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Whites Often Resist Push to Create Multicultural Work Environments

Victoria Plaut
Victoria Plaut

By Andrew Cohen

Efforts to create and maintain an inclusive, multicultural work environment often face resistance by whites, according to a research report co-authored by Victoria Plaut, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of law and social science.

Plaut, working with University of Michigan doctoral student Flannery Garnett, post-doctoral researcher Laura Buffardi of the Universidad de Deusto in Spain, and associate professor Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks of the University of Michigan’s School of Business, conducted a five-study investigation of white Americans’ perceptions of diversity programs in both the workplace and university.

“Organizations spend a lot of time and resources on diversity and inclusion efforts, but these efforts often fall flat or backfire,” said Plaut, a social and cultural psychologist who came to UC Berkeley in 2010 from the University of Georgia. “Our research suggests one reason is that whites don’t see these efforts as inclusive. And because whites are powerful stakeholders in most organizations, their buy-in is crucial.”

The research, which will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, highlights diversity’s two prevailing ideologies in the U.S.: Multiculturalism, which acknowledges differences among groups and holds that those differences should be valued; and colorblindness, which seeks to ignore racial categories and urges differences based on social identity to be assimilated into a unifying category.

Plaut and colleagues found that whites view multiculturalism as a threat. Research in three of the studies—of college students and employees—shows that whites associate multiculturalism with exclusion as opposed to inclusion. But importantly the same bias does not exist when whites are explicitly included in conceptualizing a multicultural paradigm.

“For many whites, diversity efforts simply don’t resonate because they don’t feel included,” Plaut said. “According to our research, addressing this ‘What about me?’ question is key to garnering whites’ support for multicultural diversity efforts.”

In a fourth study of nearly 5,000 employees at a single health care organization, the research team found that whites are less likely to endorse diversity than minorities—in part because they feel less included in their organization’s definition of diversity. In their fifth study, the researchers found that white business students with a high need to belong are less attracted to multicultural than color-blind organizations.

“We’re not arguing that diversity initiatives should cater to whites instead of to racial minorities,” Plaut said. “But our research does suggest that signaling to whites that they have no place in diversity programs will hinder the success of these efforts.”

Plaut has authored book chapters and academic articles in leading journals, and her research has been funded by government agencies, private organizations, and internal university grants. She also consults on diversity issues for a wide range of clients including school districts, universities, corporations, and health care organizations.