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EJC/REC, 13(2 & 3)
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 13 Numbers 2 and 3, 2003


LEARNING TO PLAY THE GAME: AN EXPLORATORY STUDY OF HOW AFRICAN AMERICAN

WOMEN AND MEN INTERACT WITH OTHERS IN ORGANIZATIONS

Denise Gates
Ohio University

Abstract: Utilizing feminist standpoint theory, this exploratory study examines the ways in which African American women and men experience organizations. Based on analysis of interviews with nine individuals, the study describes interpersonal interactions of African Americans with one another and with members of other co-cultural groups as well as with members of dominant groups. The study identifies communication tactics employed by the African Americans interviewed to successfully negotiate their places in organizations. The study concludes by offering ideas for future research.1

Introduction

Scholars such as Bullis (1993, 2000), Allen (1995, 1996, 2000), and Cox (1994) acknowledge that women and African Americans, as well as other non-dominant racial groups, experience organizations differently than dominant groups. Differences also exist within groups (Bullis & Stout, 2000), yet research historically seems to focus solely on the experiences of dominant group members and generalizes their experiences to co-cultural or marginalized groups (Cox & Nkomo, 1990; Cox, 1994). While scholars studying dominant groups assist in creating a foundation from which to evaluate workplace experiences (see for example Jablin, 1987), researchers and practitioners interested in a more complete understanding of organizational experiences also should consider studies that specifically examine the experiences of other groups and the diversity within those groups (Allen, 1995). Such research may be beneficial to both dominant and non-dominant groups as the organizational interactions of non-dominant groups influence all organizational members. The present study will advance knowledge in this area. 

Further, the experiences of marginalized organizational members may provide a richer understanding of workplace interactions because the outsider within status of marginalized people may give them a privileged perspective of their organizations that dominant group members may not have (Collins, 1986). Said differently, marginalized groups may be able to see aspects of their organizations that dominant groups cannot see and may not want to see because of their positions of power. Therefore, research exploring the interactions of non-dominant group members may broaden current understandings of organizational communication.

More recent research acknowledges the oppression of some groups within organizations (Allen, 1996, 2000), however oppression is experienced differently within and across groups (Allen, 1998; Bullis & Stout, 2000; Wood, 1992). More specifically, the experiences of African American women and men are not the same (Ostrander, 1999). Both sexes may experience racialized oppression, but their gendered experiences may vary, causing them to interact differently in organizations. These differences may manifest in the form of men benefiting more from the systems of oppression because of their status as men, as men tend to be more centralized in organizations than women (Mumby, 1998; Ostrander, 1999). Therefore, even though both African American women and men are marginalized in organizations in comparison to dominant groups, they experience this oppression in different ways. Future research needs to examine how African American women and men perceive interactions within organizations. This study will explore the ways in which African American women and men communicate with others in organizations, specifically addressing their positions of marginality and their efforts to move closer to the center.

Feminist Standpoint Theory as Theoretical Perspective

Scholars often evaluate organizational experiences from the perspective of socialization models (Feldman, 1976; Jablin, 1984; 1987; 2001). However other scholars argue that those models are too constraining, and that they fail to capture the experiences of women and other traditionally marginalized groups (Allen, 1996; Bullis, 1993;; Buzzanell, 1994). These scholars encourage researchers to utilize feminist standpoint theory. Perhaps this approach will help achieve one of Allen’s (2000) goals for research which is to “delve more deeply into individual’s experiences; … [and to] identify instances of patriarchy and domination” (p. 183). Accepting the charge, Gates (2002) created a model, the Integrative Socialization Model, that captured the experiences of both traditionally marginalized and dominant groups. This model responded to the current criticisms of the phase model by applying co-cultural theory by Orbe (1998a), which is rooted in muted group theory and standpoint theory, to the phase models often associated with Jablin (1987). It re-conceptualized some of the phases and emphasized the importance of the simultaneous influence of various aspects of the context. Ultimately, extant research seems to urge scholars to consider conducting research that more adequately conveys the experiences of disenfranchised groups.

Some communication scholars use feminist standpoint theory to look at organizational conditions that create oppressive situations (Wood, 1992). Feminist standpoint theory is an epistemology that “assumes that dominant patterns function to create relationships of dominance and subordination and to mask these relationships so that the subordinated accept the relationship, invisibly providing the necessary resources to maintain and naturalize the dominant arrangements” (Bullis & Stout, 2000, p.59). In other words, organizations can create and re-create oppressive conditions, and marginalized groups may hegemonically perpetuate these processes because as outsiders they have come to accept these conditions as the norm.

Further, scholars utilizing standpoint feminism assume that, “through social processes and institutional arrangements, some voices are positioned as dominant or master voice while others are positioned as marginalized, excluded, or servant voices” (Bullis & Stout, 2000, p. 55). This means that the dominant groups have a voice in organizations while marginalized groups are muted for the sake of maintaining the status quo. While the goal of this approach is to reveal oppressive conditions, the ultimate goal of feminist standpoint theory is to give marginalized organizational members a voice and to promote positive social change (Dougherty & Krone, 2000). This approach to the study of organizational communication will promote such a change.

Efforts to achieve positive social change are contingent on detailed knowledge of what needs to be changed. Organizational members, particularly those who are marginalized, can assist in efforts to achieve positive social change through dialogue and the sharing of their stories (Dougherty & Krone, 2000). ). Their stories can assist researchers and practitioners in viewing and understanding organizing processes, which could lead to the identification of potential areas in need of improvement. This approach to research provides a framework from which to understand the experiences of African American women and men in organizations. It also offers insight for people at the center to understand the experiences of individuals at the margins, which ultimately could help lead to the transformation of systems viewed as flawed. All in all, feminist standpoint theory gives voice to traditionally marginalized groups and emphasizes areas in need of further exploration.

Feminist standpoint theory is appropriate for this study for a variety of other reasons. First, this exploratory study examines the perceptions of African American women and men, a group that has been understudied compared to the plethora of research giving voice to the views of dominant groups (Allen, 1995; Cox, 1994). Second, scholars need to understand the experiences of African Americans in organizations to broaden their understanding of organizational communication. Focus in this area is necessary because groups do not all experience organizations the same; some organizational members are constrained by race, gender, and so on. (See for example Allen, 1995; 2000). Approaching research from the perspective of feminist standpoint theory will offer detailed information that may provide insight into the experiences of some of the African Americans in organizations. Third, studying African Americans in organizations will benefit both dominant and non-dominant groups. Because feminist standpoint theory is designed to help identify oppressive structures, the non-dominant group in this study, African Americans, may assist in identifying systems of oppressions about which dominant groups either may not be aware or may intentionally be ignoring. Fourth, organizations cannot begin to improve intercultural interactions until they first understand them. Feminist standpoint theory will encourage detailed descriptions of interactions that will shed light on the nature in which African Americans perceive that they communicate with others. Fifth, the need exists for scholars to understand the gendered and racialized experiences of African Americans in organizations as these experiences may in turn influence how African Americans perceive themselves and how they interact with others in organizations. Finally, the experiences communicated by the individuals in this exploratory study may be transferable to other African Americans in similar contexts, as determined by the thick descriptions of the men and women who are studied. Overall, feminist standpoint theory is an appropriate theoretical framework from which to explore the experiences of African American women and men in organizations.

Interactions of African Americans in Organizations

African Americans may enter organizations expecting to be challenged professionally, as other organizational members may expect. However, what some African American women and men are reporting is that they contend with more than just the welcomed challenge of doing their jobs (Cox, 1994). Allen (1998, 2000) and Orbe (1994) and other researchers are finding that African Americans oftentimes are oppressed in their organizations as a result of their race, gender, class, and other factors. Some scholars have begun to address the challenges that African Americans and other groups face, looking specifically at how these co-cultural groups interact with others. The following paragraphs will highlight research on some of the ways that African Americans interact with dominant groups as well as with other non-dominant groups and themselves.

The behaviors that co-cultural groups may exhibit in organizations (Gates, 2003a3; 2003b) could be a result of the conscious and unconscious choices they make about 1) the context of the situation, 2) the costs and rewards of selecting a certain practice, 3) their experience with the interactants and in similar situations, 4) the preferred outcome of the interactions, 5) their ability to enact the practices, and 6) the communication approaches (assertive, nonassertive, or aggressive) (Orbe, 1998b). After considering these factors, Orbe (1998a, 1998b) found that the behaviors of non-dominant groups can classified into nine categories: 1) nonassertive assimilation, 2) assertive assimilation, 3) aggressive assimilation, 4) nonassertive accommodation, 5) assertive accommodation, 6) aggressive accommodation, 7) nonassertive separation, 8) assertive separation, and 9) aggressive separation. Orbe’s (1998a, 1998b) findings were ascertained from studying people from various groups. However, other research has focused primarily on race and or gender.

African American Women

Allen (2000) recounts a number of organizational experiences shared by African American women. These experiences include encounters with dominant group members whereby African American women are assumed to be less qualified to do their jobs than other workers. Some of the African American participants in Allen’s (2000) research contend that they are viewed as nothing more than affirmative action hires who essentially have stolen jobs that rightfully belong to dominant group members. This negative stereotype can create problems for African Americans. They may find themselves becoming overly concerned with how their interactions are perceived by others and making concerted efforts not to engage in behaviors that may perpetuate negative stereotypes (Allen, 1998, 2000). For example, an African American may be strategic in asking questions and getting help for fear that others may view this behavior as justification that they are not the most qualified person for the job.

Similarly, other research points to the belief that behaviors exhibited in organizations are viewed differently when executed by African Americans (Foeman & Pressley, 1987), which may influence the way African American women interact with others. For instance, when African Americans are assertive or forthright, others may view them as overbearing, particularly Caucasian Americans2 who often prefer the appearance of tranquility (Foeman & Pressley, 1987). Because African American women may be aware of how others perceive their assertiveness, they may at times choose not to assert themselves in order to achieve other more important goals. On other occasions, however, they may be willing to assert themselves and possibly suffer negative ramifications.

Other findings come from research by Ostrander (1999) who looked at a feminist organization and saw that even there women from non-dominant racial groups faced more difficulty than men from non-dominant racial groups. Both sexes may have experienced oppression, but the men tended to have more power than the women. Recognizing these differences in the distribution of power, some of the women in this study from non-dominant racial groups viewed as allies men from non-dominant racial groups and Caucasian American women. However the tie between women from non-dominant racial groups and Caucasian American women appeared weak, according to Ostrander (1999) who suggested that the Caucasian American women did not need the relationships as much as the other women did. This finding may not be surprising given what Houston (1994) referred to as a history of suspicions and distrust among African American and Caucasian American women. Another explanation could be that Caucasian American women are not as dependent on relationships with women from non-dominant racial groups because Caucasian American women may already be privileged because of their race.

Nevertheless, the women from non-dominant racial groups in Ostrander’s (1999) study developed ties with men from non-dominant racial groups and Caucasian American women. They saw these men as being able to relate to the racism they may encounter and also as possessing power as men that they may find beneficial if the men were allies. The women from non-dominant racial groups forged alliances with Caucasian American women because these women possessed power as a result of their race and because the Caucasian American women might be sympathetic to the needs of other women to combat gender discrimination. Therefore with these two groups as their primary allies, the women from non-dominant racial groups experienced anxiety when their allies were at odds with each other. The women simply could not afford to lose the support of either group if they were to side with one group over the other during a dispute. Ostrander’s (1999) study further mentioned that women from non-dominant racial groups also sought support from each other, but they did not underestimate their need for alliances with other groups.

African American Men

African American men in organizations face hardships as well. Similar to African American women, sometimes they are stereotyped as being less competent than dominant workers (Morrison & Glinow, 1990). However, their experiences tended to be more positive than those of non-dominant women (Ostrander, 1999). The men in Ostrander’s (1999) research were more vocal than the women; they were more willing to engage in discussions even when these discussions led to conflict. The men had less power than their Caucasian American counterparts but more than their African American female counterparts (Ostrander, 1999). While African American men possessed some power in organizations, they still utilized creative strategies to overcome the obstacles they faced as a result of their race.

Some African American men have identified strategies that enable them to deal with the some of the challenges that may present themselves when dealing with members from dominant groups (Orbe, 1994). One of the more salient concerns for the African American men in Orbe’s (1994) study had to do with what they perceived as negative perceptions of their communication styles. The men were keenly aware that some dominant group members had negative perceptions of certain styles traditionally associated with African Americans. Many of the men, therefore, mastered the ability to shift between styles at the snap of a finger in order to communicate with certain others (Orbe, 1994). “In short, my co-researchers found themselves ‘playing the part’ in order to communicate effectively with non-African Americans and avoid being stigmatized by racial stereotypes” (Orbe, 1994, p. 292). The men were also mindful of how they interacted in other ways.

Many of the men in Orbe’s (1994) study reported being careful with what they said and how they behaved around dominant group members. This decision to always watch their backs, as the men referred to it, stemmed from an intense lack of trust between them and certain dominant group members. Their skepticism also led the men to intentionally “keeping a safe distance” (Orbe, 1994, p. 292) from some of the members of dominant groups, while seeking support from other African Americans. Perhaps the support from other African Americans is what helped sustain the men as they tested the waters with others from dominant groups. Orbe (1994) said the men recalled testing dominant group members to determine what they considered to be people’s true attitudes toward African Americans. Lasting anywhere from days to years, these tests included examining closely the words and actions of individuals in question. 

Overall, African American women and men have similarities and differences in their organizational interactions. Their similarities may unite them in order to fight for greater causes, yet their differences may further marginalize African American women. Further research needs to explore the organizational experiences of African American women and men and offer solutions that will assist them in moving toward greater equality.

The purpose of this study was to explore the gendered and racialized organizational experiences of African American women and men. It looked specifically at the ways in which they communicated within and across racial and gender groups. The research also offered an analysis of their experiences as well as a list of communication practices that emerged from the sharing of their stories. My specific research question was: How do African American women and men perceive interactions with others in organizations?

Phenomenology as Methodology

I utilized phenomenology as the methodological approach to gain insight about the lived experiences of nine African Americans in their respective organizations. “Phenomenology is, by definition, a philosophy of human beings in the life world (Lebenswelt) and a qualitative methodology for describing, thematizing [reducing], and interpreting the meanings of this largely taken-for-granted world in a rigorous manner” (Nelson, 1989, p. 224). Said differently, phenomenology “is an effort to make strange what seems normal and natural so that one can characterize its essential features” (Lindlof, 1995, p. 32). This methodology involved a three-step process of description, reduction, and interpretation, which enabled me to shed light on some of the experiences of the African Americans in this study. The sections below will introduce the people in this study and explain the steps of phenomenology, the methodology I utilized to analyze their organizational interactions.

Co-researchers / Participants

A total of nine African Americans, four men and five women to whom I refer as co-researchers, participated in this study. These people were from three Midwestern states and ranged in age from 24 to 62. They represented nine different organizations such as universities, government offices, factories, high schools, finance firms, loan offices, and medical facilities. Their education ranged from high school to doctoral degrees, with the majority of the co-researchers having high school degrees and some college. All but one of the co-researchers described their financial situation as having enough or more than enough. The co-researcher who said he did not have enough lives in an upper-middle class neighborhood and owns two “nice” homes. When asked why he saw himself as having less than enough, he said, “You can never have enough.”

The term co-researcher is associated in the field of communication predominantly with Orbe (1994; 1998a). He, however, credited Nelson (1989) and Peterson (1992) who did not seem to specifically use the term, but who both acknowledged the vital role participants play in research. They believe that because the participants play such an interactive role in the outcome of the research, that their efforts should be acknowledged (Orbe, 1998a). Also, consistent with one of the tenets of feminist standpoint theory, this term promotes empowerment by designating a more equitable distribution of the credit for this research. I believe co-researchers deserve this credit because there would be no such research without their stories and without their willingness to make themselves vulnerable to people interested in their experiences -- at least not research that incorporates thick descriptions that co-researchers can provide. Therefore, I refer to the individuals in this study as co-researchers as a sign of respect.

Interpretive Research Process

Step one

The first step of phenomenology is description. It involved gathering information, what phenomenologists refer to as thick descriptions, from people in an effort to more adequately understand their experiences (Nelson, 1989; Van Manen, 1990). To further explain the idea, “A good phenomenological description is an adequate elucidation of some aspect of the lifeworld—it resonates with our sense of lived life” (Van Manen, 1990, p.27). This step in the process was achieved through use of in-depth interviews, which are tape-recorded and transcribed (Nelson, 1989; Van Manen, 1990).

Interviews.

I used interviews in this study because the co-researchers are experts on their lives, and through conversations with them, they identified phenomena to be analyzed in the context of their lived experiences (Lindlof, 1995; Spradley, 1979; Van Manen, 1990). “The purposes for doing an interview include, among others, obtaining here and now constructions of persons, events, activities, organizations, feelings, motivations, claims, concerns, and other entities; reconstructions of such entities as experienced in the past; projections of such entities as they are expected to be experienced in the future…” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 268). In other words, interviews enabled me to gain access to the perceptions individuals have of their lived experiences as well as these people’s expectations for future interactions. They were the best way to identify how individuals perceive their experiences and why they interacted with others as they did.

The interviews in this study lasted from 30 minutes to one hour and 15 minutes. They took place in homes, offices, conference rooms, and parks, which were locations selected by the co-researchers. While the co-researchers selected the locations, I encouraged them to choose physical settings that were relatively quiet, lending themselves to tape recording (Creswell, 1998). During the interviews, I asked the co-researchers the following: 1) Describe the relationships you have in your organizations. How would you characterize your interactions? 2) Describe the encounters you have with your colleagues in a typical workweek. Tell me about a specific conversation. 3) Tell me the context of each situation. How does race influence your interactions? 4) How does being a man/woman influence your relationships with others? 5) Ask men: How do you think being a woman influences women’s relationships with others? In other words, how do you think people of the opposite sex influence workplace interactions? 6) Ask women: How do you think being a man influences men’s relationships with others? In other words, how do you think people of the opposite sex influence workplace interactions? 7) Describe any aspect of your experience that you would like to share with me that I have not asked you.

I did a pilot study, which consisted of one interview with a female African American teacher to determine if I needed to modify my interview questions. She found question number six confusing, “Ask women: How do you think being a man influences men’s relationships with others?” Therefore, I asked a follow-up question: “In other words, how do you think people of the opposite sex influence workplace interactions?” Overall, I asked the co-researchers questions that enlightened me about their gendered organizational experiences.

I tape-recorded these interviews and transcribed them word-for-word, including all the “ums” and “uhs” because these utterances assisted me in interpretation (Lindlof, 1995). Prior to tape recording, I had the co-researchers sign consent forms, which also explains the purpose of the study as well as their rights as co-researchers. The tapes and transcripts from these interviews were locked away in my possession. To provide further anonymity, I agreed not to refer to the co-researchers by name in this paper. Instead, I used their age, sex, and/or the type of company for which they worked when referring to them. 

I selected people to interview using the snowball technique (Lindlof, 1995). The snowball technique required me to obtain the names of prospective co-researchers after each interview and attempt to set up interviews with those new contacts (Lindlof, 1995). I used this technique until I got the nine co-researchers. This technique was beneficial in broadening my interviewing pool by enabling me to work with people whom I otherwise would not have come into contact. The snowball technique was also helpful in that it decreased the amount of cold contacts, and it may have increased the number of people willing to be interviewed. Co-researchers seemed more willing to schedule interviews when they were told that someone else referred me to them. The referral may have created a degree of trust whereby co-researchers were perhaps somewhat more comfortable sharing their stories.

Overall, the first step of phenomenology involved collecting information. I used interviews to achieve this goal, a method I saw as being consistent with feminist standpoint theory. This approach to the research complemented feminist standpoint theory by inviting co-researchers to articulate their experiences and have a voice on matters regarding organizational interactions. The interviews welcomed co-researchers to offer detailed descriptions of their experiences, which prepared me for the next phase of the process, reduction.

Step two

The second step, reduction, involved reducing the information into key themes for analysis.  The goal was to “sort, categorize, prioritize, and interrelate data according to emerging schemes of interpretation” (Lindlof, 1995, 216). This step required that the researcher “set aside all prejudgments, bracketing his or her experiences… relying on intuition, imagination, and universal structure to obtain a picture of the experiences” (Creswell, 1998, 54).  To start the reduction process, I analyzed the transcripts after each interview by reading and re-reading them until no new themes emerged. Then I made note of those themes before doing another interview. After analyzing the last transcript and identifying individual themes, I looked at the transcripts collectively, attempting to tie all the themes together by looking for similarities and differences. This process helped ensure that the themes from each transcript would be recognized before I selected themes on which to report (Nelson, 1989; Van Manen, 1990).

Step three

In the third step, interpretation, I attempted to attach meaning to the themes I identified. As Orbe (1994) pointed out, this phase simultaneously begins during reduction, but it became a more salient part of the process after key themes were identified. The goal of interpretation was to find meaning in the taken-for-granted experiences or the experiences of which people are not immediately conscious (Nelson, 1989). In other words, the themes which emerged from the transcripts were further analyzed and during this step the “meanings of the phenomenological experience are brought to surface” (Lindlof, 1995, p. 236). 

Verification. 

To help ensure that my interpretations are consistent with those of my co-researchers, I used thick description and member checking (Creswell, 1998). These were two of the eight verification processes (prolonged engagement and persistent observation, triangulation, peer review or debriefing, negative case analysis, clarifying researcher bias, member checks, thick descriptions, and external audits) that qualitative researchers are encouraged to use (Creswell, 1998; 2003; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). While all eight are generally not utilized in a single study, Creswell (1998) said, “I recommend that qualitative researchers engage in at least two of them in any given study” (p. 203). In keeping with Creswell’s suggestion, the two forms of verification I used in this study were thick descriptions and member checking. I will justify my use of these processes in the paragraphs below.

The thick descriptions, or lengthy quotes that help capture the essences of particular experiences, provided rich data that signified the experiences of the co-researchers. They enabled me to provide information about the context and the nature of the co-researchers’ experiences that might be detailed enough for readers to determine if the information was transferable to others in similar contexts (Creswell, 1998). In addition to the opportunity to check for transferability, thick descriptions were beneficial because they allowed readers to hear more directly from co-researchers, and they invited co-researchers to express themselves more fully than certain other approaches to research may have. For these reasons, thick descriptions were consistent with the goals and assumptions of phenomenology and feminist standpoint theory.

The verification process also consisted of member checking, whereby I discussed my interpretations of their interviews with three co-researchers to determine if the themes reflected their experiences (Creswell, 1998; 2003; Van Manen, 1990). The three co-researchers with whom I did member checking were selected because of their availability at the time I was doing member checking and their interest in helping. Member checking was another way for co-researchers to have their voices heard because it created an opportunity for them to confirm or deny interpretations or analysis of their experiences. This phase of the research process also seemed to support ideas advanced by proponents of feminist standpoint theory because it allowed co-researchers to influence significantly the ways in which their experiences were described. Overall, step three included interpretation of themes and member checking.

Thematic Analysis and Interpretation

The co-researchers in this study shared a number of different experiences that provided insight about the unique encounters of African Americans in organizations. They spoke of their interactions with other African Americans as well as their experiences with people who are Mexican American, Puerto Rican American, Japanese American, Jewish American, and Caucasian American. Both similarities and differences emerged in the experiences of the women and men in this study. The co-researchers in this study also had a number of tactics that enabled them to cope with workplace interactions that sometimes can be hostile. For example, learning to play “the game,” particularly for the men, led to perceptions of much more pleasant interactions.

While the co-researchers in this study identified some pleasant encounters, the majority of the experiences they shared indicated that they continue to face what they believed to be unfair treatment. However, instead of simply talking about their experiences, these co-researchers carefully articulated how they addressed these challenges. Many of the experiences mentioned will be addressed in this thematic analysis. These themes include: 1) Unpleasant interactions as a result of the intersection of race, gender, class, and/or age, and 2) Playing the game using communication tactics.

Unpleasant Interactions with Organizational Members

The people in this study identified a number of interactions with fellow organizational members that were both pleasant and unpleasant, but usually the latter. These encounters shaped their perceptions of organizations and the ways in which they enacted their organizational roles. Race, gender, class, and age seemed to intersect to influence the experiences shared by the co-researchers. However, due to the difficulty in placing the experiences clearly into one category versus another, I did not try to categorize the experiences. Instead, I looked at these experiences in the aggregate and attempted to discern differences in the ways in which the co-researchers characterized their experiences.

Women

All of the women in this study characterized their relationships with their colleagues as stressful, tense, upsetting, cold, hostile, standoffish, distant, unfriendly, and so on. Two of the women, an executive director at a loan office and a teacher’s aide (para-professional) described their interactions with other organizational members as being pleasant at times. However, these two women recalled more bad times than good. The teacher’s aide said she spent five or six years proving herself. She perceived that she was ignored by her colleagues, of all races, possibly because of her status. “The teachers have always thought they were better… Well they had their own little groups, and most of the time they didn’t have anything to say to you,” said the 59-year-old teacher’s aide. Class differences seemed to be more salient than gender or race differences for this co-researcher.

The 35-year-old executive director said the people in her immediate department were either African American or Puerto Rican American, and she got along with them just fine. A dispute of whose music to listen to surfaced several years ago in her immediate department when an older African American woman complained.

…any time, you know, the radio is on, and the Puerto Rican music was going the Mexican music was going, she made it into an issue, but when she wanted to listen to her African American music, I guess they were supposed to be sympathetic… [The matter was resolved by making sure] they got to listen to music, but they both had to turn it down for their surrounding.

In her role as executive director, this co-researcher seemed to promote a basic respect for people of all cultural backgrounds.

When this same co-researcher accepted her position as executive director several years ago, a Japanese American man, between the ages of 58 and 60, worked under her supervision. She said the man soon left the organization for what she perceived as gender and age bias. “He said he never had a woman for a boss, and he didn’t see [doing] it at this late age…. He said especially a young woman…. He’s just uncomfortable with it.” This co-researcher said she thinks this man may have left the organization for other reasons as well, but these were the reasons he did not hesitate to share with her before quitting.

The 35-year-old executive director was no stranger to encountering what she perceived to be discriminatory practices. In other organizational experiences she relayed, she reported racial discrimination as the culprit.

I started off as a receptionist at [name of company],... And it seems as though they [top people at other companies] were quite comfortable when I was at the lowest in the organization… As I grew in [or up] the organizational scale, it was ok when I was midway. … but when I became director, being Black and female, people’s personalities changed. People’s eyes changed. People were surprised.

She said the organizational members in the home office or in other offices in her community with whom she had to work treated her differently when she was promoted to executive director. They seemed to have liked her best when she was a receptionist. She said that some of the people behaved as if they did not want to work with her. She said:

I find that corporate White America really wants to deal with people that look like them… Unless you are the best game in town, they have an issue with it… They will find fault. The way they get back at you is by lack of support… going around you to get to you … and doing things, everything they can, to not show that you are the person in charge, or the executive director for that office.

This co-worker said these were the kinds of experiences she had with her Caucasian American colleagues who were not in her immediate office. She recalled other incidents in other organizations whereby she was required to only talk to customers on the telephone because the Jewish American man who owned the company did not want his clients to know that she was African American. She said:

This company was owned by a Jewish gentleman, and the employees were all White minus myself and a messenger; he was African American… And he [the owner] made it quite clear that he likes his upper management to look just like him…. He was saying that over the phone you can’t tell what color [name of co-researcher] is, and that’s ok because she’s opening up these accounts and making me a lot of money. But when I have to have somebody go out, I’ll send one of these, you know, White persons to go out.

This co-researcher said that with bonuses, the job was quite lucrative, but the fact that the owner of the company was hiding her from clients was problematic, so she later quit. This co-researcher seemed to be implying that pay was not enough to make her tolerate discriminatory treatment.

Similarly, another co-researcher risked her job by standing up for what she believed was right. She confronted the superiors in her organization when she thought she was being treated unfairly. “I’m the first person on that line who stood up for myself…. I don’t let them talk to me [any kind of way] and do what they want to do to me,” said a 24-year-old female, factory worker. This co-researcher recalled a specific event with a group leader. Her line had stopped because her team needed to check some specifications before producing another line of products. While waiting for the men on her line to complete the inspection so she and her co-workers could continue, a Caucasian American female group leader approached her.

The group leader came over to me… she gone say, ‘you need to go um find something else to do because I just got my ass chewed out, and I’m not finna [fixing to] keep gettin’ chewed out. I’m finna start chewing others out.’ So I just, you know,…  walked off and said, ‘Bitch shut up talking to me.’ And went to the other machine.

While this co-researcher did not appreciate the way in which the group leader approached her, her reaction may have exacerbated the problem. Her reaction may have perpetuated the problem because calling someone a bitch usually adversely influences the interaction. However, she maintained that:

You can’t just talk to people the way you want to because you no group leader…. And I done told her butt that more than once, so I say if you like getting cussed out everyday, just come keep talking crazy to me everyday.

I learned later during member checking that this co-researcher was terminated from her job after two years with the company. She had taken time off to care for a sick and contagious child when she learned that she was terminated. She said she had not exceeded the maximum amount of days for such absences and suspected that her termination was due to other causes. She apparently was not rewarded for the ways in which she stood up for herself.

This same 24-year-old factory worker, during the time of the interview, worked for a company that was staffed primarily by Mexican Americans who did the manual labor and Caucasian Americans who were the managers and supervisors.  She said a few African Americans worked there, but she was the only one who was in her department. She said management treated both men and women at the bottom of the organizational chart poorly. “They all get treated like shit,” she said. However, she believed the Mexican Americans were treated better than African Americans because they were seen as harder workers. She said, “they [the company] would rather hire Mexicans because they work regardless… They [will] come in at 4a.m. and stay to 8p.m.” She said some of them would even agree to “sweeping the floors and wiping down walls and cleaning up bathrooms and stuff.” And she said when the Mexican Americans got in trouble with other co-workers, the company protected them because they did not want to lose their good workers. She said the company was so concerned about maintaining these workers that management initially did very little when some of the Mexican American men were reported to have inappropriately touched women.

One incident, this one girl, she had a problem with this Mexican man. We have a lot of problems with Mexicans being able to abuse women without them [women] being able to do anything to them. And then they [management] just got tired of women complaining, and they started holding meetings and telling them, you know, you can’t touch women in this kind of place.

This co-researcher perceived that the need for good work took priority over the desire to maintain good relations with the subordinates in this organization.

In another matter, the 24-year-old female factory worker was upset because her Mexican American colleague was throwing things near her.

Just a couple of days ago I got into it with a Mexican, and his [the boss’s] way of explaining the Mexican’s reaction was ‘there is no communication,’ which I told him it don’t take communication to know that it’s not right to throw stuff …. That’s not an excuse for his actions.

This incident of management dragging its feet before putting a stop to men inappropriately touching women and to throwing things near women suggests that management cared more about the bottom line than about the workers, particularly the female workers. This example also shows how some co-cultural groups, Mexican Americans in this case, are able to gain power if management in their organizations values their work. The power of the Mexican Americans in this company, however, is limited because management is only taking advantage of Mexican Americans by overworking them and possibly underpaying them. Therefore, this co-researcher’s perceptions of favoritism received by Mexican Americans from management still may be indicative of management showing greater concern for profit and productivity than its workers.

In another instance, a 28-year-old co-researcher, who said she was the only African American in her department staffed with Caucasian Americans, angrily recalled an event that took place two days before I spoke with her:

I heard somebody say something about the temperature outside and porch monkeys… I called my manager and I was like um, you know, … I’m not feeling that. … I was actually feeling uncomfortable….

This co-researcher was offended because in her own words:

It’s a term they used when they were down south because most Black people didn’t have air conditioning, and they had the covered porches, so we got, Blacks gathered on the porch… [They were] fanning themselves … and White people would go back and say, ‘oh look at those porch monkeys’. Because, as you know, monkey is another term that people of non-color have used to describe an African American person. 

Offensive terms such as porch monkey have created hostile interactions for this co-researcher and possibly others around her. While the Caucasian Americans in this company may use these words freely, they can be highly offensive to others in the workplace.

One experience was so imbedded with issues regarding race and gender that the co-researcher was uncertain how to interpret it herself. A 51-year-old African American woman worked for a medical facility where she was the only African American woman with one African American man and several Caucasian American women. She described her work interactions as cold and standoffish and the behavior of her colleagues as catty. She said the women were so competitive at times that they withheld information from her so they could outperform her. While she used the term “workplace bullies” to describe some of her colleagues, she believed most of the women were “just being women” and that if more men were in their group, the department would function better. Although having the African American man who is currently in her department was not particularly helpful because she saw him as showing allegiance to her Caucasian American colleagues. She said, "I see the other Black person as being sort of an advocate of some of it." Who knows why this co-researcher sided with the Caucasian American women in this instance, but one possibility could be that he wanted to be associated with the power holders. Another could be that maybe they just did not like this woman for reasons which she is unaware.

In other instances, the women in this study perceived that men were given advantage over women. “The men stick to the men,” said a 35-year-old, female executive director. She said that the men supported each other’s ideas and made sure the ideas of the men prevailed. The men, in her view, at times also attempted to discredit the ideas of women. However, she was also quick to say that the men can positively influence a woman’s job too:  

They influence it good or bad by the way they respond to you, by the way that they view your opinion… If you’re working on a particular project, and they decide that they want to have some input, whether the input is good or bad, they influence it. 

Some of the women had to strategically obtain the support of men in order to have their ideas accepted by the larger organizations. These women communicated with men in this way because they realized that men were listened to more or shown more respect. This power the men possessed unfairly placed them in positions to more successfully advance the ideas of women. Many of the women viewed men as enjoying more privilege than women while one woman perceives no differences with regards to gender.

The woman who reported no gender differences qualified her response. She said she saw no gender differences in the way people in her organization treated African American men and women but that differences among African Americans were prevalent. The 51-year-old female co-researcher from the medical facility said, “I think that the Black man faces the same thing that the Black woman faces…” But she added that within the same race, men had the advantage over women. This woman thought differences were a result of race, not necessarily gender. She thought the lone Black man in her department was siding with the Caucasian Americans so they would not later turn on him. Overall, the women had different gendered experiences but seemed to have more commonality, with the exception of one, on matters regarding race.

Men

The men in this study described their relationships in the workplace as being far more pleasant than the women. A 27-year-old male, factory worker said, “I really can’t complain, not from my supervisor. They treat me like a king. As far as the relationships with my colleagues, you have some good, some bad.” Echoing the same sentiment, a 40-year-old man who works for the government said, “Every encounter is pleasant with my co-workers.” This man also said his relationship with his supervisor was great. The other two men described their encounters with their co-workers as varying from good to bad. A middle-aged male professor said, “Taken overall, it’s been both good and bad; the best of times and the worst of times.” This co-researcher said that regardless of his success, “Somehow or another they are able to put a negative spin [on things]. At other times this co-researcher said his colleagues were “hiding certain information from me that could be beneficial for me…. Others would do other little underhanded things…” This co-researcher was referring to inconsistent behavior his colleagues exhibited. They seemed to be helpful with matters that he considered rather small, and they were blatantly hurtful during times in his career when he believed their support would have been most helpful and meaningful.

The men clearly used more positive language, such as trusting and friendly, to describe their interactions in organizations than the women did; however, the men were not without their challenges. All of the men recalled having personally encountered or witnessed what they considered racism. The difference in their recounting of their experiences compared to the women is that they saw the interaction as one big game or challenge to be overcome. “No struggle, no progress” said the male professor. He added:

You know, there is a constant struggle in life. But there’s beauty in struggle. Struggle is something not to be ashamed of and develop some woe is me mentality. No, no. It’s through that struggle that people develop. And in fact life should be viewed in terms of the struggle. That is this dialectic of life. The positive and the negative warring for dominance…

This co-researcher implied that the goal was to have “enough positive as oppose to negative such that the positive can win out,” leaving one with a more positive outlook on life. Therefore, he counts it all joy, recognizing that the battles he faces may make life better for people who enter the organization after him. A second benefit to going through a struggle, according to this co-researcher, is that he may help to broaden the horizon of those with whom he fights.

The 27-year-old male factory worker who said he was treated like a king for the most part also recalled days in his company when his treatment was far from that of a king.

I’ve had some jobs where Black and White just wasn’t a good thing; it had a lot to do with money…when White people, in particular, don’t really know what you’re making but suspect that you’re making X amount of dollars, and they’re not making it, then they’re causing problems.

This co-researcher explained how his Caucasian American colleagues often asked him questions about his financial situation and how he and his wife could afford what they had. The co-researcher gathered from these conversations that he and his family were not expected to have much. He particularly recalled a Caucasian American colleague asking him how he got to drive the good car to work, assuming that his wife must be driving the less reliable or less attractive car because they could not both have decent cars. This co-researcher went on to explain how his Caucasian American colleagues engaged in what he referred to as game playing to find out as much about him as they could for reasons that he did not always perceive to be noble. He said:

People like to play games, you know, and you can’t play games. You know, as far as how we do, you know, playing the dozens. That’s cool to a certain extent… But see White people, they play a different game. Their game is finding out anything they can about you because they’re always wondering how do you do this, how did you do that? They’re wondering, how did you buy a house? How do you have a decent car?… They wonder how you manage money.

This line of questioning has created some racial tension, but he appears not to allow it to affect him given that he maintains that he is treated, generally, like a king. The assumption that he should not be able to afford “nice things” seems to come from the belief that he either should not be able to afford them or that he may be living beyond his means. Regardless of the case, why are his colleagues so concerned about these matters if he is doing his work? Perhaps they are merely concerned about him and want to help if they can. However, he seems to suggest that the inquiry is for negative reasons.

Similar to the 51-year-old African American woman who thought her African American counterpart was advocating poor behavior from her colleagues, the 27-year-old male factory worker had a dispute with an African American supervisor from another department. The supervisor “threatened to call the police” to have him escorted out of the company when he refused to do the job of a Caucasian American colleague. This co-researcher said his union contract did not require him to do the assignment in question, and the supervisor making the demand, according to the co-researcher, was not in his department.

You have, um, Black supervisors out there that they enjoy picking on Black people … they just like being the boss over somebody else Black, but they don’t really hassle the White people, and I’ve noticed that. And I’ve made comments like that and I’ve gotten myself in trouble like that… Maybe they’re looking for some sort of respect out of White people, but what they don’t understand is it’s not really getting them anywhere.

This co-researcher questioned why the Caucasian American worker was not asked to do his own job. “The thing is, the White guy whose job that was, why didn’t he make him stay and do his job? Because he [the supervisor] can’t.” This incident demonstrated the true lack of power this African American supervisor had. The supervisor at least perceived himself as having power over another African American, but he was probably aware, as the co-researcher pointed out, that African Americans in this organization sometimes are not supported by top management when conflicts occur. When these supervisors have no real power, they do what the middle-aged male professor articulated as “exaggerating the little power they did have.” The professor said some men exaggerate their power as a way of proving their manhood. The problem with this is that if these African American supervisors or employees were to ever have a dispute with the real power holders, they may end up with no internal support system on which to rely. Furthermore, they may never gain the full support of the dominant group members which they may have been trying to earn.

The men noticed gender differences, but were quick to admit that the differences were in favor of the men. They talked about the name calling in the workplace that the women had to endure. The 62-year-old co-researcher said women were called “bitches” and other derogatory comments to their faces on a regular basis by both men and other women. Another co-researcher, the 27-year-old factory worker said a particular supervisor in his area “really hates when women come to my department…” because they are unqualified to do the kind of manual labor required. He said:

The women want to do it all, but they are messing a lot of stuff up… And so therefore we have supervisors that, in a sense, they kind of push the women away. They just don’t really want to be bothered…

These jobs for which the women are being turned away are the higher paying jobs. The systems are set up whereby the men make more money because they do what is perceived as more challenging work. Therefore, gender differences were often to the advantage of men.

The men also recalled the women in the workplace being interested in dating relationships, an area not addressed by any of the women in this study. The middle-aged professor also mentioned that women at his university were looking for dating relationships, and this influenced his willingness to interact with them. The 27-year-old male factory worker who is married thought women were seeking the attention of the men by the way that they dressed.

I do know that most of the women there are constantly looking for attention from I don’t know who… [It’s] the way they dress... They have these jobs where they get really dirty … but they step in there made up… …seems to me that whenever somebody new starts, the women are figuring out whose gonna talk to him first.

This co-researcher interpreted the way the women dressed as an invitation for attention from men. He assumed that the women saw the organization as a place to get dates. This assumption that the workplace was a dating scene created problems for him because men and women alike misinterpreted his actions. He said he was accused of being romantically involved with women in the workplace with whom he had only professional relationships.

There are women there that have known me since I was a kid. They know my mom; they know my dad. … Well, and it’s like, you’re always asked how long have you been [seeing each other]… What’s up with you and her?

Organizational members, from the perspective of this co-researcher seemed to interpret workplace interactions and intentions of men and women differently.

The misunderstanding of the interactions and intentions of organizational members is perhaps what has led to sexual harassment in some instances. Another co-researcher recalled a similar event. The 40-year-old male government worker said while his current organization was fine, he saw evidence of sexual harassment when he was in the military. “The sexual harassment thing was, when I first was in there, it was coming into play…. Guys say stuff and females too… They just say stuff, you know, and don’t think about what they’re saying or who it might offend.” He added that the military exhibited very distinct differences in their treatment of men and women, with women receiving fewer privileges.

I hate the fact when they say a female can’t do a certain thing… I have had females that I would go to war with before I would go to war with some guys. … Because they [the women] do what they’re supposed to do, and you know they’re gonna do a good job when they do it.

The women in the military were not afforded the same responsibilities as men. This is possibly because women are seen as weak and unable to handle themselves. He said African Americans also were treated differently. “They might punish the Black person; they might take a stripe. The White person [on the other hand] could do the same thing and they might not take the stripe.” So the military clearly, in this co-researcher’s opinion, treated people differently based on their race or gender.

Overall, the men in this study said their organizational interactions ranged from being both pleasant to unpleasant, and the language they used to communicate about these experiences seemed more positive than the language the women used. This suggested that that the men in this study viewed their organizational experiences more positively than the women.

Playing the Game Using Communication Tactics.

The co-researchers in this study, both the women and the men, employed numerous tactics to deal with the obstacles they faced in the organizations. Playing the game is not without its costs, but some of the co-researchers have found it to assist them in dealing with some of the challenges they face in the workplace. The tactics that the co-researchers in this study used to address workplace issues included checking yourself, isolation, speaking out, remaining silent, journaling, intimidation, and showing appreciation.

Checking yourself

Checking yourself is the process of taking time to do some introspection and making sure the problem does not lie with you. Nobody is perfect, and we are all bound to slip up from time to time. This tactic is not meant to be one in which organizational members spend hours second-guessing themselves. It is simply an examination of what they believe to be the facts and of their role in the situation. Some people argue that blame can never be placed solely upon the shoulders of one party in a dispute (although some people may be able to think of some situations in which it can). Therefore when and if organizational members come to the conclusion that the majority of the blame can reasonably be placed elsewhere, then they may want to consider what their next steps should be. A 51-year-old woman used this as a first step to dealing with issues in a medical facility. She said,

I’ve sort of looked back and questioned my side of the situation… I had to look at myself first to see if I had presented anything that would cause the situation to be as such, but I don’t believe that to be the case.

The disadvantage of this tactic is that some people can never see their own wrongdoings, and when they do, they oftentimes do not want to deal with them.

Isolation

Isolation in this case refers to the act of separating yourself from other people in an organization in an effort to avoid conflict. Most of the men and the women who used this strategy attempted to stay off to themselves because they were not confident that interactions with certain colleagues would be beneficial. This isolation in some instances was self-imposed, yet in other instances it was not. One co-researcher recalled being avoided. “The European American faculty, many of them stayed away from me, …” explained the middle-aged, male professor. They did not want to associate with him for political reasons, particularly the untenured professors. In the case of the 59-year-old teacher’s aide, isolation was imposed by her colleagues who excluded her from activities. She said this isolation, which included their refusal to speak to her when she would say hello to them, lasted for her first five to six years at this school. She, however, found other ways to spend her breaks. “Most of the time I was alone, but I like to read a lot and so I just kind of had a lot of stuff to read.” Ironically, the other teachers begin to invite her to join them when she eventually stopped showing an interest in being included.

Isolation for others was self-imposed. The 28-year-old woman who worked for the finance company chose to stay away. “I don’t trust them… So I just stay away from them.” The same goes for the 24-year-old female, factory worker. “I just basically keep to myself,” she said. These people would prefer to be alone than risk having a negative encounter with one of their colleagues. Their focus, according to them, is on doing their jobs, not making friends. The disadvantage of isolation is that people may not be privy to important information. They may come to be perceived as outsiders and their organizational interactions may worsen, as others may start to treat them even more as outsiders.

Speaking out.

Speaking out means that the co-researchers address wrongdoing when they see it. This action may create positive change and eventually help pave the way for future organizational members. For these reasons, some organizational members are usually willing to suffer the consequences of these actions, which can include involuntary isolation and/or other social penalties. “I’m the type of person that’s gone speak up regardless if you behind me or not. I’ll ride up by myself,” said the 24-year-old female factory worker. Her tactic was voicing her concerns; however, her use of profanity in past encounters may have perpetuated hostile interactions. While she felt strongly about the issues she was addressing, the language she used to communicate her concerns may have given dominant group members ammunition to use against her later. This co-researcher had been terminated from her job when contacted for member-checking. She was uncertain if her communication tactics contributed to her release.

The 27-year-old African American male, factory worker advocated the speaking out tactic but cautioned that it had to be executed diplomatically. “So you have to learn how to be cool, but you also have to learn how to stand your own ground.” Basically he means that organizational members should have the option of voicing their opinion, but those opinions have to be voiced in manner in which people will receive them, which may not involve name-calling or the overuse of profanity.

The middle-aged male tenured professor said, “Many of the things that I thought were done inappropriately, I would speak out against it. And there is a certain price for doing that, and I understood that…” He would befriend those people who had nothing to lose by being friends with him. Other professors, particularly those who were untenured, had too much to lose by associating with him, so he did not rely on them for friendships. He understood when they behaved as if they did not want anybody to see them with him, ducking out of his office when others spotted them together. Standing up for one’s self and speaking out may appear to have a lot of advantages, but communicators must also consider the consequences.

Remaining silent

Remaining silent is the act of not reporting negative incidents or letting them slide because the consequences of reporting them may be just as bad or worse than the original offense. For some people, remaining silence is just not an option; they could not remain silent if they tried. For others, it is a tactic that has enabled them to meet their personal goals. The 62-year-old man who worked in a factory said he kept a lid on everything in favor of leaning on his wife for support when he got home. He had been in his company for 18 years and believed that his longevity in the company was due, in part, to his silence.

They [Caucasian American workers] said they didn’t t hire niggers; they didn’t hire Blacks… They said it to your face… At the time, you don’t do anything. What can one man do? You see, if a Black man [doesn’t] learn to take prejudice, he won’t have a job because we don’t have nothing that we can hire each other to make a living. … What us Black people, as a whole, gotta do, we have to teach our kids what they have to take to make it because [there’s] going to always be racism. Always!

This tactic may seem rather primitive to some people, but surprisingly other African Americans have decided to remain silent in the face of negative differential treatment and have found this to work for them. This 62-year-old may have also been socialized during a time whereby standing up for one’s self was not always the best alternative. Standing up for one’s self in his case may have been learning the art of keeping silent in order to achieve greater goals such as remaining employed. The 59-year-old teacher’s aid said she did the same thing. “I don’t get involved in anything …. I don’t like butting in… That’s how I stay out of trouble.” These co-researchers may have been taught to respond to racism and the other isms in this fashion when they were younger and found it to work.

Organizational members must select their battles carefully and recognize that they may not have the time or energy to contest everything. While this tactic may allow people to stay focused on work, some issues simply cannot go unchecked. The disadvantage of this tactic is that people may be treated worse if the offenders know they will tolerate poor behavior.

Journaling

Journaling involves keeping a diary of your organizational experiences. The purpose of journaling is two-fold. It is a safe place for catharsis, and it provides documentation in case one needs to report matters to a supervisor later. “I document everything,” said the 51-year-old woman from the medical facility who keeps a running journal. She has found that journaling curtails her need to talk to others inside and outside her organization about her experiences. The disadvantage to journaling is that it can be time-consuming and tedious, depending upon how and why one is journaling.

Intimidation

Intimidation requires the use of fear in order to get others to cooperate or to achieve a certain goal. The 27-year-old male, factory worker said, people were intimidated by his size, facial expression, and possibly the color of his skin long before he was aware of their perceptions of him. Then when he noticed the reactions of others, he began to use his gift to his advantage, on occasion. “One way I get respect and to, you know, get people to leave me alone and not bother me is the look on my face.” He could be laughing on the inside, but he appears on the outside to be serious or angry. He achieves this goal by displaying an angry or upset look.

Well nobody bothers me, and when they do, and like I said, White people they will try you, but they’ll keep their space because you cannot violate someone’s territorial boundaries. And that boundary is basically an arm’s length away. Well White people like to get too close to you when they’re picking on you. But me, they never get too close because they’re thinking they might get hit. But I’m not gone hit nobody. … Yes, I’m very intimidating and I love that.

This co-researcher appears to enjoy this tactic. It may be compatible with the tactic of bullying that the 51-year-old female, co-researcher said her Caucasian American colleagues used on her. However, a disadvantage to the use of intimidation is that it may not foster positive and healthy relationships. Furthermore, some people make a distinction between fear and respect, and intimidation may lie closer to fear.

Showing appreciation

When you make others feel good about themselves by complimenting and showing them that you value their expertise, sometimes they respond in kind. (And if they do not, perhaps the positive energy will come back to you in some other form.) The purpose of helping others feel appreciated is to foster supportive professional relationships. “You have to make them feel that what they do is important,” said the 35 year-old executive director of the loan office. She went on to say that you also have to show people that what you do is just as important, and in some cases more important, to them. People need to know why they need your support just as much as you need theirs. Establishing relationships built on mutual respect and interdependence was what she believed to be the key to making her organizational relationships a success. The disadvantage to this tactic is that sometimes expressions of appreciation can be seen as flattery which does not work with everybody; some people may perceive this tactic as condescending.

Overall, the co-researchers in this study employed a number of communication tactics to achieve their organizational goals. The seven communication practices addressed in this paper were 1) checking yourself, 2) isolation, 3) speaking out, 4) remaining silent, 5) journaling, 6) intimidation, and 7) showing appreciation. Some of these tactics can be combined, depending upon the goal of the organizational member.

Conclusion

Grounded in feminist standpoint theory, this exploratory study examined the organizational interactions of nine African Americans as they engaged in communication with other organizational members from various backgrounds. Interactions appeared to change as the power shifted because of race, gender, class, age, position in organization, and so on. The women seemed to characterize their interactions more negatively than the men. The men tended to perceive their challenges as games or barriers to be overcome. Although the men, at times, received poor treatment, their status as men seemed to have made them more centralized and less susceptible to negative differential treatment than the women. This privilege is perhaps the reason the men communicated more positively about their experiences than the women. Regardless of their use of positive language, however, the African American men still faced a number of challenges.

This difference in the way men and women experienced their respective organizations is not surprising when examining their communication from the perspective of feminist standpoint theory. The men, who traditionally have more societal power than women, reported more rewarding experiences than the women; they seemed to enjoy more power and influence than the women. Some of the men also recalled women in their organizations encountering greater difficulty than men. These assertions from the men coupled with the women’s various accounts of unfair treatment suggest that organizations need to strive for more equity in their treatment of women. However, when assessing the racialized experiences of the co-researchers, the men reported encountering unfair treatment and discrimination as well. Apparently, race was the more salient factor influencing the discriminatory experiences of men, while most of the women tended to experience marginalization as a result of both their race and gender. The African American women and men in this study experienced issues regarding race and gender differently.

In the examination of communication practices, both the women and the men sought creative strategies to cope with and to resist their oppression. One of the goals of feminist standpoint theory is to promote positive social change (Dougherty & Krone, 2000), and the co-researchers in this study may have contributed to that cause. They advanced this goal by identifying seven communication tactics they utilized in their respective organizations. Those seven tactics were: 1) checking yourself, 2) isolation, 3) speaking out, 4) remaining silent, 5) journaling, 6) intimidation, and 7) showing appreciation. These tactics, which can be combined, have strengths and weaknesses and were selected, or perhaps should be selected, based upon the goals of the organizational members.

While the communication practices utilized by the co-researchers in this study were their efforts to cope, their tactics also revealed their desire to actively seek strategies to overcome their oppression, another function of feminist standpoint theory. The need of these co-researchers to engage in such behaviors may be indicative of a greater need for their respective organizations to examine the treatment of their employees as it relates to race and gender. Perhaps these investigations will reveal a need for others to implement strategies that will initiate a move toward positive change. In addition to calling attention to the organizational systems which required the communication practices of the co-researchers in this study, future research could determine how these practices compare to the ones advanced by Orbe (1998a, 1998b). Orbe studied domination from the perspectives of various groups, and the strategies employed by the co-researchers in the current study may have some similarities. Scholars may also want to look more closely at how co-cultural communication (Orbe, 1998a, 1998b) influences other areas of organizational communication, such as superior-subordinate relationships (Gates, 2003a).

The primary point of discussing these interactions was to determine how African Americans learned their roles in organizations, which ultimately addresses how they are socialized. This exploratory study may illustrate a need for more research on the interactions of African Americans in organizations at all levels. Admittedly preliminary, this study was strengthened by its incorporation of co-researchers at various organizational levels and in a broad range of occupations. It was further enhanced by its inclusion of factory workers, a group that tends to be understudied (Gibson & Papa, 2000). However, future researchers may want to examine more extensively the interactions of African Americans and invite co-researchers to talk specifically about their socialization experiences.

Finally, the findings in this study were made possible by the theoretical approach that was employed. This approach invited the co-researchers to share and verify interpretations of their experiences. It further enhanced this study by allowing for the incorporation of detailed descriptions of organizational experiences, in the words of the co-researchers themselves. Future researchers may want to consider employing similar theoretical approaches when exploring the experiences of African Americans in organizations.

Notes

1          I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on this manuscript.

2                  While I appreciate the importance of parallel language, I will refer to Caucasian people as Caucasian Americans, instead of European American. I do this because the term "Caucasian Americans" seems to be a more inclusive term than "European Americans". I certainly do not intend to offend anyone with my use of terms, and I remain open to suggestions for more appropriate ones.

3          Gates (2003a) earned an outstanding research award from the National Communication Association (NCA). I would like to thank the person(s) responsible for evaluating research for this recognition.

4          Gates (2002) was originally written in early 2001 to fulfill a requirement for a metatheoretical paper in an Organizational Communication class with Dr. Debbie Dougherty.

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