Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Modifying Conduct to Counter Stereotypes

Click on the title to this post to connect to a lengthy article by Vanessa E. Jones, in today’s Boston Globe about the experiences of black men in corporate workplaces. Coming shortly after my post about women being heard differently, I thought this was a poignant story.

Like many other black men, [Michael] James says unspoken rules limit how they interact in predominantly white workplaces. In some cases, they must dress more formally than their co-workers, speak softly, or generally comport themselves in unaggressive ways to counteract stereotypes that paint black men as unintelligent, violent, and dangerous. These biases are based on long-held beliefs about black masculinity and sexuality that grew out of this country's history of slavery and segregation. (Snip)

[Tessil}Collins runs his own webcasting and creative services business, Spectrum Broadcasting Co. Being an entrepreneur with a second job gives Collins the luxury to speak bluntly.

"Black people with options are always going to give people cause for pause," Collins says. "They're not intimidated by whiteness. They can say things and not feel like it's going to cost them monetarily."

Those who are dependent on corporations for job security learn to deal with this issue by approaching it with a different mindset.

"You can't simply see it as somehow an erosion of who you are," says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University and author of last year's nonfiction work about black masculinity and sexuality, "New Black Man," "that you're inauthentic because you're 'acting white.' It's simply a strategy that needs to be employed in order for you to be successful in your career and in your life." (Snip)

James makes accommodations because of his 6-foot-2 height, which, he says, has made people view him as "threatening and menacing even though I'm the most peaceful person out there." He shies away from making declarative statements at work, to prevent himself from appearing too aggressive. "I say, 'What are your thoughts about it?' rather than demanding they do certain things," James says. "I put it out there in a fashion that they feel they have a choice."

The adjustments black men make in how they handle themselves often depends on the sex and class of the people with whom they work. When Bishop later held a management job at Gillette's factory in Andover with a predominantly white group of male blue-collar workers, he says he felt a lot more comfortable.

But it's in casual situations, when guards are let down, that misunderstandings can take place. (Snip) "This is how it happens," says Collins, before posing the question in his regular voice. "You go, 'Hi . . I was looking for my package. Can you help me find it?' She sees, 'Where's my [expletive] package!?!' . . . It doesn't matter if you're speaking in the softest of tones. They see this angry black man looking for his package, and it's scary." (Snip)

James made a conscious effort to adapt to the corporate world after a series of bad experiences. Finding mentors to guide him through the process helped, he says. His boss at Boston Architectural College is Theodore Landsmark, a prominent figure in the 1970s, when tensions arose over busing in Boston, who shares the wisdom he's gathered over the years with James. James also gets advice from Benaree Wiley, the former president and CEO of The Partnership Inc., which develops leaders of color, and the Rev. William E. Dickerson II, James's pastor at the Greater Love Tabernacle Church in Dorchester.
I added links to Prof. Neal's blog and book.

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