How White Workers Navigate Racial Difference in the Workplace: Social-Emotional Processes and the Role of Workplace Racial Composition

Jennifer L. Nelson, Tiffany D. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research on racialized emotions and racialized organizations has begun to inform how we understand social interactions in the workplace and their implications for racial inequality. However, most research to date focuses on the experiences and coping strategies of racial minority workers, especially when confronted with instances of racial prejudice and discrimination. We extend research on racialized emotions in the workplace by mapping the stages of belonging/unbelonging white workers go through when they encounter instances of racial discomfort or perceived prejudice in the workplace. This is an important contribution to the study of race and work because existing research suggests the deleterious effects for people of color when white people experience negative emotions such as threat, fear, and anxiety in interracial encounters. Drawing on interview data with 56 white teachers in a metropolitan area in the U.S. Southeast, we document a process of racialized belonging. This is a process whereby white workers experienced varying degrees of surprise, confusion, frustration, and fear resulting from interracial—and some intraracial—experiences with coworkers as well as students. We note how the process is informed by racialized imprinting prior to workplace entry and followed by racialized emotions and racialized coping. Racial composition of the workplace also played a role, though the process looked similar across contexts. We argue that by accounting for white workers’ prior life experiences as well as organizations’ involvement in accommodating their emotional expectations, the way white workers behave when race becomes salient to them can be better understood and addressed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalWork and Occupations
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • diversity < work organization
  • emotion labor < emotions
  • minority workers < worker characteristics
  • race < worker characteristics
  • workplace social relations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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