Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Act like a black man; think like a white man

From the introduction to a hot New York Times bestseller about relations between black men and white men in the workplace:

...I discovered this when my current career transitioned to radio with The Brad Jurgensen Show. Back when my show was based in Los Angeles, I created a segment called "Ask Brad," during which black guys would call in ask me, a white guy, about anything they wanted to know about race relations. At the very least, I thought "Ask Brad" would lead to some good comedy, and at first, that's pretty much what it was all about for me--getting to the jokes. but it didn't take me long to realize that what my listeners, mostly black men, were going through wasn't really a laughing matter. They had dozens of categories of needs and concerns in their lives that they were trying to get a handle on...and heading up the list of topics was--you guessed it--white men, or rather how relationships with white men affect their work, security, ability to provide for their families and career advancement.
Black men have made clear that they want respect to be reciprocated in the same way they give it...they want the hard work and effort they put on full blast to be met with the same intensity. They expect the premium they put into work commitment to be equally adhered to, valued and respected. The problem for all too many black men who call in to my radio show, though, is that they just can't get that reciprocation from white men in the workplace, and black men end up feeling disappointed, disenfranchised and disillusioned by failed attempts at parity.
I get incredibly perplexed--perplexed because even though my callers have all presumably had some experience with white men (whether they are friends, bosses, co-workers and next-door neighbors), these black men still genuinely want to know how to get the equality they want, need and deserve. I've concluded that the truths they seek are never as obvious to them as they are to us white men. Try as they might, black men don't get us.
With this in mind, I stopped joking around and got very real with my audience. Through my answers, I started imparting wisdom about white men--wisdom gathered from working more than half a century on one concept: how to be a white man. I also spent countless hours talking to my friends, all of whom are white men. They are athletes, movie and television stars, insurance brokers and bankers, guys who drive trucks, guys who coach basketball teams, ministers and deacons, Boy Scout leaders, store managers, ex-cons, inmates, and yes, even hustlers. And one simple thing is true about each of us: we are very simple people and all basically think in a similar way.
When I filter my answers through that lens of how white men view men of color, the black men in my audience start to understand why the complexities and nuances they drag into each of their relationships with white men really serve them no justice. I teach them very quickly that expecting a white man to respond to them the way a black man would is never going to work. They then realize that a clear-eyed, knowing approach to dealing with white men on their terms, on their turf, in their way, can, in turn, get black men exactly what they want.

If you are gobsmacked by the arrogance and offensiveness of this bit of dross, you should be. It implies that all men are not created equal. Indeed, the author seems of the mind that in work relationships between black men and white men, the needs of white men are supreme. While black men may deserve respect as human beings, they should not expect to be treated this way. It is their job to bend to the requirements of white men if they hope for any sort of equality. And, of course, having to conform to someone else's standards, having interaction occur only on someone else's "terms," rather than having the power to meet with them halfway is not equality at all, is it?

Implicit in this introduction is the idea that black men, traditionally marginalized in the workplace, are to blame for that plight. If only they understood clearly how white men think, what white men want...if only black men could "get" misunderstood white men, then they could adapt. And it is important that black men do adapt, because white men, in their privilege, cannot be expected to. Black men aren't the only ones who should blanch at this thinking--what an unfavorable picture of white men this paints (rigid, incapable of compromise and change, unable to cede privilege).

Lastly, what tremendous gall it must require for someone who has traditionally held power and dominance as "the oppressor" to deign to impart "wisdom" to someone who has traditionally been among "the oppressed," assuming that the situation filtered through their eyes must be the only and supreme truth, that their view of things could not possibly be tainted by, say, race or class or any other bias.

I sense that anyone reading the excerpt above can identify the implicit racial prejudice contained within. But could you spot sexism? I ask because the writing above did not come from a new bestseller on black men and the workplace, written by a white man. The segments above where taken nearly verbatim from the introduction to Steve Harvey's Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, allegedly a guide to help black women gain commitment and intimacy from black men. I merely exchanged references to men with white men, and references to women with black men.

Like the fictional author above who assessed black men's challenges with racism in the workplace and decided the problem was clearly black men and their failure to be who the dominant culture wants them to be, Harvey has assessed the sorry state of black female-male relationships and decided that the problem is black women who need to learn to be who black men want them to be. The very notion reeks of male supremacy as the fictional introduction reeked of racial supremacy

And this is what so bothers me about the too-many books and articles and essays and sermons written by black men with the objective of "schooling" black women about what we should be doing to address our relationship problems and solve the disparity between black and white marriage rates. One has to lack serious self awareness to evaluate a relationship dilemma in which you are involved and decide that the fault lies completely on the other side. One has to be seriously privileged to write a book instructing the members of a group to which you do not belong on how best to conduct themselves.

It is curious that some of the same folks who got indignant about wealthy Bill Cosby talking down to poor blacks, don't mind at all when another black comedian talks down to black women. The recent prevalence of "sister get your act together" books and the way they have been embraced by black men and women speaks to the level of sexism and male supremacy that continues to plague the black community. I daresay few black men would cotton to a black woman writing a relationship book instructing them on how they need to change their behavior, their looks and their very being to better accommodate women, who are duty bound to just be themselves, because "A woman's going to be a woman!" Why, then, are black, male writers selling this bunk and, most importantly, why are so many black women buying it?


cultureguru said...

Hi Tami, when you said could this be about women I thought "Amen!" Definitely white women, too, have had to play at the "man's" game to get ahead. But, with trends shifting population demographics and the move away from quota based diversity to engagement and inclusion hopefully this is changing. But, as my husband says, I'll be 80 by the time the new power shift is around...what about today?!

In the meantime, however, the frustration with the 'system' may be why there is such a growth and push for entrepreneurs--people try to create their own structure rather thank taking second place in an existing one.

Ah--where is that island referred to in your Albert Einstein quote?

Anonymous said...

Tami Love your blog an I ususally agree with what you write, but I'm not sure I can cosign heer...I was actually waiting to see the point of the Brad story, because I wanted to hear what kind of advice he offered before I passed judgment. You see, I accepted the basic premise that black men and white men were different. And I think that is the point of Harvey's book, that men and women are different, for a variety of reasons. the issue is not equality; it's about acknowledging that there are differences, and that we can more effective in our dealings with one another if we respect them.

OneBrownSnowPea said...

Wow Great job at intersecting all of that. It has a condescending and superior tone. I've always had a problem with black men but I think it is all men who feel that women have to cater to them more. when it really should be about catering to each other.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Wow! I love the "switch" you did in the excerpt. It really made my mind bend a bit. Thank you for another great article.

Tami said...


I don't disagree that men and women are different. I DO disagree that the onus is on women to change in order to "catch" a man. And I have found this to be common wisdom in my community. That women must adapt because "a man is going to be a man." I think this is a dangerous message to share with our sons and daughters. Our daughters learn that love is about being something other than yourself and that men's needs and desires matter more. Harvey even rails against "independent" women. Our sons learn that they are not accountable and needn't compromise in personal relationships. Son, just "do you" and the woman will adapt.

Relationships are about compromise on BOTH sides. They are also about honesty.

Cindy said...

I guess this a comment to say I have no additional comment. You covered it so well, Tami, that I don't have anything substantive to add. I had some of the same reactions listening to Harvey's interviews a few months ago.

You also addressed the Anonymous commenter so well...almost verbatim the thoughts that ran through my head as I read the post that I'll just say, "yes, thank you!"

I loved that you switched the characters in the initial "story". Great approach!

abagond said...


BroadSnark said...

Another amazing article.

I was just about to send this to my boyfriend (before the switch) so that he could fume about another shmuck making generalizations. (Cause I'm sure Dennis Kucinich and Rush Limbaugh think exactly alike.)

This may be even more absurd.

From all the friendships I have had with men (of all backgrounds) it doesn't seem to me that men are too honest with each other about what is going on. The reason my friends called to cry on my shoulder is that they could never, ever do it with one of their guy friends. Even if some guy talked to every other guy in the world, who is to say that fronts and macho bullshit aren't behind the answers they are getting?

And there is one major difference in the two stories. Many romantic relationships are hierarchical because of sexism, but a couple can work together as partners. Most workplaces are hierarchical by design. Someone will always be forced to conform to the desires of somebody more powerful and privileged - at least until we stop accepting hierarchical workplaces.

windy city girl said...

Tami, thank you for this blog post. Every time I see that Steve Harvey book at my local Borders, I get so angry, I can't form a coherent rebuttal for its many levels of wrongness.

Doreen said...


I loved this post. I was appalled at the arrogance of the original excerpt, and when you "came clean" about the actual source, I was still appalled. In fact, I was that appalled when I saw him on Oprah talking about this crap. I mean, because (some) men hold these patriarchal and sexist ideas, that means the onus is on women to change so that we fit them? What?

dorkismo said...

I LOVE this post. Felt very very much the same way you did about this book. Indeed it prompted me to write a book of my own: Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman. If you're interested, please forward your snail address to me at dorkismo at gmail dot com; I'd love to know what you think of the book. Your writing is great. All the best--Maria.

Sassy J said...

Like Cindy, I too, have nothing much to add except "well done". I have to admit that I had initally skimmed through the post and didn't realize it was the introducation to Harvey's book. When I went back to re-read, all I could do was shake my head. So sad.

The only thing I could think of is how so many of my friends and sorors were CLAMOURING over this book, spouting out phrases like it was scripture. I cringe when one of my girlfriends say "girl, I'm actiin' like a lady, but thinkin like a man" or "girl, in steve's (steve, now??????) book, he say do this...". PUH-LEASE! I don't even say much at all anymore because they defend this -ish like it's scientific research or their daddy's/uncle/cousin's work.

*eye roll*

Kate said...

And it is important that black men do adapt, because white men, in their privilege, cannot be expected to. Black men aren't the only ones who should blanch at this thinking--what an unfavorable picture of white men this paints (rigid, incapable of compromise and change, unable to cede privilege).

Perfectly distilled.

The segments above where taken nearly verbatim from the introduction to Steve Harvey's Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, allegedly a guide to help black women gain commitment and intimacy from black men. I merely exchanged references to men with white men, and references to women with black men.


Great post, Tami! Thank you!

Marissa said...

Hi Tami! I'm curious to hear what your (NOT Steve Harvey's) thoughts are on the racial divide in the marriage arena. I've been wanting to see you take this on since I read the Melissa Harris-Lacewell piece in The Nation on Sunday.

Anonymous said...

I have read Steve's book,and rather than telling women to change in order to "catch men" he is urging women to honor themselves and essentially demand respect from men before we give up the goods. Good, solid, old fashioned advice, similar to what most of our mothers told us. If you haven't read the book, i encourage you to do so. It's understand how men typically think so that we can be smarter in our dealings with them.

i wish i'd had this book 20 years ago when i was single....!

Truth said...

Hi Tami*waving excitedly* Excellent post!I am a lurker sometimes at your site but this post made me come in and comment.I like reading your posts they really gets me thinking.Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into doing this blog.You are greatly apprecaited.

Tami said...


I actually DID read Harvey's book. Well...correction...I read parts of it, but was turned off enough not to want to finish. I have also seen several of his appearances to promote the book. I have to respectfully disagree that Harvey does not preference men's needs over women's needs. I have yet to read or see him tell women what I think is the most empowering and useful advice: to be yourself and pursue your goals and desires. In doing so, you are more likely to meet a man that is compatible with you.

I also think, as a black man, Harvey's literary skills could be better spent addressing the many challenges that black men face. I cannot imagine a black woman writing a book directing black men would have the same reception as this book.

Anonymous said...

I was just horrified by the arrongance of that man! When men say this about women, I'm about ready to take out my razor sharp labyrus and cut off their heads.

Since I don't see men ever adjusting themselves to the power of women in women's language anytime soon, I think you can safely say that white men aren't going to enter black male mind and culture anytime soon either. It just isn't going to happen.

helenkosings said...

Hi! I just found yer blog, and I HAVE to say: Yer brilliant. Everything I've read here (and I do intend to read it *all*) is meaty and thought provoking and amazing.


Dafixer said...

In a racist society, white people are, in fact, dominant. The only way to end racism is if all white people vanished over night. Racism is not the thing that needs to end - non-white attitudes towards racism is what needs to change.

As to the black men/black women issue - in a racist society it's a non-issue. Sexism will never be the real problem, nor is classism, nor anything but racism. Everything else is a tactic to devide. When racism attacks it doesn't ask for you class, your status or your sex - its only concern is if you are not white.

It's just that simple.

nupe said...

I'm Black, a man, in college and have spearheaded organizations where I preside over white folk. Any black man who is too intent on "feeling" equal is a fool in his own plight. If you can't command respect, then you need to check yourself for your insecurities. Secondly, if you can't compose yourself or at least present yourself to be/look/act like you are respectable then why do you expect respect? This racial "parity" stems from an inner view of inferiority which a LOT of black men seem to have, how many white boys do you see roaming around looking for "parity" with their black bosses? They just see it as it is, he's my boss, we're both humans, we're equal but in different levels of power, why do black men always want to read betweeen stupid lines.


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