The white ceiling: racism at work

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only just become aware of “colour-blind racism”.

It comes in various forms. There are people who believe there’s equal opportunity for everyone irrespective of race even though that’s evidently not the case. There are those who agree there’s inequality but that individuals alone are responsible for the situation they’re in. And there are others who acknowledge racism existed once upon a time but definitely no longer does.

Many employees in the University of Sydney study had workplace encounters characterised by disrespect and disregard.
Many employees in the University of Sydney study had workplace encounters characterised by disrespect and disregard.Credit:Jessica Shapiro

While further variations exist, they all have one thing in common: these individuals certainly do not consider themselves racist and they have as a key priority the preservation of their self-esteem, pride and social status – whatever protects them from “feeling their privileges are undeserved”.

Those last five words are lifted from the findings of a study now published by researchers at the University of Sydney. They interviewed more than two dozen mature-age Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who’d completed at least one university degree. The scholars expected the completion of a qualification to have a transformative effect on the graduates, to open doors and make opportunities possible that would change their life and help their family and community.


But that’s not really what happened. For any of the graduates.

Sure, there was celebration and pride and determination. Just as common, however, were workplace encounters characterised by disrespect and disregard.

One example is Patti who, despite having decades of work experience and a postgraduate degree, was prematurely judged by an adviser at the employment office as suitable only to be a cleaner.

Another example is a qualified teacher, Doris, who was coaching a trainee when a colleague assumed their roles were reversed, that Doris was the trainee, presumably because she had dark skin.

The prevalence of this is such that the researchers say it’s obvious “the bar of expectation is so low that many white people simply [do not] see Aboriginal capability”.

What they see is an opportunity to tick a diversity box only for it to make Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees feel like they’re “worth nothing”; that they’re “invisible”. Susie’s comment captures these sentiments powerfully:

“I feel like I’m just a black face where they needed one … I mean, [my boss] even checks my emails before I send them out!”

This is where the white ceiling comes in. The type of job for which they’re qualified is within reach but what they have to do to get there is unconscionable, as articulated by Peter who refused to compromise his aboriginality just for a promotion:

“I fear for that Aboriginal person that breaks through that white ceiling. I think it becomes harder for them to … remain Aboriginal-based, community-based, focused on the people. I know one or two that have broken through that ceiling and have become what I and others might call an Abocrat.”

So they stay in their intellectually unchallenging posts where they occasionally try to voice a learned opinion. But that, too, is often problematic as per Jim’s conclusion:

“University gave me the confidence to be able to speak up … and they didn’t like that one bit ’cause there’s nothing scarier than an educated blackfella.”

The scholars’ analysis culminates in the same point of view. Instead of valuing and embracing the increased knowledge, greater skillset and stronger confidence of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, many managers instead see them as a threat to be controlled.

They therefore urge those of us in positions higher up the hierarchy to “be teachable”, to see Indigenous Australians as people from whom much can be learnt, though their hopes are modest:

“For goal-driven professionals who work in hectic physical environments and within neoliberal systems and structures that emphasise and reward individualistic endeavour, being teachable may be challenging, if not impossible, to achieve.”

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