Research has shown how racial stereotypes can and do undermine people’s professional opportunities and how negative preconceptions, stigmatization and the day-to-day microaggressions leveled at cultural minority groups can chip away at individuals’ capacity to bring their authentic selves to their job.

But can minority racial identities also be used as a positive — as an asset?

Can minority groups strengthen their careers and work contributions by drawing upon their ethnicities?

A landmark study by Darden Professor of Practice Laura Morgan Roberts suggests that they can. Together with Brandeis University’s Sandra Cha, Roberts has looked at how Asian American and African American journalists proactively utilize their ethnicities to their advantage — mobilizing their identities to build positive images, challenge negative stereotypes, build bridges and even do their jobs better.

The Dynamics of Racial Stereotypes

“Sandra and I were interested in looking at the dynamics of racial stereotypes in fields in which African American and Asian American leaders are underrepresented,” Roberts notes. “I’d looked at how Black physicians in the U.S. tackle negative character and competence attributions at work, so we were interested in talking to journalists to see how these dynamics play out in a different professional context.”

Roberts and Cha conducted in-depth interviews with nearly 50 Asian American and African American journalists, developing a framework to describe the different ways in which minority individuals navigate race in the workplace.

While the majority of the interviewees did report negative encounters with sources, editors and colleagues — such as stereotyped assumptions questioning their skills as journalists (even their proficiency in English) — what was truly striking was how these professionals were managing racism or stigmatization, Roberts says.

“The stereotypical contradictions were clear. Journalists are stereotyped as go-getting and ambitious, while women of Asian descent are stereotyped as meek and passive, so that was a point of contention. Other U.S.-born journalists said they’d been congratulated on how well they spoke English,” says Roberts. “So these kinds of offhand microaggressions had to be navigated. But as people’s stories emerged, we found that there were distinct strategies or pathways being used to assert racial identity as an asset.”

Roberts and Cha identified four “identity mobilization” strategies that cultural minorities use to leverage their identity-related experiences, perspectives and insights as a potential advantage in the workplace.

Ethnicity as Advantage: 4 Identity Mobilization Strategies

1. Leverage a Unique Lens

Many of the participants in the study used their ethnic identity-based experiences, perspectives and insights to bring greater texture, validity and authenticity to their own work — and that of their colleagues. One Asian American journalist spoke about writing a piece on a racially tinged election, bringing her “differences to the table” to craft a more nuanced, quality piece of work. Similarly, others were performing editorial roles, consulting with their colleagues who were not minorities about publishing work in ways more respectful of diverse communities and readers.

“These journalists are using their identities to help craft output that enhances not only their professional standing, but also the reputation and the legitimacy of their organizations, and that in itself is a really compelling business — as well as moral — case for diversity,” says Roberts.

2. Challenge Negative Stereotypes

One African American editor talked about drawing upon his own racial insights and awareness of stereotypes to broaden his readers’ understanding of African Americans living in public housing. His stories offered a more nuanced image of people who “needed a hand up as opposed to a handout,” challenging negative stereotypes around “baby on the hip mothers” and dissolute lifestyles — a perspective that he could also share with colleagues writing about similar topics.

3. Build Positive Relationships Across Difference

Other respondents reported using “identity references” to bridge cultural divides — even when doing so was slightly awkward. For Asian Americans, comments about liking Indian food, for instance, could be positively construed as efforts to make a connection. Many said they were prepared to “humor” this kind of interaction if it meant opening more genuine ways to bridge differences with colleagues and build trust.

Trust building between individual journalists (and their news organizations) and sources could also be facilitated by “identity mobilization.”

“Journalists often come with a bad reputation for casting Black, Asian and Latinx communities in a poor light,” says Roberts. “For these Black and Asian American journalists, digging into racial and ethnic connections with sources was a fast-track way to establish trust.”

4. Construct a Positive Image.

Some of the journalists in the study reported times in which they had taken the opportunity to confirm some of the more positive stereotypes around their racial identity. For African Americans, riffing with the “cool” stereotype afforded them greater cachet at the workplace; for Asian Americans, playing up the notion that they were inherently “hard-working” and “intelligent” also worked to their favor. Many reported that this kind of confirming behavior did not make them feel inauthentic in the workplace.

Moving Ahead and Mobilizing Identity

While these kinds of strategies can help minority professionals make the most of their differences in the workplace, Roberts cautions that they also present inherent tensions or risks that need to be taken into consideration.

Presenting a more positive image of a racial identity — confirming positive stereotypes — might play off positively in the short term, but it risks helping perpetuate generalized assumptions around race, she warns.

Similarly, leveraging unique perspectives to build more textured understanding of different groups is great — until it leads to individuals becoming pigeonholed or locked into a delimiting role or routine. “There’s a risky career implication for minorities in getting associated too heavily with identity-relevant work. The journalists in our study tell us that covering urban affairs or racial issues can lead to not being seen to have the skills for the kinds of stories that lead to promotions.”

Challenging negative stereotypes also comes with the risk of being labeled as “radical” or a threat to the hierarchy and cohesion of the organization.

“The survey findings point to tensions that counterbalance the gains to be made in mobilizing identity,” says Roberts. “Whether it’s playing up your race at the risk of maintaining the stereotype and status quo, bringing your race-based insights into play at the risk of being pigeonholed or having your objectivity questioned — or whether it’s calling out negative stereotyping at the risk of being seen as disruptive — it’s a dilemma.”

Forward-thinking organizations that want to capitalize on the very real promise of diversity would do well to be mindful of this, Roberts says. And to understand that talented people are doing “mental and emotional gymnastics all day long, as they figure out how they can authentically engage their minoritized identities as sources of strength so they can maximally contribute.”

“In the past year, we’ve seen more of a push to hire minorities, and we understand the value that diverse identities bring to the quality of work that organizations engage in on a daily basis,” Roberts emphasizes. “We also see how diversity enables those organizations to build relations with communities of stakeholders that go beyond tokenism.”

“I think there’s a real onus now on leaders and managers to think about how they can show up as allies to their Black, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous colleagues from culturally minoritized groups. And the first step is to be aware of the dynamics — the gymnastics those professionals are performing — as they navigate race in the workplace.”

Laura Morgan Roberts co-authored “Leveraging Minority Identities at Work: An Individual-Level Framework of the Identity Mobilization Process,” which appeared in Organization Science, with Sandra E. Cha of Brandeis University’s International Business School.

Learn More in the Book
Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience
About the Expert

Laura Morgan Roberts

Associate Professor of Business Administration

An expert in diversity, authenticity and leadership development, Roberts’ research and consulting focuses on the science of maximizing human potential in diverse organizations and communities. The author of more than 50 research articles, teaching cases and practitioner-oriented content aimed at strategically activating one’s best self through strength-based development, her work has also been featured in global media outlets. She has also edited three books: Race, Work and Leadership; Positive Organizing in a Global Society; and Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations.

Prior to joining Darden, Roberts served on the faculties of Harvard Business School, Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change.

B.A., University of Virginia; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan