Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
About us FEB
Header image Faculty of Economics and Business Blog

The danger of subtle forms of discrimination

Date:01 July 2020
Author:Professor Floor Rink
Professor Floor Rink
Professor Floor Rink

Last week, the media was full of national and international demonstrations against discrimination and social inequality. And this while many countries are still in lockdown, or just slowly coming out of a lockdown, due to the new coronavirus. For months, we have given our public health the highest priority - politicians, social communities, employer and employees - unitedly to fight the virus. 

Until the day George Floyd, a dark-skinned American man, was caught by the police after using counterfeit money to buy a pack of cigarettes. The media reports that George Floyd had a turbulent life as a young adult, which resulted in 5 years in prison after an armed robbery. However, after serving this sentence, he improved his life. Not only in words, but also in real deeds. Ten years later he had become a father who took good care of his children and worked as a security officer and restaurant worker. The day before his death, he was fired from this restaurant because of the Corona crisis, but his boss was very pleased with him. 

George Floyd's death tempts us to put aside the strict corona measures. To go to the streets and fight against injustice, regardless of the health risks it involves, for ourselves and everyone around us. Racism, expressed through this overt form of police brutality, stirs up intense emotions in us. It provokes anger. And this anger exceeds our fear of COVID-19.

Scientists have been concerned with various forms and manifestations of social inequality for more than 80 years. George Floyd's death is clearly racist in nature and easily recognized as a violent form of discrimination. Research shows that almost every person disapproves of such behavior and, as now also appears, gets angry when confronted with this behavior. People like to believe that everyone in their society is treated with respect and equal opportunities. Fortunately, research shows that, in a general sense, overt and violent forms of discrimination have declined over the past 50 years. This decrease varies in speed per country and is (too) slow, but there is nevertheless a downward trend.

The corona crisis, however, painfully reveals that this result is fragile and must be measured against an increase in non-verbal, indirect forms of discrimination in our society.This indirect form of discrimination is subtle in nature and therefore difficult to recognize, punish and change. Think of the many social barriers that minorities experience in getting adequate health care, in accessing education, in expressing their orientation or, as I myself find in my research, in making a career [1].

I would like to point out the difference between clearer and more subtle forms of discrimination in this blog because Albert Einstein was right. He once stated that we cannot solve our problems in the same way that we created them. Police brutality against minorities does not therefore resolve itself with overt violence against the established order. Not even simply by allowing only milder forms of arrest. Research into social inequalities shows that we need to take a broader perspective and reformulate our goal of solving it. For example, studies by Operario & Fiske (2001) show that the most extreme forms of discrimination are expressed by people who have lived for years in an environment where implicit, subtle forms of discrimination are accepted and internalized as a standard [2].

So the real danger lies in accepting and nurturing underlying, subtle stereotypes about minorities in a society. When people are not corrected in these wrong images, it is no longer possible to properly estimate that these images promote injustice and inequality and it is difficult to prevent action during an escalation.

That is why research into a systematic change in implicit stereotype images of minority groups is of great importance, even now. Especially now. And certainly within organizations. Because our own studies show that diversity in the workplace is still one of the most important sources of social integration [3]. For this reason, let's hope that we can see each other again live, at an appropriate distance, every now and then.


[1] Rink, F.Stoker, J.I.Ryan, M.K., Steffens, N.K. & Nederveen Pieterse, A., (2019). Gender Differences in How Leaders Determine Succession Potential: The Role of Interpersonal Fit With Followers. Frontiers in Psychology. 10, 14 p., 752.

[2] Operario, D.,  & Fiske, S.T. (2001). Etnic identity moderates perceptions of prejudice. Perceptions of group based versus personal discrimination and blatant versus subtle bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 550  561.

[3] Wong, C.Y., Kirby, T.A., Ryan, M.K., & Rink, F. (2020). Intersectional Differences in Reactions to Women's Initiatives. Unpublished manuscript, Human Resource and Organizational Behavior, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands.

For the Dutch text of this blog article, please visit:



About the author

Professor Floor Rink
Professor Floor Rink
professor of Organizational Behavior and Identity Management