Black job seekers try to hide race: Study

Sonia Kang By Jasminee Sahoye
Sonia Kang
By Jasminee Sahoye

A team of researchers has found that racial inequality in labor markets persists despite organizational and individual efforts to reduce bias.

Their paper, Whitened résumés: Racial passing and covering in the labor market, obtained by The Camera, is the outcome of a two-year study lead by Sonia Kang, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at Rotman School of Management, U of T.

The paper provides new insights into the nature of employment discrimination and job seekers’ attempts to adapt to it.

“We find that decisions about racial concealment and transparency continue to play a crucial role in contemporary labor markets, with powerful and potentially paradoxical consequences for minority job seekers,” said Kang, and fellow researchers K.A DeCelles, A. Tilcsik and S. Jun.

They used interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a resume audit study and examined racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, known as résumé whitening.

They say their findings suggest a paradox: “Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers.

“It’s really a wake-up call for organizations to do something to address this problem. Discrimination is still a reality,” said Kang.

The paper examined resume whitening which includes changing or deleting aspects of one’s resume to conceal or downplay one’s race.

“These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality.”

In 2013, two trained research associates conducted 59 in-depth interviews with 29 Black and 30 Asian university students who were actively searching for jobs or internships.

“Given the racially sensitive nature of the subject, we employed one Black and one Asian research associate and matched the race of the interviewer to that of each respondent. Participants were from two large, selective, private universities located in a major North American metropolitan area.”

Using electronic mailing lists of campus residence halls, they recruited Black and Asian participants (55.9% women) for the study of minority job seekers’ experiences. Participants were undergraduate students in their junior or senior year (95% of the sample) or were enrolled in professional degree programs (5%). Every participant had a recent experience applying for jobs or internships.

The sample represented a range of targeted career fields.  The most common ones being finance (16.9%), science and medicine (13.6%), law and government (13.6%), consulting (10.2%), education (8.5%), and information technology (5.1%).

“Thirty-six percent of interviewees (31% of Black respondents and 40% of Asian respondents) reported that they personally engaged in résumé whitening. In addition, two-thirds of all interviewees reported knowing others (typically friends or family members) who whitened their job application materials; thus, awareness of this phenomenon was common even among those respondents who said that they did not personally engage in it,” the researchers stated.

Of the participants who reported personally engaging in résumé whitening, nearly one half indicated that they had changed the presentation of their first name on their résumé.

More than two-thirds of those who reported some form of résumé whitening mentioned changing the presentation of their experiences in three forms: Omitting experiences that might signal minority status or might be associated with negative racial stereotypes; altering the description of such activities in a more race-neutral way; and emphasizing experiences that signaled whiteness or assimilation into “white culture.”

“As one Black female college student explained, ‘I’ve been involved in a lot of Black (campus) groups and even though I’ve had leadership in them … (I) would take them off my résumé and you really couldn’t tell that I was necessarily a Black person’.”

Several respondents emphasized that “toning down” race was particularly important for résumé items that might signal an interest in racial identity politics or “Black causes.”

Every respondent who reported using whitening techniques said they did so to improve their chances of getting a job by avoiding anticipated discrimination.

Like Asian respondents, the majority of Black participants who engaged in résumé whitening emphasized that an important reason for doing so was to signal their ability to fit in with white employers and coworkers.

However, whereas Asian respondents were concerned with being seen as “too Asian”, Black job seekers were concerned that they might be perceived as a radical, outspoken person involved in racial identity politics.