Melissa J. Williams is associate professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. She investigates what happens when social identities collide with workplace hierarchies, and the consequences of putting people in positions of power and leadership. Here she looks at something less documented: the extent to which our appearance is stereotypically Black or white. And what that means for our prospects. 

Rosa Parks made history on December 1, 1955, when she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger. Her simple gesture of defiance ignited a city-wide bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and has gone down in the annals as a pivotal moment for the social justice movement in the United States. However, Parks was not the only African American to make a stand against racial segregation. Nor was she the first. In March of the same year in the same city, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery bus. So why isn’t she a household name? In part, Colvin’s age was a factor. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other Black civil rights groups got behind Parks, reasoning that an older woman would be better equipped to withstand the controversy. But as Colvin herself stated, there were other factors at play. There was something about Parks’ appearance that gave her more leverage, reasons Colvin explained in Philip Hoose’s award-winning book on the civil rights movement. She had the “right hair and the right look.” Not only that, but her appearance “was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit that profile.” 

Success isn’t black or white. It’s shades of…white. 

Colorism has long been documented in the U.S. and elsewhere. Discrimination against human beings on the basis of their facial features, hair, and skin color transcends race—it is prevalent even within groups that share the same ethnic identity, where lighter skin tones are perceived to be more valuable than dark. Research over the years has shed light on the nefarious effects of colorism or shadeism in terms of equity and access to opportunity. But a new landmark study by Associate Professor of Organization & Management Melissa Williams, and Goizueta colleagues, PhD student Tosen Nwadei and Roberto C. Goizueta Chair of Organization & Management Anand Swaminathan, looks at just how Black or white someone appears—and how this shapes the way others see their potential; as well as the kinds of professional outcomes they can expect.  

Melissa Williams
Associate Professor of Organization & Management Melissa Williams

What Williams and her co-authors, who also include James B. Wade from George Washington University and C. Keith Harrison and Scott Bukstein of University of Central Florida, find in their studies, is that Black professionals are less likely to be promoted to leadership roles. What’s more, for Black professionals whose physical appearance is more Black-stereotypical, their chances drop from 12 percent to a mere seven percent. For white professionals, on the other hand, having a more white-stereotypical appearance is an advantage for leadership – looking more stereotypical as a white person increased their chances of holding a leadership role from 32 percent to 43 percent. 

Williams and colleagues ran both an archival study and a lab experiment with volunteers to discover the extent to which degrees of ethnicity in appearance influence perceptions of a person’s potential for leadership and actually predict their likelihood of success in an industry. 

While the science unequivocally shows that white people enjoy advantages over Black people in opportunity and outcome across the board, Williams et al. were also interested in exploring what she calls the “continuum of race:” the more nuanced racial characteristics and differences that shape how the world sees us.  

There’s an assumption that everyone within the same ethnic group—Black or white—will experience the same degree of bias and prejudice, or acceptance and success. And we wanted to push back on that idea to really explore how degrees of whiteness or Blackness play out in people’s minds and shape how they read you physically. 

Associate Professor of Organization & Management Melissa Williams

Previous research shows the link between persisting in STEM-based majors in college and how much students are perceived to look “like their race,” she says. Those who are perceived to look less typically Black tend to make more friends outside their ethnic group—a boundary-crossing behavior that can help drive careers.  

To test these ideas, Williams and co-authors ran two studies. First, they accessed publicly available data including photographs, professional background, and positions from one large industry within the U.S.: American college football. 

College football is really rich in data. You can access job titles, photos, leadership, and non-leadership roles; and you can separate individuals out into head coaches and position coaches who have overseeing roles but who are not leaders per se.  

Separately, Williams et al. recruited a group of volunteers to look at the images of the football coaches: a mix of Black and white head and position coaches. These volunteers were asked to rate how typical they perceived each individual’s appearance to be of European or white Americans, or of Black Americans, ascribing each person a score out of five based on features such as their skin color, hair, eyes, nose, cheeks, and lips. These scores were then regressed—or cross-referenced—with the position held by the individuals in the photos to determine the relationship between their racial stereotypicality and their leadership role.  

Crunching the numbers, Williams found a direct correlation between the degree of perceived whiteness or Blackness of the coaches and how likely they actually were to be successful leaders.  

“We do find a kind of consensus in people’s view of what it means to be Black or white straight off,” says Williams. “So we do all seem to agree on the physical attributes of race. But it gets really interesting when you regress the scores that these photos get and compare them with the actual jobs these guys hold.”

What we see is that, controlling for their age, attractiveness, and professional experience, the white guys who look less stereotypically white are 32 percent likely to occupy leadership roles. This rises to 43 percent with the men who look more like a stereotypical white guy. 

For Black professionals, the inverse is true, she notes. The more typically Black an individual looks, the less probability there is that he occupies a leadership job. Specifically, that figure drops from 12 to seven percent. So benchmark leadership probability is not only already lower for Black individuals, but drops even further when people are deemed to look “more typically Black,” says Williams.  

A follow-up experiment invited volunteer football fans to compare how they saw the potential future success of two same-race college football players—one more stereotypical in appearance than the other. The results confirm what Williams et al. suspect: 70 percent of the time, participants chose the more-typical white individual over the less-typical white individual as having greater leadership potential. In other words, the more white a white person looks, the more they are seen as leadership material.  

These findings should translate into an imperative, says Williams; and that is to think more broadly about race and how it impacts life outcomes. Because race is not a uniform experience, she says.  

“Organizations might want to look beyond just ticking the box when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and give deeper thought to who they want to recruit, support and push forward in representation. For white people, paying attention to whiteness—the types of white people who enjoy advantages in leadership—can be useful in reframing certain questions. A good place to start might be for leaders to ask: do I want to support people who look like me? Because the face you choose can ultimately help disrupt, or reinforce, the stereotype.” 

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