Racial Whitening in the Job Hunt Process

How do people get their foot in the door when seeking employment? One of the most sure-fire ways is to have a quality résumé, one that shows high levels of educational achievement, good work experiences, expertise in desired areas of work, and evidence of leadership.

But, is it possible that what might appear to be similar résumé entries among racial minorities and Whites are evaluated differently? We have seen some evidence of this, as our research shows that racial minorities who list activities that are affiliated with their race are presumed to have a strong racial identity, and this hurts them in the job hunt. For example, raters are likely to interpret two affiliations with a coaching association--Black Coaches and Administrators versus Texas Coaches Association--differently, perceiving the latter more favorably. Our work has consistently shown that raters are mindful of such linkages and then evaluate people accordingly. 

Recent research from Sonia Kang and colleagues* has expanded this work in a novel way: they examined whether racial minority job hunters took steps to "whiten" their résumés by removing such race-linked affiliations. They first conducted a qualitative study, interviewing 30 Asian and 29 Black students who were applying for jobs. The students reported using a variety of whitening strategies on their resumes, including:

  • Altering their names (e.g., using an Americanized Susan instead of one's more Asian sounding given name),
  • Omitting some experiences,
  • Changing the description of their experiences (e.g., changing "[University] Black Leadership Association" to "[University] Leadership Association"), and 
  • Adding White experiences, such as engagement in some social clubs associated with Whites. 

Students also pointed to pros and cons of whitening their résumés:

  • Pros: obtaining initial consideration and signaling a desire to fit into the culture.
  • Cons: failing to capture human capital experiences, being able to screen employers, going against important identities, holding to the notion of meritocracy, and belief that some employers value those experiences. 

The authors then conducted another study to determine whether people actually do whiten their résumés. Students attended a résumé writing workshop, and also reviewed potential postings. One of the postings contained specific diversity and inclusion information, while the other did not. The authors found that, in both cases, students whitened their résumés, but they were less likely to do so when the company had a stated valuing of diversity and inclusion. 

In a third study, Kang and colleagues then sent different résumés to employers, whitening some and not others. They found that employers were most likely to offer an interview when the names and experiences on the résumé were whitened, and least likely when they were not. This pattern held even among companies that purportedly valued diversity and inclusion. 

Overall, the studies show that "while some minority job seekers reject this practice [whitening], others view it as necessary and use a variety of techniques to attempt to eliminate explicit racial markers or project an image of a minority applicant who conforms to the perceived expectations of employers" (p. 494).

I had such mixed emotions reading the study. From a scholarship standpoint, the authors investigated a needed area, and their research design was clever, thereby leaving me intrigued. But, as much as I enjoyed the scholarship, the actual findings left me so disheartened. The student quotes were gripping. One noted: "I think to me it was just trying to tone down the blackness, for lack of a better word." Another student, who had engaged in important advocacy work during college, noted: "I guess it just goes to show you, like, that I very much embraced the idea that, to get ahead, some parts of our race need to be only talked about at certain times. Some parts of my racial identity need to be squashed or held back." The students were aware of the biases held against them and felt the need to diminish part of their identity.

Equally troubling were the findings related to pro-diversity companies. Students believed those companies would value their diversity and experiences, and thus, the students did not engage in as much whitening. But, this likely ended up hurting them, as supposedly pro-diversity companies favored the whitened résumés as much as their peers. 

There is so much work to do in this area. One straight-forward activity that can be endeavored right away is bias training. That is, companies can train their recruiters about implicit biases, showing how they work against applicants, and devising strategies and processes to overcome such biases. Given the real, tangible value of diversity in the workplace, it is imperative to implement such remedies. 

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* Kang, S. K., DeCelles, K. A., Tilcsik, A., & Jun, S. (2016). Whitened résumés: Race and self-presentation in the labor market. Administrative Science Quarterly, 61, 469-502.