Researchers: Black Professional Women Pressured to Fit White Expectations

According to new research presented Aug. 3 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), black professionals make extra efforts in the workplace to fulfill what they believe are the expectations of their white colleagues.

In their paper, “Keep Your 'N' In Check: African American Women and the Interactive Effects of Etiquette and Emotional Labor," sociologists Marlese Durr, Ph.D., of Wright State University and her co-author Adia Harvey Wingfield, Ph.D., of Georgia State University argued that black professionals engage in “emotional performance” to conform at work.

“Our analysis of these aspects of workplace behavior reveals that women and men co-mingle etiquette and emotion maintenance to be accepted in the workplace and to fit white expectations,” said Durr.

Durr and Wingfield conducted their research from 2005 to 2007 by conversing with 20 black professional women employed as lower-level executives, middle managers and administrators in public and private organizations, state and city government and universities. They also conducted 25 in-depth interviews with black women employed in work environments with an estimated 10 percent or fewer black professional employees.

Emotional Overtime

“[Black professionals] have to monitor their behavior etiquette on the regular, professional level, and at the same time, through this racialized set of expectations,” Durr said in an interview with

Durr said the research revealed that black professional women may feel they are being watched for certain behaviors in the workplace, such as how they dress or speak or even how they smile or who they eat lunch with. These efforts to fit in, she said, can make black women feel isolated, alienated and frustrated in the workplace.

“They’re doing a dance,” Durr said. “It’s a constant battle with how they prepare themselves and see themselves in order to be viewed as acceptable in the workplace.”

According to the research, black professional women are concerned with barriers to promotions, being placed in positions that deal with minority or affirmative action issues instead of “mainstream” jobs, competing with white women and fighting black stereotypes.

The result, Durr said, is that many black professional women work harder to excel in the workplace and to achieve “stellar” job performance. But the process also can be stressful and draining.

“I’m upset about being a black professional woman in this environment,” said one respondent, as quoted in the report. “It’s very isolating. But as much as I’d like to be upset about it, I can’t because it would come off the wrong way. So I have to be happy-go-lucky, everything’s great, everything’s wonderful, but it really sucks.”

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