Race and Emotional Labor In the Workplace: A Prelude for Violence?

The pattern is fairly clear for those who are paying attention. The recent rash of mass killings in the past 15 years seem to be predominately committed by young, white, middle-class males living in mental isolation and painted as “outcasts,” many having a history of early childhood trauma. Routinely, these young men felt unloved, underappreciated and invisible; some were bullied, tormented and chastised for being “different.” There’s another similar pattern of violence emerging in black middle-class males where isolation, doubt, and despair exist exerting more emotional labor to cope with constant microaggressions and other power dynamics working to undermine their character and dignity.

African Americans are routinely branded as incompetent, insubordinate, and incapable of measuring up to an unattainable white standard. Many professional black men find themselves having to defend their credentials and right to exist in the workplace as an equal on a daily basis. In a forthcoming publication on workplace mistreatment among physician assistants (health care providers) by Smith and Jacobson, black PAs were found to experience discrimination at a rate of forty times that of their white counterparts. In other words, for every one white person that felt discriminated against in the workplace, there are forty blacks that feel similarly. Taking this idea a step further, where three white providers report feeling undervalued and mistreated, there are 120 black Physicians’ Assistants (PAs) that report similar experiences. The shear magnitude of mistreatment in this context underscores the daily hassles that black Americans face. These experiences do not dissipate; they accumulate within the souls of black folks, always teetering on that one tipping point. Everyone internalizes his or her experiences differently. Some suffer in silence, only to have it play out in the form of physiological disease and early death. Some take this pain and frustration out on themselves and those closest to them, causing strife in their home life. And others still, without social support of any kind, eventually turn to random acts of violence, mayhem, and even murder.

The nation experienced another tragedy as innocent victims fell at the hands of a seemingly deranged man with no known cause. Aaron Alexis, a civilian contractor for the Navy, reported similar accounts to Christopher Dorner with feelings of shame and disrespect at the hands of Whites. Beneath the carnage of unimaginable hurt and suffering of the families who lost loved ones at the hands of Alexis, of those physically and emotionally wounded by the actions of Dorner, and of those forever scared by the terror of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo lies an early desire for humans to connect, to be loved, and to feel as though we matter in life. These distraught men and many others like them, driven to kill innocent people in a fit of rage or despair, just as Klebold and Harris did at Columbine High School in 1999, are a reflection of our deep and unresolved inequalities as a society. As we overly pathologize the suspects, we fail to go deeper into the structural and unequal institutional arrangements in society that make these men feel as though they have been singled out for exclusion in the first place. Though the actions and reactions of these young men are deplorable and even considered evil by many, it does not discount the origins of their despair—our unequal society.

American racism imposes constraints on the material conditions of life by limiting access to society’s valued resources, which are the fundamental building blocks of good mental health and social well-being. When opportunities to fully participate in society as co-equals are denied or restricted because of arbitrary and superficial differences in melanin, some black Americans, understandably, crack under the constant pressure of having to measure up to white societal standards and norms of a community where the rhetoric of colorblindness prevail. Though most do not see murder as the outlet, black men in America from all socio-economic strata can relate to Christopher Dorner and Aaron Alexis in at least one important way, their persistent frustration working in a predominately white and hostile work environment where people of color are made to feel devalued in a supposedly equal society.

Most Americans refuse to talk about race, believing it does not exist the workplace. Yet, corporate America is teeming with unexamined white racial attitudes that Blacks must reconcile in some particular way. Because black men have largely been shut out, left out, locked up and left behind, there is very little else to turn to but one’s pride. We humans care a great deal of what others think and feel about us. The threat of being shamed and humiliated are often the trigger for violence, particularly in African Americans who are more vulnerable to these shame-producing and debilitating effects.

The degree of social isolation and exclusion that Dorner and Alexis both professed is a reality for many black people, especially black professionals, who know all too well about the difficult and isolated experiences they encounter in white spaces. Ignoring the perceived experiences and lived realities of subaltern peoples and seeing them as less competent than their white counterparts has been shown to result in a higher probability of mental health disorders among Blacks. So maybe it was mental illness and reports of schizophrenia that drove Alexis to commit these unspeakable acts. And maybe it was also the pressure of being black and male in a society of white domination and group entitlement that at least contributed to his collapse. These very public displays of mental corrosion by black men are a growing cancer in our society, a scourge that, in part, stems from deep systemic inequalities. And just maybe, we are asking the wrong questions when it comes to efforts of stopping these horrific and tragic events.

Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.


  1. cordoba blue

    @ Darron: I never noticed this site sympathizing with white people who committed acts of terrorism before. Now they are “living in mental isolation and painted as “outcasts,” many having a history of early childhood trauma.” And this was all a prelude to absolving a black man who happened to commit a terrorist act.
    Now suddenly terrorists, because a black man is included in this group, are absolved of any wrong-doing. Now it’s society’s fault and entirely so. Now, because an African American decided to commit a heinous act, there are “other higher” reasons people commit acts of terror and not just because they are suffering from some mental disorder. It’s not because this person hates people or is a sociopath, it’s because of white supremacy that he committed these acts?
    This is a complicated trick indeed. African Americans or Asians or people from India or Italians or any other racial or ethnic group all have individuals who have made Wrong Choices. This is NOT a reflection of the society at large.
    If we constantly absolve individuals of any wrong doing or lack of responsibility and assign blame to society at large, then Darren, nobody is responsible for any of their behavior. It is this very thought process that cripples children when growing up. It was not your dog’s fault that your homework wasn’t finished. No, the dog did not pee on your homework. You decided to play outside with your friends instead of doing it. This ownership for one’s actions builds strength, not weakness and finger-pointing.
    I have continually seen this on this website regarding African Americans specifically. They don’t do well in school because of white teacher bias. They get girlfriends pregnant and then leave because the white man won’t give him a job to support his family. And now it’s: He commits crime because he’s frustrated at the white man’s treatment of him and he suddenly “bursts” with this stress and decides to take out innocent people. No. Not buying it. And I can’t imagine anyone with a modicum of intellect buying it either.
    We all have choices. And this country, with all its racism and defects, still leaves plenty of room for black people to achieve comfortable middle class life-styles. If you want to succeed, it must begin in your family and your heart. Doesn’t have anything to do with “society”. Libraries and reading material are available everywhere. Community colleges are extremely inexpensive and the teachers are more than willing to help anyone attain a GED if they had any problems getting a high school diploma in high school. Not to mention a liberal Food Stamp and Welfare program for anyone who needs it.
    People from Africa immigrate to America to find a better life for themselves, not the reverse, as you no doubt know. Who migrates to Africa? Nobody. But everybody, from Mexico to India to Kenya, wants to live in America.
    If you want to succeed, it’s all there for you. But if you consistently tell yourself, that you can do no wrong because you are magically absolved of any wrong-doing because of society, then you really are eternally doomed. There is no hope for you.

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