Gray Areas

How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It


NEXT BIG IDEA CLUB's November 2023 Must Read Books  • LIBRARY JOURNAL EDITOR PICK • "This vital and accessible study is a must-read for anyone concerned with workplace equality."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

A leading sociologist reveals why racial inequality persists in the workplace despite today’s multi-billion-dollar diversity industry—and provides actionable solutions for creating a truly equitable, multiracial future.

Labor and race have shared a complex, interconnected history in America. For decades, key aspects of work—from getting a job to workplace norms to advancement and mobility—ignored and failed Black people. While explicit discrimination no longer occurs, and organizations make internal and public pledges to honor and achieve “diversity,” inequities persist through what Adia Harvey Wingfield calls the “gray areas:” the relationships, networks, and cultural dynamics integral to companies that are now more important than ever. The reality is that Black employees are less likely to be hired, stall out at middle levels, and rarely progress to senior leadership positions.

Wingfield has spent a decade examining inequality in the workplace, interviewing over two hundred Black subjects across professions about their work lives. In Gray Areas, she introduces seven of them: Alex, a worker in the gig economy Max, an emergency medicine doctor; Constance, a chemical engineer; Brian, a filmmaker; Amalia, a journalist; Darren, a corporate vice president; and Kevin, who works for a nonprofit.

In this accessible and important antiracist work, Wingfield chronicles their experiences and blends them with history and surprising data that starkly show how old models of work are outdated and detrimental. She demonstrates the scope and breadth of gray areas and offers key insights and suggestions for how they can be fixed, including shifting hiring practices to include Black workers; rethinking organizational cultures to centralize Black employees’ experience; and establishing pathways that move capable Black candidates into leadership roles. These reforms would create workplaces that reflect America’s increasingly diverse population—professionals whose needs organizations today are ill-prepared to meet.

It’s time to prepare for a truly equitable, multiracial future and move our culture forward. To do so, we must address the gray areas in our workspaces today. This definitive work shows us how.

Gray Areas includes 15 black-and-white images and a photo insert.

About the author(s)

Adia Harvey Wingfield is a leading sociologist and a celebrated author who researches racial and gender inequality in professional occupations. Dr. Wingfield is the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Arts & Sciences and Vice Dean for Faculty Development and Diversity at Washington University in St. Louis. She served as President of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) and the Southern Sociological Society (SSS). her latest book, Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy, won the 2019 C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and she writes regularly for mainstream outlets, including Slate, The Atlantic, and Vox. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.


This vital work is important for anyone committed to dismantling racism. Farseeing and eye-opening, Gray Areas exposes – through years of research and credible data – the insidious mechanisms by which our workplaces sustain racism and provides a trailblazing antiracist framework for us all.”IBRAM X. KENDI, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Be an Antiracist

“An informed, incisive consideration of how racial biases at work could be overcome.”
Kirkus Reviews

"Sociologist Wingfield (Flatlining) delivers an authoritative study of racial inequality in the workplace. Drawing from more than a decade’s worth of interviews with seven Black workers in various fields—including academia, medicine, and film—Wingfield demonstrates how the customs and practices entrenched in corporate culture perpetuate institutional racism. . . . This vital and accessible study is a must-read for HR departments and managers, and will interest anyone concerned with workplace equality."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Whether you are a leader, manager, or individual contributor, this book will help you see biases that are often hard to detect, and support you with ideas and practices to address them.”TARA MOHR, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Playing Big.

Gray Areas is a must read as we navigate the future of work. Wingfield uses masterful research-based storytelling to illustrate how the gray areas of the modern work world facilitate ongoing racial inequality. Gray Areas provides a thoughtful road map to getting work to work for all.” — EVE RODSKY, New York Times bestselling author of Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live)

A groundbreaking book that is both bold in its premise and precise in its exploration of systemic racism in the workplace. Given the current concerted and well-funded efforts to undermine and de-stabilize diversity and equity programs first in education, and next within corporations, this could not be a more urgent and necessary blueprint for progress.”
BAKARI SELLERS, New York Times bestselling author of My Vanishing Country: A Memoir

“Gray Areas solidifies Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading experts on race, class, and gender inequality in the workplace. [It] takes readers behind the flashy corporate promises to diversify by illuminating the hidden spaces where workplace disparities lurk. Outright discrimination is illegal, yet racial and gender distinctions still shape how workplaces decide who should manage and who should be managed, who climbs the hierarchy, and who gets climbed over. Everyone interested in creating an honest reckoning with workplace inequality should read this book.”
VICTOR RAY, F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology and African American Studies, The University of Iowa, and Nonresident Fellow in Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution

"Corporate leaders see their firms as meritocratic, and they may be on paper. But workplace cultures, social isolation, and lack of mentoring work in ways, subtle and not, to keep Black Americans out of the running for the best jobs. At once deeply personal and sharply analytic, this riveting book documents how employers have failed Black Americans. It is ultimately an optimistic call to action -- for every wrong she identifies, Wingfield details how we can right it. Bravo!"Frank Dobbin, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences and Chair of the Department of Sociology at Harvard University and author of Getting to Diversity

“Debates concerning race and opportunity in the post civil rights era have became predictable and stale, awash in diversity platitudes on the one hand, and cliches of rugged meritocratic colorblindness on the other. Gray Areas provides a fresh, new way forward. Dr. Wingfield shows us the importance of the “gray areas,” and how these social, relational, and cultural norms of work are the key to addressing racial inequality in the work place. After reading this book, you will understand why the road map to a more perfect union goes through the grey areas.” — Dr. Lerone A. Martin, Centennial Professor and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. 

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