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You All Treat Me Like the Junior Scientist


By John Foley

June 2000

John E. Foley, Ph.D. worked at Los Alamos National Lab for 25 years, where he held positions as a research scientist, technical manager and Director of Human Resources. He is currently an independent consultant, writer, teacher and scholar in ethics, with an emphasis on workforce diversity.

ALL EMPLOYEES believe that merit should lead to success and reward. This belief is one of the most fundamental and important tenets of the work-place and is referred to as “colorblind meritocratic fundamentalism.” Under this tenet, research and development organizations “strive to maximize the production of valuable knowledge and also to reward and empower individual merit.” In addition, the “race, sex, class, and indeed all the other personal attributes of the [employee] are irrelevant.” (Kennedy, pp. 709-710).


Most white male managers and employees (the “dominant cultural”) strongly believe in this
fundamental tenet and feel there are few, if any, barriers to success because of race, sex, class, or
age. They believe success is earned through individual effort and hard work, and they’re concerned
that efforts to increase diversity in the workplace through mandated affirmative action
programs undermine this fundamental tenet of merit and lower standards. Examples of dominant
group beliefs and attitudes are shown in the model of Fig. 1.


Women and people of color (the “subordinate culture”) also believe that success should
result from merit and hard work, but many feel (1) there are institutionalized barriers that limit
their success because of race, sex, and class and (2) their white male colleagues enjoy unearned
and unmerited privileges, i.e., they feel the fundamentalist model is too simplistic, incomplete,
and unfair. Their more complex views and beliefs are shown in the model of Fig. 2 (page
10), which includes the barriers and privileges that are generally invisible or hidden to members
of the dominant culture.


The institutionalized barriers that women and people of color experience in the workplace— and the effects of these barriers — are well documented. For example, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission reports:

“The body of research … reveals that in the private sector equally qualified and similarly situated citizens are being denied equal access to advancement into senior-level management on the basis of gender, race or ethnicity. At the highest levels of corporations the promise of reward for preparation and pursuit of excellence is not equally available to members of all groups.”

But the institutionalized privileges that white men enjoy are rarely discussed or documented.
Fortunately, a small and growing body of literature exists (see Delgado and Stefancic).


As long as institutionalized, or systemic, barriers and privileges exist, merit does not necessarily
lead to success — and success does not always result from individual merit; i.e., merit is
to some extent an illusion.


Institutionalized Cycles of Oppression and Privilege


In America today, privilege is institutionalized. I've developed a model (Fig. 3, page 10)
based on the works of Roybal Rose (1996), Chester (1976) and Wildman (1995, 1996) that
includes both a “cycle of oppression” and a“cycle of privilege.”


The oppression cycle, which is the lower half of Fig. 3, begins with the dominant group
believing the subordinate groups are inferior, i.e., less smart, less talented, less
worthy. This belief is then institutionalized through discriminatory mechanisms that result in
unfair barriers and dis-advantages to the subordinate groups. These mechanisms — i.e., laws,
rules, policies, norms, resource allocations, customs — are reinforced by the institutions of society,
such as governments, churches, schools, organizations, and families, and lead to economic,
political, and social deficits for the subordinate groups.


The privilege cycle, the upper half of Fig. 3, begins with the dominant group believing it is superior (e.g., smarter, more talented, more worthy) to the subordinate groups (the flip side of believing that the subordinate groups are inferior). This belief is then institutionalized through power structures that provide unearned and unmerited privileges and advantages to the dominant group. The results are economic, political, and social rewards and benefits for the dominant group.These rewards and benefits then reinforce the original attitude of superiority.


It is important we understand and examine both of these cycles. If we look only at the oppression, or discrimination, cycle we will be left with the impression that the dominant culture is “normal” and the subordinate cultures are the “other.” Also, by considering only oppression, we collude with the power structures that cause oppression by making invisible the unearned privileges and benefits of the dominant group.


Mahoney (p. 331) points out that privilege is hidden, or invisible, to members of the dominant culture:

“The privilege that facilitates mobility and comfort in ordinary life is particularly difficult for whites to see …
White privilege therefore includes the ability to not-see whiteness and its privileges.”

McIntosh (p. 294) suggests that white privilege is“an elusive and fugitive subject” and the “pressure to
avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy.” West (pp. 139- 143) notes that in academic institutions hiring, promotion, and tenure are “based, in part, on merit, but also on race, gender, class, and a variety of mis-cellaneous attributes not related to academic qualifications.”


“You All Treat Me Like the Junior Scientist”

In the early 1980s, I became the leader of a nuclear research group at the Los Alamos National
Laboratory with about 25 scientists, most of whom, like myself, were white, male, 35-45 years old,
and held Ph.D.s in nuclear engineering or physics. My involvement in diversity issues at the time was primarily legal — we had affirmative action and equal opportunity programs because we were required to have them.


Soon after I became the leader of this group, a young (white) woman scientist (I'll call her “Jane”) complained to me, “You all treat me like the junior scientist.” She felt “junior” because she was treated differently; for example, she was never included in planning meetings that the other scientists attended, she was never invited to make presentations whenever our research program was reviewed, and she never participated in field exercises when we tested the nuclear measurement instruments we designed and built. Also, she felt her work as a computer scientist was viewed as a support role, rather than as research. In short, she felt she was being treated unfairly because she was excluded from important group activities. This exclusion was occurring because she was different from the other scientists in the group, i.e., she was young, a woman, had “only” a master's degree, was not a physicist, and was doing support rather than research. Jane's situation is shown in Fig. 4 (page 11).


Jane presented convincing arguments about her unfair treatment and after several discussions with her I began to understand that I'd been oblivious to the unfairness in our group. Eventually, Jane and I
came to an understanding that I would make affirmative efforts to include her fully in our group's
activities and opportunities.


It turned out that Jane had tremendous talents that I hadn't known about and during the next few years she made significant original contributions to our research efforts — contributions that were on a par with those of other scientists in the group.

I wasn't the only one that saw Jane as “junior,” we all saw her that way. The barriers — involving sex, class, and age — were deeply embedded in the attitudes and beliefs of most members of the group and were institutionalized through norms of what a research scientist looks like. These norms not only resulted in barriers for Jane, but they also afforded privileges to those who were white, male, not too young or too old, physicist, and Ph. D. Both the barriers and the privileges were largely invisible or hidden to the dominant members of the group. I was unaware of these barriers until Jane pointed them out. Unfortunately, it is easy and convenient to remain unaware or oblivious of them through mechanisms of denial or blame.


If these barriers had been due only to my personal prejudice against Jane, then this story would be one of non-institutionalized oppression, rather than institutionalized oppression based on sex, class, and age. But since the beliefs were deeply embedded in the thinking of the members of the group, Jane's "junior" status resulted from institutionalized discriminatory mechanisms that caused her to be treated differently from everyone else and to be excluded from activities and opportunities. This was not an individual act against another individual, but the result of institutionalized beliefs that had been codified in discriminatory mechanisms of exclusion and marginalization.


Because of my positive experience with diversity — Jane's story being one example — I was convinced there was truth in the familiar argument that a diverse workforce is a better and more creative workforce. I was able to move quickly beyond denial and blaming and became a believer in the utility of diversity in the workplace. And as the opportunities occurred, I would lend a hand to help women and people of color.


“What Have You Done For Us Lately?”


In 1986 I became the first Director of Human Resources (DHR) at Los Alamos, and I
was responsible for the human needs of nearly 8000 employees. In this position, I was able —
with the help of many people of good will and good intentions — to champion the push for a
more diverse workforce.


But by 1989, three years after becoming the DHR, our diversity initiatives were not going
well. I felt I was under siege from women, people of color, and my white male colleagues.
For example:

  • Women and minority groups: These groups seemed to demand we do more and
    more for them. Every time we did something to help them, they came back with additional
    demands. Our help never seemed to satisfy. It was as if they were asking, “What have you
    done for us lately?” And our answers were always lacking.
  • My white male colleagues: Most white male managers and employees resented our
    diversity initiatives. Some didn’t believe women and people of color experienced barriers or unfairness. Others felt that if women and people of color experienced problems, it was their own fault. Frequently I was told, “I came to Los Alamos to do good science, not social engineering.” Many white male managers felt our affirmative action efforts were lowering the quality of the scientific staff. In
    addition, they argued that affirmative action was reverse discrimination.
  • My bosses: They wanted quick fixes to our diversity problems and concerns; i.e., “What's
    taking you so long?” And they wanted the tensions involving race, sex, class, age, etc. to just go away.
    I didn't like the criticism I was getting for trying to help women and people of color, and I was sick
    and tired of being viewed as the bad guy by everyone. I didn't have a clue as to why our efforts to
    establish a more diverse workforce were floundering. And I didn't understand that by trying to help
    women and people of color, we were doing diversity wrong.


“We Don't Want Help We Want Justice”


In 1990, I attended a workshop on cross-cultural communications led by Lillian Roybal Rose.
After the workshop, I had an opportunity to discuss with her my frustrations in trying
to help women and people of color. She said (Roybal Rose, 1990),

“John, don't ever do anything ‘to help’ me. If you do, I'll eventually hate you for it because your
actions will be condescending and patronizing — and I don't want to hate you.”

Her comments startled me because I thought I'd been hearing women and people of color say,
“What have you done for us lately?” But from Roybal Rose, I heard something different.


She explained that dominance is inherent in the phrase, “to help,” and it's certainly a large factor
in why our attempts to help women and people of color are floundering. And because helping
that comes from dominance is patronizing and demeaning, then“there is no trust, no respect, no
real liking, on either side” (Roybal Rose, 1996, p. 28). By “helping” we are continuing the subtle dominance
(subtle to white males, but not to women and people of color!) of men over women, whites over people of color, scientists over non-scientists, etc., which has been going on at Los Alamos for 50 years.

“We don't want ‘help,’” Roybal Rose said, “we want justice.”

She argued that we both must work for justice. My role, as a white male with power over her in the oppressions of racism and sexism, is“to act justly and not dominate,” and for her part, “I say to white people that I will always see their humanness even if they never understand about racism” (Roybal Rose, 1996, p. 42). Neither of us can shrink from our commitment to justice, no matter how tough the struggle becomes.


Jane's Story — Revisited


Before I'd met Roybal Rose, I'd always thought of Jane's story as a story about me helping Jane
become a better scientist. But with new insights, I realized that Jane's story is not about “helping”
— it is about justice.


When Jane first came to talk to me, she was concerned about how we were treating her, i.e.,
about the unfairness of being excluded from participation. She wasn't suggesting that her talents
weren't being used (although we were to discover they weren't), she was concerned with fairness,
with justice.


And by removing the barriers to fairness and including her more in our group’s activities, we
became a more productive group. Jane didn’t need my help because she lacked talent,
or because she wanted special treatment. What she needed from me was help in removing
the unjust barriers. And as the leader of our group, I was in a position of power to do this,
i.e., I was in position to challenge — in a small way — the prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory
mechanisms of the institutionalized oppressions (Fig. 3) that were embedded in our group
and throughout Los Alamos.

And now when I discuss Jane's story in terms of "justice" rather than “helping,” it goes like this:

Jane didn't need my “help,” she needed justice. And by working for justice, we became
more productive. We also became more diverse.

This leads me to the following conclusion about how we should think about both merit
and diversity in the workplace:

Justice is a prerequisite for merit. It's also a prerequisite for diversity.

Justice is the most powerful argument for diversity because it requires that the institutionalized
system of unfair barriers and unmerited privileges (i.e., Fig. 2, Fig. 3) be dismantled.


The evolution in my thinking about diversity is summarized in Fig. 5 (page 11). Initially I was
involved in diversity issues because I was legally required to do so, based on civil rights laws. I
think of such involvement as “must” do — I had no choice. Then I learned there were practical
or utility reasons for diversity — it made good business sense, i.e., it was the “smart” thing to
do. Finally, my understanding moved to ethical reasons, such as justice — the “right” thing to do. It is only by dismantling the institutionalized system of unfair barriers and unmerited privileges that we can arrive at a truly meritorious workplace.


Towards Justice, Merit, and Diversity


The simplistic view of merit and success, as shown in Fig. 1, commonly held by many white male managers,
involves (1) denial of the institutionalized barriers and privileges and (2) blaming of women and people of color for their marginal success in the workplace. These dominant views are shown as the two lowest stages of the model in Fig. 6, which is a model of personal growth and commitment to justice. In the
lower stages of this model, managers are found in three stages of (mis)understanding of race and gender
issues in the workplace or in one stage of retreat and withdrawal. These stages are:


Denial: The manager is oblivious to the barriers and privileges, or he simply chooses to
remain unaware (only members of the dominant culture have the luxury of such ignorance); i.e.,
“Discrimination is a thing of the past. We live in a colorblind society. I don't even see color. I've
always been judged by merit, and I only judge merit.”

Blame: The manager believes that the gender and race problems in the workplace are caused
by women and people of color; i.e., “They should just quit being victims and quit complaining.
I've made it by my own efforts — why can't they? They're getting more favorable treatment.
It's reverse discrimination.”

Helper or “Nice Guy:” The manager understands that some barriers exist for women and
people of color, and he sincerely wants to help “them;” i.e., “Even though I've never discriminated
against anyone, I feel a little guilty about the way they have been treated in the past by
others, so I'll help out.”

Retreat and Withdrawal: The manager becomes frustrated with his efforts to help. He is
criticized by women and people of color for not doing enough, and, at the same time, he is criticized
by his white male colleagues for doing too much. Consequently, his feelings get hurt
because he isn't appreciated, and he fears losing the respect of other white males. Therefore, he
becomes defensive — he begins to pull back from helping, becomes captive to political correctness,
and numbs out. This is the stage I discussed earlier concerning my frustrations
about our floundering diversity efforts at Los Alamos in 1989.

Roybal Rose (1966, p. 42) points out that these defensive behaviors of white people, such as political correctness, lack of spontaneity, and pulling away, are difficult for women and people of color to deal with:
“For People of Color, an encounter with a white person who knows what is right but has not
processed it emotionally can be frustrating and exhausting. Every word, every signal breeds confusion. Whites busily guarding a politically correct posture are impossible to reach on a human level,
because they have an image to protect.”


From Dominance to Diversity


Even though this pattern of denial, blame, helping, and retreat is com-mon among white
males, it is not inevitable. We can choose to break the pattern and move into the two highest
stages of Fig. 6. We can move from dominance to diversity.

Non-dominance or Ethics: The manager understands that if we want diversity in the
workplace, we must first achieve justice. And to achieve justice, the manager must become a
just person.

He knows that real merit cannot be achieved until: (1) the unfair barriers that women and
people of color experience in the workplace are eliminated and (2) the privileges that white
males enjoy are available to every-one.

This manager understands that in order to begin to dismantle the institutionalized system, both personal and collective efforts are necessary. The struggle to end racism (hooks, p. 195) “… is a struggle to change a system, a structure.… For our efforts … to be truly effective, individual struggle to change consciousness must be fundamentally linked to collective effort to transform those structures that reinforce and
perpetuate white supremacy.”

The collective effort must be directed at all three components of the institutionalized cycles
of privilege and oppression (Fig. 3), i.e., at prejudiced attitudes, at imbalances of power, and at
inequitable outcomes.

The process that one needs to go through in personal effort to unlearn sexism and racism is
both emotional and cognitive. Roybal Rose encouraged me "not to shrink from the emotional
content of this process." She explained (Roybal Rose, 1996, p. 42): When the process is emotional as well as
cognitive, the state of being an ally [to women and people of color] becomes a matter of reclaiming one’s own humanity. Then there is no fear, because there is no image to tear down, no posture to correct. The
movement to a global, ethnic point of view requires tremendous grieving.

The journey from dominance to diversity begins with listening. The white male manager:

  • Learns to really listen to others, i.e., to pay attention without intention.
  • Develops a new sense of personal honesty and humility about racism, sexism,
    and other oppressions, and about the privileges that he enjoys in the workplace
    and in society. He understands “that race makes a difference in people's lives and that
    racism makes a difference in U.S. society” (Frankenberg, p. 159). He learns that facing
    up to one's own biases, prejudices, and privileges is the beginning of liberation.
  • Adopts a deliberate skepticism about his own ability to make racial and gender neutral
    decisions. Involves others — women and people of color, as well as other white men
    — in decision making to uncover institutionalized barriers and privileges.
  • Engages in open and honest discussions about racism, sexism, and other oppressions
    and about privileges with white men, women and people of color.
  • Reads and studies the works of others who have struggled with unlearning racism
    and sexism.
  • Seeks out examples of institutionalized oppressions and privileges in the workplace
    and actively works with allies — other white men, women, and people of color who are
    committed to justice — to eliminate them by changing policies, procedures, beliefs, and
    attitudes.
  • Discovers white male pride and connects with the universality of human experience.

And the journey leads first to justice, then to both merit and diversity.


Personal Commitment: Working with allies, the manager uses — but not misuses — his position
of power and privilege in non-dominant ways to work for justice, merit, and diversity in
the workplace. He does this because he understands the loss to himself and to others caused
by the subtle and not-so-subtle injustices and privileges in the workplace.


The ethical challenge for white males, and others in dominant positions, is this: We must
use our positions of power to tear down the unfair institutionalized systems that gave us the
power in the first place. This is what we must do if we believe in merit, justice, and diversity in
the workplace. And we will be better off if we do it. We should not shrink from this challenge,
no matter how tough or uncomfortable the struggles becomes.


This is a difficult stage for the white male because he is under tremendous pressure from
his colleagues who are still in the lower stages of Fig. 6 to return to his earlier dominant attitudes
and be-haviors. He must resists these pressures by remem-bering that in the long run the (1) dismantling
of the existing system of institutionalized barriers and privileges and (2) achievement
of merit, justice and diversity are in both his organization's and his own best interest.

 

REFERENCES

Mark A. Chesler, “Contemporary Sociological Theories of Racism,” in Phyllis A. Katz, ed., Towards the
Elimination of Racism, Pergamon Press, New York, 1976, pp. 21-71.

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror, Temple Univ.
Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1997.

Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, Good For Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Capital, U.S.
Department of Labor, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995.

Ruth Frankenberg, The Social Construction of Whiteness; White Women, Race Matters, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1993.

bell hooks, Killing Rage, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995.

Duncan Kennedy, “A Cultural Pluralist Case for Affirmative Action in Legal Academia,” Duke Law
Journal, 1990, pp. 705-757.

Martha R. Mahoney, “The Social Construction of Whiteness,” in Richard Delgado and Jean
Stefancic, Critical White Studies, Temple Univ. Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1997, pp. 330-333.

Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” in Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical
White Studies, Temple Univ. Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1997, pp. 291-299.

Lillian Roybal Rose, personal communications, 1990, P. O. Box M, Davenport, CA 95017: Phone/Fax:
831-423-7678; e-mail: RoybalRose@aol.com).

Lillian Roybal Rose, “White Identity and Counseling White Allies About Racism,” in Benjamin P. Bowser
and Raymond G. Hunt, Impacts of Racism on White Americans, 2nd ed., Sage, Thousand Oaks,
CA, 1996, pp. 24-47.

Martha S. West, “Gender Bias in Academic Robes: The Law's Failure to Protect Women Faculty,” Temple
Law Review, Vol. 67, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 67-178.

Stephanie M. Wildman, Privilege Revealed, New York University Press, New York, 1996.

Stephanie M. Wildman, with Adrienne D. Davis,“Language and Silence: Making Systems of
Privilege Visible,”
in Richard Delgado, Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, Temple Univ.
Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1995.

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