Posted on February 4, 2024

Whether a Racial Minority or Majority at Their School, White Teachers Struggle with Race Relations

Sharita Forrest, University of Illinois. January 31, 2024

White workers’ emotions about race and reactions to racial differences in the workplace are triggered by identity threat-induced culture shock, researchers suggest in a new study.

White teachers who worked at a school where the faculty was majority Black felt shocked, rejected, uncomfortable and anxious when racial discussions arose and their racial or professional identities were challenged, the researchers found. When triggered by feeling different – regardless of whether they were a racial minority or majority in their workplace –white teachers responded by practicing social avoidance, shunning intergroup relations and ducking conversations about race.

“Most of the white teachers in our sample hailed from racially segregated social worlds – attending predominantly white high schools and universities” that left them unprepared to handle race relations in their workplace, said first author Jennifer L. Nelson, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who co-wrote the study with Tiffany D. Johnson, a business professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.


Imprinting – which encompasses individuals’ prior experiences with race in their family, educational and previous work environments – shapes young adults’ preparedness to deal with race-related discussions and issues in the workplace, Nelson said.

“During the interviews, all the teachers referred back to these earlier experiences and compared them with their current workplace at the time when race became salient for them,” Nelson said. “It was clear to my coauthor and me that imprinting was relevant to the range of emotions they felt when race became something they had to grapple with at work. The white teachers also realized they had a racial identity, too, even if they had not thought of it much in depth before.”

White teachers who were minorities at their schools encountered various types of identity threats – behaviors or incidents that made them feel devalued or disliked based upon a social identity such as their race or profession. Some believed that Black students and coworkers viewed them as professionally incompetent. Others recalled being confronted by Black students who said they were unqualified to teach African American history because they were white.


“White minority teachers were concerned about being perceived as prejudiced or racist and worried they would get in trouble if they said the wrong thing to a Black student,” Nelson said. White men, who composed 25% of those in the sample, were particularly concerned that Black coworkers and students assumed they were bigots because of their race and sex – demographic characteristics they viewed as liabilities in diverse environments.

White teachers working in schools where the faculty was predominantly white who had previously worked in schools where the faculty was majority-Black said they were much happier and less stressed in their current jobs because they seldom had to think about race. {snip}