Wayne Brady, Bill Maher, and Black Men Who Remain Invisible

In this blog entry, Adia Harvey Wingfield discusses the themes and examples about black masculinity that form the basis for her book No More Invisible Man.

Several news headlines recently highlighted the relatively long-running tension between political comedian Bill Maher and actor/singer Wayne Brady. Maher, known among other things for questioning whether mogul Donald Trump is descended from monkeys and for using explicit epithets to describe politician Sarah Palin, has made several comments suggesting that Brady’s clean-cut, easygoing persona makes him antithetical to “real” black masculinity (a point Brady mocked in 2004 on an unforgettable episode of The Chappelle Show). Brady has responded by critiquing the racialized and gendered assumptions behind this statement, but also by suggesting that if Maher wants to continue this line of discussion, he would be willing to embody these stereotypes and “beat [Maher] in public.”

WingfieldFinal.inddThe dialogue between Maher and Brady reflects two of the images of black masculinity that I try to counter in my recent book No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work. I argue that in cultural imagination and even in much sociological research, black men are often cast as either tough, dangerous, and threatening, or as high-level elites who must be easygoing and appear completely assimilated. Yet these depictions represent two polar opposites, leaving the experiences, lives, and realities of middle class, professional black men understudied and ignored. No More Invisible Man attempts to correct this by drawing attention to these men who are invisible in sociological research, media, and much of America and highlighting the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities they face in professional, white male-dominated occupations.

In my book, I build on Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s classic theory of tokenism to understand black professional men’s work lives. Kanter argues that those in the numerical minority encounter certain perceptual tendencies that affect their interactions with members of the dominant group. These include increased pressures related to their performance, dominant group members’ efforts to emphasize their differences from those in the minority, and challenges subordinate groups face assimilating into the majority. In my study, however, I found that intersections of race, gender, and class, coupled with the gendered characteristics of the male-dominated occupations in which these men worked, meant that black professional men imperfectly fit the tokenization paradigm that Kanter describes. Instead, I argue that they experience a phenomenon I describe as partial tokenization, which impacts their interactions with women of all races, with other men, their performances of masculinity, their emotional performance, and their general challenges within the work environment.

This matters because we know so little about the occupational experiences of black professional men. As the United States becomes an increasingly multiracial society, it is important to be aware of the persistent challenges that remain for racial minorities in various sectors, and to be mindful of the ways that structural processes like partial tokenization may perpetuate inequalities. Having a clear sense of the ways black men experience the professional workplace can help to address ongoing patterns that make their occupational ascension more (or less) challenging than comparably situated others.

In writing No More Invisible Man, I hope to do several things. One is to add to the literature that explores the experiences black men face in the United States and to document the sociological realities of those who are not part of the urban underclass that generates the most attention. Another goal is to highlight that even though black professional men enjoy material and occupational success relative to working-class and poor blacks, they still undergo very particularized difficulties in the workplace. Finally, I hope to demonstrate that black men’s experiences at work and in society at large reflect not just race but the ways that race is shaped by gender and class, and that understanding the ways these categories overlap is essential for making sense of issues of power and inequality that persist in America today.

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