The historical origins of ethnic (white) privilege in US organizations

Stella M. Nkomo (Department of Human Resource Management, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa)
Akram Al Ariss (Toulouse Business School, Université de Toulouse, Toulouse, France)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Publication date: 6 May 2014



The purpose of this paper is to trace the genealogy of ethnic (white) privilege in US organizations and its continuing significance in organizations today.


The paper relies upon the historical literature on work, culture, and society found primarily in the fields of labor history and sociology. It also references contemporary organization studies and sociological literature to illustrate the continuing significance of ethnic (white) privilege in the workplace.


There is an inexorable link between European global expansion and colonization, industrialization, and the racialization/ethnicization of nineteenth and twentieth century US organizations. Furthermore, the particular manifestations of ethnic (white) privilege today must be understood within its historical development and the new meanings whiteness has acquired within the workplace if scholars and practitioners are to be successful in creating inclusive workplaces.

Research limitations/implications

The focus in this paper is on the USA and ethnic (white) privilege to the exclusion of other forms of difference and contexts. Suggestions for future research are provided along with managerial implications.


This paper provides historical insight into the formation of white privilege in organizations and constitutes a prelude to fully understanding its contemporary manifestations in the workplace. These insights suggest ways to disrupt inequality and create inclusive organizations that do not privilege one ethnic or racial group over another.



Dr Dianna Stone served as the Action Editor for this paper.


M. Nkomo, S. and Al Ariss, A. (2014), "The historical origins of ethnic (white) privilege in US organizations", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 29 No. 4, pp. 389-404.

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