CSWAC Blog

“What About Me?” Perceptions of exclusion and whites’ reactions to multiculturalism

Efforts to manage diversity and promote inclusion have become commonplace in corporations, governmental bodies, colleges and universities, and other organizational settings. Many people embrace the change, but research shows European Americans, in particular, are often reluctant to take part. “Diversity resistance,” as it has been called, may be due to ethnocentrism, prejudice, in-group bias, or perceived losses in social dominance and status.

Recently a group of researchers hypothesized that another reason might be that white people feel excluded from diversity efforts. Psychologists have long recognized that the need to belong is a basic among people. Social exclusion can produce anxiety, lowered self-esteem, less prosocial behavior, and impaired self-regulation. Once relational bonds are broken, they’re difficult to reestablish. Furthermore, people attend closely to cues that indicate inclusion or exclusion.

The researchers carried out a series of five experiments to test their ideas.

In the first experiment, the researchers wanted to find if white people associate multiculturalism with exclusion. Through prior testing they came up with a set of 5 words associated with multiculturalism (multicultural, cultural, variety, difference, and diversity), and a set of 5 words associated with colorblindness (similarity, assimilation, sameness, color blind, and unity), respectively. Then they came up with 5 words associated with inclusion (include, belong, incorporate, inclusion and accept) and 5 words associated with exclusion (exclude, isolate, prevent, exclusion, and reject).

The researchers then used these words to test how people associated the concepts of multiculturalism and colorblindness with the properties of inclusion and exclusion. Thirty-nine undergraduate students took part. Twenty were white and 19 were students of color (42% Black, 16% Asian, 5% Hispanic, and 37% Other).

Each participant was given a brief definition of multiculturalism (“This view of diversity stresses the appreciation of differences due to racial, ethnic, and cultural variety of people.”) and a brief definition of colorblindness (“This view of diversity stresses that racial, ethnic, and cultural differences are superficial and emphasizes the similarity of all people.”). Participants were then given an Implicit Association Test (IAT; see Implicit Association Test for more detail on this procedure) using the word lists and definitions the researchers had shown them.

The results demonstrated that white people associated multiculturalism with exclusion, while people of color did not. Given this finding, the researchers devised an experiment to see whether making the point that white people are included in multiculturalism might impact their associating multiculturalism with exclusion. Thirty-five white participants were then assigned to either a control condition or an “all-inclusive multiculturalism” condition.

Every participant…

…read a fictitious article describing the spread of multiculturalism in corporations and universities across the United States. This article portrayed multiculturalism as an asset that brings together different perspectives and customs and is essential to long-term social harmony. In the all-inclusive multiculturalism condition, participants read an … additional, final paragraph that explicitly described multiculturalism as inclusive of everyone, including European Americans.

Participants were then given the same IAT as in the first experiment. The results showed that white people in the inclusive multiculturalism condition were more likely to believe that white people are included in the notion of multiculturalism. Furthermore, they did not associate multiculturalism with exclusion. White people in the control condition did associate multiculturalism with exclusion, the same as white people in the first experiment.

“Me” or “Not Me”

Having established that white people tend to associate multiculturalism with exclusion, the researchers then looked at the connection between white people’s self-concept and the concepts of multiculturalism and colorblindness. They used a “Me/NotMe” task in which individual participants are given a series of concept words and asked to press a key labeled “Me” or a key labeled “Not Me,” depending on how they relate to the word.

Participants consisted of 32 white undergraduate students and 21 undergraduate students of color, with about three/fourths being female. Each participant was given 36 different words in random order. Seven were multiculturalism concept words, similar or identical to the concept words used in the first two experiments. Likewise, six were colorblindness concept words. The remaining words were neutral terms like practical, relaxed, and logic.

Participants were also given a set of questions to measure their endorsement of diversity efforts within a university setting.

White people were found to associate multiculturalism less with their self than did people of color. White people associated both multiculturalism and colorblindness about equally with themselves, while people of color associated multiculturalism with their self more than colorblindness.

White people also were less likely to endorse diversity efforts. Among all participants, those that included multiculturalism in their self-concept also tended to endorse diversity efforts. Further examination of the data indicated that the degree to which participants included multiculturalism in their self-concept partially accounted for the difference in group responses to diversity efforts. White people, in other words, were less likely to associate multiculturalism with themselves and, accordingly, were less likely to endorse diversity efforts.

A workplace study

The researchers then devised a test of their ideas outside of the laboratory in a workplace setting. They describe their approach and rationale:

Data were collected as part of a diversity climate survey for a large health care organization in the United States. … The sample was 80% female and 79% White (modal age 42–60 years), almost perfectly mirroring organizational demographics. Because we were interested in the reactions to diversity by groups not traditionally included in organizational definitions of diversity and diversity initiatives, we selected White men for our analyses (n = 588) and included minority men as a comparison group (n = 167). This organization had a large representation of female employees, but they were underrepresented at the management level and therefore were not considered the “dominant” group. Additionally, examination of the organization’s diversity communications revealed that organizational definitions of diversity explicitly and routinely included women. Moreover, the diversity statement listed many types of backgrounds that make people “diverse and multicultural,” but, most relevant to the present research and consistent with the standard approach to multiculturalism, it did not stress that diversity or multiculturalism includes all groups (including Whites). Therefore, in this context there was less reason to suspect that White women would feel excluded from the definition of diversity, but there was reason to suspect that White men would.

Findings showed that white men were less likely to endorse diversity efforts in the workplace, and felt less included in their organization’s definition of diversity than did men of color. Additional analysis again confirmed that individual differences in feelings of inclusion contributed to the group differences in endorsing diversity.

Needing to belong

Finding inclusion and avoiding exclusion is a basic human need, but individuals also differ in their need to belong (NTB). In a final study, the researchers looked at how these individual differences impacted how white people were attracted to colorblind versus multicultural organizational models.

Past research has shown that people pay close attention to subtle cues about the diversity climate of a work setting. For the present study, the researchers selected 31 white male undergraduate business students who were undertaking job searches leading up to their graduation.

The researchers devised a recruitment brochure for a made-up company named “CCG Consulting.” The brochure was designed to be typical of such brochures used by companies. Two versions of the brochure were prepared, with only one difference between them.

In the colorblind condition, the message read

Many companies miss the point when they think about putting together the best team of people. Here we know that it’s important to look beyond characteristics such as a person’s gender or ethnic background to see their individual talents. These talents make us the best we can be.

The language in the multicultural condition came directly from the diversity statement of an actual U.S. company that recruits nationally from business programs. The message in the multicultural condition read

Many companies miss the point when they think about putting together the best team of people. Here we know that outstanding, talented people come from all walks of life and can contribute a rich set of viewpoints and experiences to our firm. These experiences make us the best we can be.

Participants were give either one or the other brochure to read. Afterwards they completed 5 questions measuring how attractive they found the company. In a prior study, seemingly unrelated to the current one, participants had filled out a 10-item Need To Belong Scale.

Students who were high in NTB rated the company as more attractive than students who were low in NTB, regardless of the diversity approach (colorblind or multicultural). Nonetheless, students high in NTB were significantly more attracted to the colorblind company than they were to the multicultural company. Students low in NTB were nearly equally attracted to each company, giving only a slight edge to the multicultural one.

Reflections

To review, the five studies taken together show first that white people associate the concept of multiculturalism with exclusion. However, this association can be lessened if white people are explicitly framed as included in multiculturalism. White people also are less likely than people of color to incorporate multiculturalism as part of their self-concept and this contributes to the finding that white people are less likely to support diversity efforts. In a work setting, white males felt less included in the prevailing definition of diversity, and this helped lessen their support for diversity. Finally, white men high in Need to Belong are more attracted to an organization with a colorblind approach than they are to one with a multicultural approach.

The findings clearly suggest that to get everyone on board for a diversity effort, explicit attention must be given to including white people. For some, this may be a difficult thing to acknowledge. After all, it suggests the privileged group, white people and more specifically white males — the group which receives the most attention to begin with — must continue to garner some measure of attention in efforts to foster inclusion of people of color who have, historically and presently, faced discrimination and exclusion. Nevertheless, the authors make the practical argument that little will change unless white people are on board. Unless white people feel included, they will likely not support “diversity efforts.”

The authors of the article observe that people of color “have typically been the focus of diversity efforts.” This points to one drawback of the study, in which the authors conflate multiculturalism and diversity. Consider the case of white women, who historically were the main beneficiaries of Affirmative Action, a program designed to increase diversity. Even today, white women comprise the major portion of people reached by diversity-oriented STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) career development programs. And Study 4, which took place in the workplace, described specific efforts by management to name women (including white women) as a focus of diversity efforts.

Nonetheless, Studies 1 and 3 included women, presumably some of whom were white. And Study 2 explicitly identified the participation of white women. The researchers did not analyze gender effects, so the data does not allow findings on gender differences. But almost certainly white women contributed to the finding that white people felt excluded from multiculturalism. In a mainstream culture in which white culture is not named or recognized, it stands to reason that white people – white women and men together — will not see themselves included in “multiculturalism,” which names culture after all.

I (Jeff), a white male, have experienced this sense of exclusion from a personal standpoint. More than twenty years ago I recall reading Beyond Race and Gender by R. Roosevelt Thomas and reacting emotionally when he discussed the need to include white men in the definition of diversity. Later I wrote about that moment in Lifting the White Veil. Until then, I felt I could not be a part of diversity and multiculturalism. Reading Thomas’s words was like being called home. On other occasions I’ve witnessed a white male being told, “You are not diverse,” as if diversity is the property of a person and not of group differences.

The roles of white people and people of color, vis-à-vis one another in diversity efforts, is a far-reaching topic and more than can be touched upon here. The point is that some balance is needed. The needs of people of color are real and pressing. White people cultivate fictions, such as seeing themselves as the oppressed group, or perceiving inclusion and diversity as a zero-sum game in which the gains by one group mean the losses for another. At the extreme, the alt-right claims that “anti-racism is anti-white.” At CSWAC, we believe the opposite. Anti-racism is a means by which we all, white people included, can live our fullest lives and achieve our greatest potential.

Finally, given the overwhelming presence of white normativity and the unwarranted distribution of power that goes along with it, some exclusion is needed at times. People of color need safe spaces in which to develop and deploy a critique of existing, white-centered, practices. These same spaces serve as a place of rest and renewal. Race-specific programs also have a place. One example is caucus or affinity groups, now in use in some nonprofits and independent schools.

However, race-specific spaces, in the broader view, can also incorporate white people who can — and who do in the places we named — operate an anti-racist white-centered dialogue. CSWAC encourages this model, and we’ve provided supportive services to organizations putting it in place.

The key, CSWAC believes, is a multiracial umbrella or governing process that allows race-specific spaces to operate, but which reserves power and decision-making at the highest level to a multiracial and representative group that takes seriously a mandate to see that all are included.


Plaut, V. C., Garnett, F. G., Buffardi, L. E., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2011). “What about me?” Perceptions of exclusion and whites’ reactions to multiculturalism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 337–353.