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Workplaces are failing at racial equity. A Wash U sociologist offers solutions

Author Adia Harvey Wingfield.
Washington University sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield is the author of the new book, "Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism & What We Can Do to Fix It."

Near the end of 2020, Washington University sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield found herself looking squarely at the state of work in America. What she saw more starkly than ever were “gray areas” that have long affected Black workers’ experiences, involving issues such as hiring, pay and opportunities for advancement.

So, she wrote a book about it.

Wingfield joined St. Louis on the Air on Thursday to talk about that newly published work, “Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism & What We Can Do to Fix It.” She described the gray areas as “the social, cultural, relational parts of work that are a little more ambiguous, less subject to overt regulation.”

As an example, she shared what she heard from an emergency medicine doctor named Max, one of seven Black interviewees featured in her book to illuminate the ways racism manifests in work across industries.

“Max told me he's had cases where patients who come to the ER use explicit racial slurs and tell him, ‘I'm not going to let you treat me and I'll sue you if you don't get me a white doctor.’”

Max’s experience wasn’t unique. Even when Black workers ascend the workplace ladder, racism follows them.

“We've seen kind of spotty progress when it comes to these questions of race and advancement, [but] you can still have Black workers who have lofty positions, that would seem like they've achieved everything that they want,” Wingfield said. “But they still find their authority undermined, they still experience disrespect, they still find they haven't really achieved all the things that we might think looking from the outside in.”

Wingfield also made it clear that the “fix it” component of her book is key. It presents practical suggestions to be applied by an organization’s leaders.

“If companies are drawing from evidence-based solutions about things that actually work – not things that every other company is doing, not things that just seemed like they should work,” said Wingfield, her book’s checklists don’t become checkboxes but “part of a process for actually creating long-term organizational change.”

“I think that's when we start to see the minimization of some of these gray areas,” Wingfield said, “and a transformation of our workplaces into environments that are better served for serving their workers, and the communities they are dealing with.”

For more about the ways Black workers in film, the gig economy, and nonprofits have faced gray areas, what personally inspired Wingfield to write “Gray Areas” and who should not be burdened with the work of addressing workplace racism, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to Adia Harvey Wingfield on "St. Louis on the Air"

Related Event
What: Adia Harvey Wingfield discusses “Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It.”
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Elaine Cha is the host/producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.