tampabay.com

Behind the black mask

Do African-Americans really need to mask their "blackness" to succeed in the workplace?

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published July 16, 2006


I have gone from ignorance to indignation, disbelief to disappointment and annoyance to anger.

In the last two months, it's been suggested to me on several occasions that African-Americans succeed in the workplace by masking their "blackness," toning down their cultural uniqueness and cloaking the customary norms they exhibit when among their "peeps."

The latest assertion comes from an Associated Press story about the challenges African-American men face in society.

In the article, one source said you must smile a lot around white co-workers to put them at ease. Another said the best way to get what you want in a white-dominated workplace is by not talking. A third likens the situation to chess, where blacks must always wait for whites to make the first move before reacting.

What?

Friends and relatives are shocked when I tell them that I use none of those approaches in the newsroom. Wearing the mask, in my opinion, means conducting yourself one way with white co-workers because of discomfort or a fear of heightening stereotypes, and being entirely different with people of your own race.

When I say, emphatically, that I do not wear the mask, they look back in disbelief and say, "Yes you do. Every black person does."

It makes my head want to explode.

Let me be clear: I have never, as the AP story suggested, "consciously worked to offset stereotypes that I am dangerous, aggressive, angry." I know plenty of other black men who would say the same thing.

The AP story by Erin Texeira states the existence of this phenomenon as fact. At no point does the story even hint that some blacks may be comfortable enough in their own skin to mix and mingle in the workplace without pretense.

Some smile a lot, dress conservatively and speak with deference: "Yes, sir," or "No, ma'am." They are mindful of their bodies, careful not to dart into closing elevators or stand too close in grocery stores.

Sure, everyone has ways of coping with other people's perceptions: Who acts the same at work as they do with their kids, or their high school friends?

And for black men, there's more at stake. If they don't carefully calculate how to handle everyday situations in ways that usually go unnoticed, they can end up out of a job, in jail or dead.

I'm not trying to single out Texeira. Not only did she quote a number of everyday African-American men, she also spoke to a consultant, a Duke University social psychologist and a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

"Black mothers and fathers socialize their sons to not make waves, to not come up against the authorities, to speak even more politely not only when there are whites present but particularly if there are whites who have power," said Melissa Harris Lacewell, the Chicago professor.

My parents never allowed those notions in our house. Never was I taught to mollify my behavior around whites. I was taught, more through example than lecture, to respect all my elders, regardless of color. Our charge was to acknowledge racism's existence, but not acquiesce to it.

Consequently, I have never been afraid to talk about the black experience, express cultural preferences or debate white colleagues about race-related topics such as affirmative action. Seldom, if ever, have I avoided a topic because I worry about how my thoughts would be interpreted as a black man.

I've always seen broaching topics as opportunities to engage, not encounters to avoid.

When I encounter conflicts or disappointment, I handle them directly. I've told supervisors I was dismayed when passed over for a promotion, because to not be would suggest a lack of ambition. You don't have to be defiant or demeaning, just determined and unwavering.

Every day I look to maintain a degree of decorum, but that's more about common-sense values than quelling racial stereotypes. I take a professional approach, but that doesn't mean I can't be a black professional.

I would never greet Mayor Pam Iorio with, "What up, dog?" and give her some dap pound my fist against her fist. But I wouldn't greet Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, a black woman, in that manner either.

Sometimes, the reasons for a cultural chasm are deeper than language and clothes, but that doesn't mean you can't reach a reasonable middle ground by opening up.

Upbringing and personality influence how everyone interacts. It's unrealistic to expect everyone to be open and unfettered, but the systematic endorsement of the mask is not only disingenuous, it's regressive. The concept of hiding who you are assumes a negative that doesn't always exist and undermines the strides we've made as a society.

Yes, some white people still allow such stereotypes to guide their thinking, but to assume every black has overcome those pitfalls by downplaying who they really are demeans the accomplishments of both black men and women.

As we continue to explore the experiences of African-Americans, it's important to remember there is not, as longtime Tampa attorney Delano Stewart says, a universal Negro. The range of experiences varies, and you can't assume every black person handles every situation in the same manner.

Conversely, I can't assume every black has a level of comfort that puts them at ease in a workplace dominated by whites. I understand why outside the workplace everyone likes to gather with people of like mind and body. That's fine, as long as those gatherings are not your exclusive existence.

If we can find a way to share our true selves, it will heighten awareness and, if nothing else, improve the environment of the workplace for the next black person and improve society as a whole.

Ultimately, blacks have to craft their own definition of success and how they will go about achieving it. My only hope is that they can find a way to be themselves and not someone they think they have to be.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Times' Tampa & State section. He can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com.