Published April 21, 2020, 4:13 p.m. by Moderator


Racial discrimination can occur due to internal or external structures and is context-dependent. Some have argued that workplace discrimination is principally motivated by internal structures and reliant on a person’s free will and predilections, the sensible approach is to underscore the importance of internal and external structures in addition to individual agency.  Social constraints can be both normative and structural. Normative constraints are based on personal beliefs, predilections and socio-cultural expectations and therefore form part of an individual’s internal structures (Tomlinson et al., 2013).

Subtle discrimination is a concept that defines the notions or experiences of disempowerment in daily social encounters with the public or employees at work.  It is different from blatant racism which is overt, intentional and easy to identify. These subtle experiences of disempowerment are on a micro-level that the inequalities are so embedded within the structures that they become indiscernible. Subtle discrimination is a reflection of existing power dynamics and is meant to sustain a group’s dominance over another. Subtle discrimination is a reaction to the legislation outlawing blatant racism and is a counter measure to maintain the existing power inequalities that benefit one side and disenfranchises the other (Van Laer and Janssens, 2011).

Employment discrimination happens when individuals from protected groups such as women and minorities are treated differently at the workplace due to their racial backgrounds. All forms of employment discrimination are forbidden in most jurisdictions, and its faithful implementation is left to the businesses and organisations.  Workplace discrimination determines who gets hired, fired, paid more, assigned jobs, promoted, laid-off, trained, benefits, and any additional emoluments that are provided to employees (GOV.UK, 2015).

Critical Analysis

Racial discrimination can be explained using two social theories; structure and agency. Structure can be described as an arrangement of social relationships within a system that determine how society functions. Structures are designed as properties of social systems while systems are replicated associations between actors arranged as social procedures. Agents create the situations that make anthropological actions probable. Giddens contends that agency is at the core of social interactions and serves as the principle method through which individual exercises their power. However, the fundamental characteristic of individual action is that it is indeterminate. Giddens also makes the assertion that action is continuous and can’t be categorised into explanations and motivations. He maintains that it is a process through which humans monitor and rationalise their daily activities (Giddens et al., 2006).

Giddens argues that human actors are aware about their individual actions and hence routinely rationalize before proceeding with a course of action. Routines create a sense of security due to the predictability of repeated actions. Agency and power are directly correlated, an agent has the choice of influencing their external environment or refraining from any interference. Actors are described as agents with the ability to use a variety of everyday powers that are already in use or deployed by others (Tomlinson et al., 2013).

 Action is contingent upon the ability of agents to make a change to a pre-existent set of circumstances in the society. Agents become non-functional or non-existent when they lose the power to make a change. Power can be described as the motivation or ability to realise preferred and projected social outcomes. Bachrach and Baratz classified two appearances of power, which include the ability of people to influence decisions and the deployment of bias. Resources are the controlled properties of public systems, in use and enhanced by well-informed agents or individuals in the society during their social interactions. Giddens states that, power is not just linked to the accomplishment of individual interests but tied to group interests as well. Power is not considered a resource but a media through which individuals exercise their collective will (Giddens et al., 2006).

Most scholars have varying opinions about subtle discrimination with organizational scholars arguing further investigations should be conducted to understand subtle forms of discrimination entrenched in daily workplace interactions. Contemporary literature on workplace discrimination does not adequately address the wide variety of discriminatory events that stigmatized employees experience in the workplace. Subtle discrimination in the workplace exposes the existence of power struggles between different racial groups.

One of the mechanisms of tackling subtle discrimination is normalization through confession where an aggrieved employee makes an official complaint to an overseeing authority ‘figure’. Normalization is ineffective as the remedial procedures are out of the control of the minorities and minorities are scared of coming forward with confessions due to the repercussions of challenging the status quo   (Van Laer and Janssens, 2011).

The second mechanism of subtle discrimination is individual legitimization combined with collective marginalization. In this instance, individuals from minority communities are recognised but their ethnic group is not accepted. This is the specific legitimization of individuals from a specific ethnic group but the ethnic group is not viewed positively. Individual legitimization occurs through compliments that elevate the status of the individual in relation to their ethnic community. This mechanism is harmful to the social justice claims made by a specific ethnic group as it belittles the legitimacy of their needs and requirements (Van Laer and Janssens, 2011).

The third mechanism is legitimization of ethnic minorities’ presence, not of their uniqueness. In this case, the individual’s uniqueness is ignored as their recruitment is tied to adhering to a specific legal quota for minorities and thus they feel ‘accepted’ due to their ethnic origin not their qualifications. Diversity initiatives deny minorities the mutual respect of their colleagues who believe they are less qualified since their employment is contingent on legal obligations (Van Laer and Janssens, 2011).

The fourth mechanism of subtle discrimination is naturalization through tolerance masking intolerance. This is the gradual acceptance of discriminatory practices (intolerant behaviour) as part of organisational culture. This occurs when the supervising authority from the majority ethnic group has the power to decide the boundaries of tolerated behaviour. This power dynamics becomes particularly evident when ‘tolerant’ majority individuals tolerate discriminatory actions against minorities (Van Laer and Janssens, 2011).

External structures such as education and socio-economic considerations for instance compensation, reputation or depictions of ‘class’, ‘status’ and ‘power’ also play major roles in workplace power dynamics. These structures can be both ‘constraining and enabling’. Constraining structures over individuals are directly connected to the opportunity it provides to others. Davies-Netzley’s (1998) study of white women and black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals showed that the structural conditions favoured or enabled white men, who then experienced faster career growth expedited by mentorship and family networks (Schuck and Liddle, 2004). Law firms in England and Wales are required by law to have official criteria for job promotions, but the implementation is left to the sole discretion of the partners. This makes it easier for partners to choose their preferred candidates over other qualified candidates solely based on personal preferences (Tomlinson et al., 2013).

One advancement benchmark utilised in businesses is the gaining of new patrons, also known as rainmaking. The objective of most businesses is profit-making, and career advancements are pegged on the capacity to get new clients rather than technical brilliance. This standard might seem impartial. However, it has different ramifications for different social groups, as the tactical undertakings involved in client acquisition are often situated in outside locations that reflect the prevalent culture of discrimination that enables one social group over another.  As a result, organisations might prefer hiring employees from one social group over another due to inherent social advantages (Tomlinson et al., 2013).

The Royal Historical Society released a report titled, ‘Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change’, which detailed the racial and ethnic profiles of students and employees in the History departments of universities around the United Kingdom. The survey indicated that the university staff has continued to be significantly White. The report also showed that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and employees experienced more discriminatory practices in teaching, training and employment (Royal Historical Society, 2018). The report also discovered that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students lag behind their White peers in course completion. In addition to this, the report also noted that the history curriculums for secondary school, undergraduate and postgraduate levels had failed to fully incorporate the history of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities (Royal Historical Society, 2018).

The report identified critical impediments to racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion in British universities that include underrepresentation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) in postgraduate training and postdoctoral employment. The report acknowledged elevated levels of prejudice and discrimination towards Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) candidates and recommended that practical steps be taken to increase representation and enhance the experience of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and sta. The report also identified limited inclusion of the history of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities in the United Kingdom History curriculums as an obstacle to racial and ethnic diversity and inclusion in History departments (Royal Historical Society, 2018).

Diversity initiatives are insufficient to tackle the challenges brought by external social constructs that act as enablers. Diversity only alleviates the position of an individual. It ignores or suppresses the arguments for social justice for an entire social group. Diversity initiatives often mask the presence of workplace discrimination, especially in terms of recruitment and promotions of senior management (Noon, 2007).  Diversity management is more of a management concept that addresses short term solutions and is now a component of corporate social responsibility (CSR).  Opponents of diversity management claim that these short term initiatives are only there to whitewash greater social injustices and equality initiatives should provide social benefits to all concerned, not just a privileged few (Kirton and Greene, 2017).

A 2015 report by Sports People's Think Tank indicated that only 23 out of 552 senior coaching roles are held by Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people despite a quarter of the players in the leagues being from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME)  backgrounds. The survey also showed that there were only six black managers out of 72 in the Football League clubs. Retired football player Jason Roberts stated that this was because of “unconscious partiality" (subtle racism) or "pure racism" (blatant racism) and that footballing authorities in England did not consider the disparity as a matter of urgency (Gornall, 2015).

Another study done in 2014 by Steven Bradbury established that there were only 19 Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) managers and coaches at the senior levels across all 92 clubs in the English football leagues. The study also showed that at the current rate of growth, it would take at least 31 years for the football league senior level management to reach the percentage levels for players (Gornall, 2015).

Employment statistics released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicated that between the years 2016 and 2018, no British university employed black academics in senior management. Senior management staff include managers, directors and senior administrators. Of the 535 staff who were surveyed, 510 were white, 15 were Asian, ten were of “mixed-race” and 30 did not declare their ethnic backgrounds. The numbers also demonstrate that British universities hire black staff in the lower levels as janitors, receptionists or doorkeepers than as professors or administrators (Adams, 2017).


Women and minority groups have been experiencing workplace discrimination for decades, and the measures that most organisations and governments have put in place have been ineffective in addressing the root causes of racial discrimination at the workplace or in public spaces. There are enough laws to stop discrimination, but society has to accept that these social constructs that enable or constrain individuals based on their skin colour, gender, and sexual orientation, religious and political beliefs are morally wrong then racial discrimination will be a sticking point for years to come.  Researchers should also conduct more studies in subtle forms of discrimination in the workplace through constant engagement with employees from affected social groups. The biggest obstacle to tackling workplace discrimination is the lack of clear frameworks that guide the implementation of any proposed solutions.


Adams, R. (2017). British universities employ no black academics in top roles, figures show. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jan/19/british-universities-employ-no-black-academics-in-top-roles-figures-show [Accessed 8 Nov. 2019].

Giddens, A., Duneier, M., Appelbaum, R. and Carr, D. (2006). Essentials of sociology. New York: Norton.

GOV.UK. (2015). Equality Act 2010. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/equality-act-2010-guidance [Accessed 8 Nov. 2019].

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Royal Historical Society. (2018). Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change. [online] Available at: https://5hm1h4aktue2uejbs1hsqt31-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/RHS_race_report_EMBARGO_0001_18Oct.pdf [Accessed 8 Nov. 2019].

Schuck, K. and Liddle, B.J. (2004). The Female Manager's Experience: A Concept Map and Assessment Tool. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 56(2), p.75.

Tomlinson, J., Muzio, D., Sommerlad, H., Webley, L. and Duff, L. (2013). Structure, agency and career strategies of white women and black and minority ethnic individuals in the legal profession. Human Relations, 66(2), pp.245-269.

United States Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. (2019). Race/Colour Discrimination. [online] Available at: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/race_color.cfm [Accessed 8 Nov. 2019].

Van Laer, K. and Janssens, M. (2011). Ethnic minority professionals’ experiences with subtle discrimination in the workplace. Human Relations, 64(9), pp.1203-1227



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