about how these women are likely to interact in the future, and about how their employer might respond to the interaction, we begin to see some of the racial justice implications of racial emotion at work. What’s more, a key point of the book is that our racial emotions, which affect our behaviours and our relationships, are shaped by the institutions in which we operate, including law and our work organizations. Seeing this allows us to open up our thinking to solutions that go beyond individual biases or even individual relationships.
What inspired you to write Racial Emotion at Work, and what unique perspective or approach does your book bring to this critical discourse?
I have always been interested in how contexts shape us as individuals and as social beings, whether through history or in the present moment. I have also been troubled by the way discrimination is often characterized. At a time when people do seem more open to thinking about structural aspects of racism and discrimination, there is an important story to tell about how humans are not just implicit bias machines; we are emotional actors and we are interacting in a context that we often don’t see, partly because we are told not to see it. One of the things I wanted to do with the book is bring to the surface the ways that law and organizations affect our racial emotions and often mis-value racial emotions to the detriment of our racial justice goals.
In an era where diversity, equity and inclusion have become buzzwords, what sets your book apart in terms of offering practical and sustainable solutions for creating meaningful change in workplace cultures, and what do you hope readers will take away?
I think that’s exactly the right way of entering a conversation about what this book is about. This book drives solutions in institutions and not just in individuals. I think we have been overemphasizing individuals and underemphasizing organizational responsibility for too long. If all we do is implement bias training, as many companies, government offices, courthouses and universities currently do, we will miss the mark on racial justice.
Another way in which this book contributes to the broad field of diversity and inclusion literature is in its highlighting of emotion in all of its vast array of permutations: Racial Emotion at Work is as much about affection, respect, admiration and pride, even ambivalence, as it is about anxiety and fear. And while there is a thread in the book that exposes white supremacy and white anxiety, it is ultimately a book about racial emotions in all people, and about how we might move the needle toward more positive emotions and stronger relations over time. One key point from the research is that these stronger relations are actually likely to require more uncomfortable interactions (and a sharing of discomfort), rather than fewer, especially in the short term.
How does your legal background inform your analysis of the legal implications surrounding racial discrimination and emotional dynamics in employment settings?
To be honest, I think of my legal background as something that shapes my thinking more than any sort of expertise or experience in law. Law to me is a place where stories are told, powerful stories about how things operate on the ground, and these stories then circle back around to constrain our efforts at change.
I have been particularly interested in employment discrimination law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act precisely because this is a space where it is so critical to unpack judges’ understandings (and misunderstandings) about discrimination. One thing I do in the book is look closely at judicial opinions to see how judges treat and shape racial emotion in law. We can see the ways that judges push racial emotion out of antidiscrimination concern — by labeling racial emotion as personal, for example — and also how they respond to claims involving racial emotions of shame and humiliation by whites who are called or perceive themselves as being called racist. Because judges are making the law in their rulings, we can learn something about what the law is doing in this area, and what it could do better. also how they respond to claims involving racial emotions of shame and humiliation by whites who are called or perceive themselves as being called racist. Because judges are making the law in their rulings, we can learn something about what the law is doing in this area, and what it could do better.
Addressing racial emotions in a professional setting can be complex. How does your book offer practical strategies for individuals and organizations to navigate these challenges effectively?
I’m glad you asked this question. The book offers concrete strategies for individuals to lead change in institutions, whether from inside or outside, so that those institutions will more fairly value racial emotion and acknowledge racial emotion as an antidiscrimination concern. I make suggestions for shifting our repertoires and demands around racial emotion and more evenly allocating the burden of negative consequences from racial emotion, as well as for opening space for learning and more positive relations in the long run.
I am also very clear in the book that it is not a book that offers tips for working on our own interpersonal skill; nor is it a guide for how work organizations might mediate difficult interactional moments when they arise. Others are doing that important work. This book as I see it forces people out of the habit of worrying about themselves and their immediate relations by putting institutions on the table, especially law and work organizations. Readers will learn about their own racial emotions, but my hope is that they will be inspired to make change beyond themselves. In the same way, with work organizations as an example, there is something of a myopic focus by employers on individual moments of discrimination and micro-relational encounters, and with that comes also an impulse toward policing individuals when discrimination is actually seen. This myopic focus on individuals is so damaging because there is much that can and should be happening at the level of policies and practices, how employers are structuring work, work spaces, and work cultures.
You touch on the enduring nature of anti-Blackness (racism) within various social structures. How does your book navigate the tension between acknowledging this persistence and advocating for change within the workplace?
I see these two things as inextricably intertwined. Race is already relevant in work organizations — it has driven and continues to drive structures, cultures, and practices that disadvantage people of colour in lots of ways, just one of which is the shaping of racial emotion and interracial interactions. I mention at one point in the book that I see this book’s promise as an optimistic one, but I also acknowledge that there can be a blinders trouble with optimism. I hope that as we learn about racial emotion in interracial interactions at work and about our institutions’ approach to racial emotion, we are better situated to push for meaningful change, including pushing our institutions to better see and more fairly judge racial emotion and to create space for developing positive emotions in interracial relations in the long run. Any optimist, though, has to grapple with the realities of our racial history and the resilience of subordination in our country. If we agree that racial equality and justice are our goals, then our solutions will have to include easing stark hierarchy and subordination. My emphasis on interracial interactions and relations is not meant to detract from that work, but to empower it.
Your book addresses emotional labour and its impact on marginalized employees. From a legal standpoint, how does your work navigate the boundary between regulating employers’ control over emotional expression and respecting employees’ rights?
This is such a great question because it gets us thinking again about what employers or work organizations can do about discrimination. One of the worst things that has happened in employment discrimination law over the past 20 years or so has been the story of discrimination as an individual problem, which is a mischaracterization of what discrimination is and how it operates. And this same story has carried over into work organizations. Once we see that work organizations create the context for interactions, we can see solutions that go beyond individuals as well. I advocate in the book against over-policing of individuals. Title VII holds employers responsible for discrimination; it does not mandate punishment of individuals. But so often the first impulse by employers is to punish an individual.
Instead, organizations should be looking to change their own practices. They do this already in other areas, say when thinking about how to boost productivity. They work on institutional levers to shape culture, to fashion spatial features of work, including those that affect how often people interact and under what circumstances, but they don’t put antidiscrimination on the table as a goal when they do this. This book pushes attention to systems, structures, and cultures, things that work organizations have control over, and which do not require direct control of emotional expression or undermining of individual employees’ rights.
This doesn’t mean employers should never tamp down on individuals’ expression. I make one specific proposal that involves what I call behaviour of “racial assault,” but even there I caution against an emphasis on policing of individuals, drawing instead on a substantial body of research that suggests that solutions are most often found elsewhere, at the level of the organization rather than the individual.
How do corporations play into racial emotion and why is this book crucial for employers/employees?
One of the reasons I focus on racial emotion in interracial interactions at work is that for many Americans today, the workplace is the place where people of different races are most likely to interact on a sustained basis. The now-amassing social science research tells us that reducing negative emotion experienced by members of all racial groups in interracial interaction is an important key to reducing prejudice and intergroup inequality. And work organizations have a long history of regulating and shaping emotion generally, including a move toward seeing individuals as exclusively “responsible” for their own emotions, and also racial emotion specifically, even when they (work organizations) seek to capitalize on diversity in racialized ways. Among other things, many work organizations today ask people of colour to do “diversity” work, to be the face of diversity, while setting up people of colour as complainers and “bad” workers when they experience and express racial emotions around bias and discrimination at work. This book takes seriously work organizations’ professed commitment to anti-racism, and it gives all individuals working within those institutions fresh ideas for how to make more impactful and meaningful change.
Your book bridges the realms of legal scholarship and social advocacy. How do you envision legal practitioners and scholars utilizing the insights from your work to inform their strategies for addressing racial discrimination and emotional dynamics with the framework of employment law?
I’d say the single most important thing legal practitioners and scholars should take from this book — in addition to just learning about the rich social science on bias, emotion, and discrimination, which is often unknown to those in the law realm — is the practice of opening up their lens to the level of organizations. This is something that can be done through law by using systemic theories of discrimination, which means one critical effort must be to maintain the power and availability of those theories. It can also be done by listening for broader stories and imagining broader solutions. The law is key for remedying individualized harm, of course, but it is also an invaluable and underutilized tool for effecting change in organizations, and to do that the stories of what happened and what should be done must include those organizations in the mix.