Managing My Blackness, But at What Cost?

Photo Credit: Vizerskaya at iStock by Getty Images

Black men, are impacted by public racial discrimination, sometimes accompanied by punishing violence, for simply “driving while Black,” or “drinking Starbucks while Black”, and as of late, jogging while Black. In fact, many Black men fear wearing masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, due to their perception it will increase their risk of being racially profiled. Assaults on Black men are not uncommon. And while well-known, the attempts Black men make to manage their exposure and protect their humanity during a period of anti-Blackness, and the costs these management and protection strategies have on Black health is understated and often overlooked. For the last 3 years, I’ve been conducting research about work, family, and stressors influenced by racism and sexism among the Black middle-class. Intimate interviews with reveals the toll managing Blackness can have on personal wellbeing.

I interviewed 20 middle-class Black men about their thoughts on being Black in the United States. These men held professional occupations such as engineering, Information Technology, education, law, and medicine. However, gaining access to these professional jobs that provide solid middle-class incomes did not provide the same sorts of health protections[1] enjoyed by their White male counterparts. These intimate interviews revealed the impact of racism in college-educated Black men’s lives — leaving them personally responsible to manage anti-Blackness risks to ensure access to middle-class privileges such as secure employment in professional careers.

Middle-class Black men have cultivated creative ways to manage the racialized stigma attached to their Blackness to achieve occupational success. When reflecting on the advice they would give younger Black men, many of the men I interviewed reported that they would advise them to use discernment when managing friendship circles, particularly when navigating the negative effects of racialized discrimination and concentrated poverty. This advice is an adaptive reaction to the common stereotypical associations of young Black men with gang violence often popularized in media portrayals of Black male life. The idiom, “boys will be boys” is not extended to young Black boys when they transgress, even in the smallest of ways. Black men who are college-educated, gainfully employed, and successful by dominant American standards construct boundaries against street life and advise young Black men to minimize their exposure so they can better manage interactions with the police and ensure upward mobility by achieving middle-income careers.

But even with managing friendship circles, avoiding street life and managing encounters with police to access social mobility through middle-income careers, racist violence and daily workplace microaggressions inflicted on Black men persist. Overwhelmingly, this group of middle-class Black men spoke of having to manage work identities to ensure non-Black colleagues’ comfort and safety. Employed in professional organizations, these Black men understood that the “onus” is on them to make sure their colleagues did not fear them, and they continually strategized to show that they belong in the work organization. A part of having to manage these expectations included not bringing news stories such as police and vigilante killings of Black women and men to work. In short, these Black men felt they could not discuss American harms like the killing of Black men by White Americans. In contrast, they said, White colleagues felt comfortable at work bringing up mass shootings, thus rendering Black experiences invisible.

Sitting in his home office, with a weary look on his face, Rupert, a 35-year-old production specialist at a major media company spoke candidly about the Alton Sterling murder the weekend of July 4th, 2016, and his experience at work following the murder:

I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated than after Alton Sterling, you know 4th of July weekend. Couple of days later, someone in the kitchen saying, “hey, did you have a good weekend?” And I didn’t go off or say anything. I mean, I gave as generic an answer as the question, but in my mind in that moment, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around someone looking at me in the eyes as a Black man having seen what I just saw and asking me how my weekend was. I mean I don’t know, I almost felt like don’t even say nothing to me at all if that’s what you are going to say to me in this moment, like don’t talk to me right now. Look, if there was an earthquake, even a mass high school shooting or movie theater shooting, you would hear about how terrible it was. If it was the Orlando shooting, you would hear about how terrible it was, and it was terrible. But when it’s Black men and Black women being killed; you don’t get much empathy from people in the workplace in my experience up to this point in my career.

Rupert’s statement illustrates the common frustration of having to manage Blackness to ensure non-Black coworkers’ safety and comfort at work. Like Rupert, many middle-class Black men cannot enact their full selves in professional work organizations, nor truly express how they cope with the tragedies surrounding Black life. This unspoken agreement as to which bodies are deemed valuable enough to express public mourning and which are not, has costs — emotional and physical — for Black professional workers.

Minimizing exposure and managing Blackness has its limits. Enacting these strategies can lead to more opportunities that secure social mobility for Black men, but it does not protect them from being gunned down by police and vigilantes, or publicly humiliated. Further, the mixture of minimization and management does not allow for a fully empowering work experience. Middle-class Black men must hold back parts of who they are at work and refrain from water-cooler conversations that will make others uncomfortable.

But what are some costs to these performances and holding back? Social health demographers, epidemiologists, and psychologists report racism has a severe impact on stress levels in Black Americans. A study in 1999[2], found that racism and perceived racism is interrelated with environmental stimuli, that produce chronic and acute stressors that are linked to adverse health problems for African Americans, such as low birth weight and infant mortality, depression, the reduction in the healing process, breast cancer survival rates, heart disease, changes in mean arterial blood pressure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Acute and chronic stressors are also related to upper respiratory problems and the development of ongoing colds. These health responses indicate a social intervention is needed.

Anyone reading the news recently has been bombarded with headlines of the violence heaped on Black bodies during the pandemic. A study looking at COVID-19 cases in New York produced by the CDC shows 92.3 deaths per 100,000 population among Black Americans, compared with 45.2 deaths per 100,000 population among White Americans. Brookings suggests these differences are largely driven by preexisting health conditions in Black communities and social inequality, such as lower access to healthy foods and safe neighborhoods with large green-spaces.

In light of COVID-19 coupled with the impact of longstanding racism on Black health and wellbeing, it is the responsibility of White individuals and social institutions to relieve Black Americans of the responsibility to shoulder White racism. Just recently, Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey in a press conference addressing the murder of unarmed citizen George Floyd by a White police officer, insisted that systemic racism against Black Americans has a 400-year history in the United States. Making room for Black Americans to feel safe and comfortable in public spaces, can perhaps help with the reduction in stressors correlated with racial discrimination. It is time for White Americans to take up the mantle of true allyship and recognize the interplay of individual and systemic racism on Black health. Doing so, will contribute to the healing of Black communities from the still-gaping wounds of racism.

LaToya Council has cultivated herself into an international author and social scientist. LaToya, a Black Feminist Scholar Activist is an expert on work-family conflict and its intersection with health and wellbeing for Black American middle-class individuals. LaToya is the author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, published by Dottir Press. LaToya is affiliated with the sociology department at the University of Southern California, where she is finishing up her dissertation project titled “Her Work, His Work, Their Work: Time and Self-Care in Black Middle-Class Couple.” For downtime, LaToya enjoys cooking, meditation practices, and hanging with her cat Mimi where she resides in Washington, D.C.

[1] Thomas, Courtney S. 2015. A new look at the black middle-class: Research trends and challenges. Sociological Focus 48: 191–207.

[2] Clark, Rodney, Norman B. Anderson, Vernessa R. Clark, and David R. Williams. 1999. Racism as a stressor for African Americans: A biopsychosocial model. American Psychologist 54(10): 805–816.

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