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?


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