What do cross-cultural management scholars think about race?

The opening couple of sentences of the blurb to a very (in)famous book of the 1970s, Hans Eysenck’s Race, Intelligence and Education reads ‘Are negroes as a race intellectually different from whites? A recent theory suggests that they are and that the difference is due not to differences in opportunity but to race itself.’ I remember reading this book with some trepidation (if not distaste) while an undergraduate. The thrust of his argument concerning African populations in America was that the less intelligent of West Africans were the ones caught as slaves and shipped to America, ‘..then the gene pool of the slaves brought to America would have been depleted of many high-IQ genes’ (p.46). Conversely, ’Other groups, like the Irish, probably showed the opposite tendency; it was the more intelligent members of these groups who emigrated to the USA, leaving their less intelligent brethren behind.’ (P.47). IQ testing and the debate between nurture and nature was a big issue in the 1970 with one of the main proponent of the hereditary school, Sir Cyril Burt, falsifying his data on monozygotic twins reared apart. It also appears that the two research assistants who were purported to collect the data didn’t actually exist. Although some scholars still hang on to this theory, it did fall into disrepute.

The problem with race

There is a problem with race in cross-cultural management studies in that as a subject it is largely ignored, or assumed. There is a lack of research in this area, and it doesn’t fit easily into existing (and perhaps safe) research agendas. It vaguely exists in the area of ‘diversity’ but most scholars are reluctant to tackle it head on. It doesn’t easily fit with concepts of ‘culture’, and this may be that it is altogether more political, and best to be avoided. Yet race is one of the most pertinent factors in the modern, globalised world. It is anchored in a very dark heritage. The debates of the 1970s are still implicit if not overt as they were then. They still raise their heads in issues such as migration. And they are power laden. We can’t understand them if we don’t have a concept of power dynamics in our cross-cultural scholarship.

Gang of Captives

The heritage of the slave trade

The heritage of the slave trade, and colonisation of the global South has left an indelible if not always an overt mark on the psyche of the West and the non-West and on modern civilisation as a whole.

The story of the slave trade is well know and gruesome. Kehinde Andrews is associate professor of sociology at Birmingham City University, UK, and a prominent researcher on race and racism. His message is very clear: the West was built on racism

For the cross-cultural management scholar this makes it difficult to look dispassionately at our subject matter without serious introspection and critical thought towards race and power. Yet theorising about race and racism is often lacking in the cross-cultural management literature. This is a subject that Jasmin Mahadevan approaches head on.

The cultural interpretation of race

In her excellent book A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Cross-Cultural Management (Sage) she says that

‘..people tend to speak of “race” in North American contexts, of “ethnicity” in Western Europe, and of “migration background” in countries such as Germany wherein the category “race” is historically laden and national identification is rooted in presumed ethnic homogeneity… this reminds us that the labels wherein we frame difference are linked to our own cultural glasses, even on a scholarly level’

She reminds us that in international management we implicitly reference the ‘white, heterosexual, western, middle/upper class, able man’.

I previously wrote about this in an earlier post about Whiteness Studies where I quoted Monica McDermott and Frank L Samson in saying ’Much of the research on white racial identity during the past ten years has focused on how whiteness, and the privileges associated with whiteness, remain invisible to many whites.’ As Mahadevan points out, if someone is labelled ‘the first African-American president’ (viz. Obama) then we can assume from this that the norm is indeed a ‘white’ American president.

Campaign poster from 1866 smearing the eventual winner John W Geary

In a scathing article in The Atlantic (theatlantic.com) entitled ‘The First White President’ Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.

To note the difference in our categorisation of race and its implications, Coates quotes the President as having said that his daughter is a ‘piece of ass’. Coates goes on to say that ’The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape’. He then quotes the historian Nell Irvin Painter in her book The History of White People) as saying ‘Race is an idea, not a fact.

Just as I have previously argued that ‘Africa’ is a Western invention (and much in the same context), ‘race’ can also be seen as mainly a Western invention – as a concept and a category. It is power-laden, in the same way as the phrase ‘When Africa was discovered’ or for that matter ‘When America was discovered’. Yet does this mean we, as cross-cultural scholars, should ignore ‘race’, put it to one side and not examine it?

I think Mahadevan has the answer to this. She talks about ‘reading between the lines’, or as Jacques Derrida termed it ’deconstruction’.

This involves examining the binaries, or dichotomies, we use in conceptualizing race (white/black), the power relations from which this is drawn and its power implication, the implied superiority/inferiority as they are in cross-cultural management theory that involves difference (individualism/collectivism, low-high power distance).

How should we study race?

In conclusion, race is not the same as culture, but it is culturally determined with power dynamics in play. Yet it is often neglected in our research agendas, perhaps as it is not seen as relevant, or maybe seen as too political. In some ways this is surprising as we are familiar with the issues of racial stereotyping and with racial prejudice in the workplace and elsewhere. We are beginning to take a critical note of the issues of doing business with others (or ‘othering’ as it is known in the critical literature) where stereotyping and more subtle factors come into play. Some colleagues are beginning to tackle the issues of management in international development which is still rife with power dynamics, patronising attitudes and inappropriate actions and policies, which appear to stem from the colonial heritage of world powers.

We need a clearer definition and description of race as an historical and therefore a cultural construct: there is nothing black and white about race other than the categories that others have imposed.


Apartheid-era sign in South Africa

We need a clearer understanding of the power dynamics at play and the intrinsic political nature of our subject area: we are dealing with relationships between people, and therefore it goes with the territory.

We need to be more strongly introspective about our own work and the concepts and categories we use, We need to be clearer about the overall context within which we work and how it affects who we are, what we think and what we do. By context I mean the global, historical, cultural, and politically relational circumstances through which we live and work.

The idea of race is part of our culture. It needs to be interrogated and understood by scholars who are equipped to study culture and cross-cultural interaction in an international and global world of work.

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